James Erwin at NPR Hearing by United States Congress is licensed under CC

On May 8, 2024, James Erwin, ATR’s Federal Affairs Manager for Telecommunications and Executive Director of Digital Liberty testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. The hearing was entitled, “Examining Accusations of Ideological Bias at NPR, a Taxpayer Funded News Entity.” A copy of Mr. Erwin’s full written testimony can be found here

The hearing focused on the far-left bias in NPR’s news coverage that was exposed by former National Public Radio business editor Uri Berliner in his bombshell essay. Several lawmakers welcomed the idea of defunding NPR to ensure taxpayers are not being forced to fund the left-wing propaganda that is seeping through the media outlet. 

Click here for a video of Erwin’s opening remarks. 

A copy of Mr. Erwin’s opening remarks can be found below: 

It is an honor to testify before you today, especially as a former staffer from the other place. It is a shame that Ms. Maher didn’t care to join us today – normally, refusal to meet with one’s funders would result in them pulling their investment, but we’ll see.  

Others have spoken about the political issues of National Public Radio – the ideological capture, the fact that it no longer represents the American people, if it ever did, and the history of collusion with the Democratic Party. My testimony today will take a step back and focus on another problem with continuing to fund NPR. Namely, if all the issues mentioned today did not exist, if NPR were the most neutral and fair media outlet with no ulterior motives, it is still not the role of the federal government to run a radio station.  

It will not do to simply clean up NPR’s current practices because state-funded media in principle undermines a free press, because it is unfair to NPR’s competitors who do not receive federal subsidies, and because NPR it is dishonest with the public in its accounting practices.  

I say this as someone with fond childhood memories of NPR. I wouldn’t trade the Saturdays I spent listening to Car Talk with my dad while driving to the dump for anything. But when I grew up and began paying taxes, I wondered why it was so essential that my money was given against my will to this radio station I hardly listened to anymore, especially as it replaced the Boston-accented guffaws of auto mechanics with the self-serious whispers of hysterical Marxists who think bird names are racist. I have since researched NPR’s funding, and the results make one even more cynical about the purpose of public radio’s existence.  

State-funded media in general has no place in a free society. NPR is incapable of unbiased news coverage precisely because they receive federal funds. No media outlet is immune to influence from their paymasters.  

But even if we assume that NPR is perfectly free from undue influence, how do you suppose they would cover an elected official who advocates cutting their funding because he does not see running a radio station as the proper role of government, or simply can’t find the money in this year’s budget? On public broadcasting funding and other issues, can such an elected official ever expect fair coverage from NPR in the future? State-funded media is ultimately corrosive to our socio-political fabric and ought to be anathema to a free society. It is, in short, a threat to democracy.

Federal funding also gives NPR and unfair advantage over its competitors. According to our calculations, which are included with this testimony, CPB has received more than $28 billion adjusted for inflation since 1969 and is asking for $525 million this fiscal year, of which nearly $128 million goes to public radio affiliates. Except for occasional fiscal discipline in the 80s or years when the appropriation was frozen, NPR’s funding has only grown over time despite a decrease in demand from the public, with new funding added to the baseline each year. Even if they do a bad job, they still get the money because that’s their baseline now, and Congress approves this unencumbered by the thought process.  

NPR likes to remind the public that only about 1% of its funding comes from taxpayers. At first glance, this appears to be true: 51 percent of its funding comes from corporate sponsorships (what normal people call “ads”) and private donations, while 31 percent comes from licensing fees, meaning the majority of its money comes from voluntary contributions and payments like any other media outlet.  

If this is true, why do they need any taxpayer funding at all? 

The reason is the claim that only 1 percent of NPR’s revenue comes from the forced taxpayer donations is not true. On the same webpage where NPR claims this minimal taxpayer investment, they also say that federal funding is “essential” to their mission. Well, which is it? 

The answer lies in the 31 percent of their budget that comes from licensing fees. This comes from member stations paying to license NPR-produced content like All Things Considered and Morning Edition. The most recent audit of NPR from 2022 (attached) reveals that NPR receives $93 million in revenue from these stations, which would account for 73 percent of the CPB grants to affiliates. 

As it turns out, a shell game is afoot. Tax dollars are given to CPB, which passes a few million on to NPR so they can claim the taxpayer contribution is negligible while the rest is laundered through local affiliates who kick the federal subsidy back up to NPR. This public radio financing system is so opaque that no one is actually certain how much federal funding NPR receives. Affiliates are required to keep track of how much of their federal grants end up back with NPR, but a 2011 GAO audit of 23 public radio stations found that the majority did not maintain these required records. Saul Goodman couldn’t design a better laundering operation. 

In closing, I will offer two suggestions for how to defund NPR short of cutting it off completely from federal funds, which would be the preferable option. 

First, if taxpayers must fund NPR for it to survive (and they would probably be fine with donations and sponsorships), Congress should make it a voluntary contribution. A box could be added to tax returns that allows taxpayers to voluntarily contribute to the NPR fund as they do the Presidential Election Fund. Those who support public radio can continue to do so, but this would end the unfair wealth transfer from the working and middle classes to services availed only by the elite while removing the undue leverage elected officials or NPR editors may have over one another.  

Second, former NPR chairman and CEO Paul Haaga, a Republican, argued in his rebuttal to the defund movement in this past weekend’s Washington Post that public radio stations are a vital lifeline for rural communities, an argument I heard repeatedly as a Senate staffer during approps season.  

The solution here is obvious: mandate through report language that 100 percent of CPB’s funding be spent on affiliates. Currently, 70 percent of their funding goes to affiliate stations, excluding interconnection and maintenance grants. If Congress must fund CPB, give it a 30 percent budget cut and mandate the remainder be spent solely on affiliate grants, which can then use them however they please by licensing content from diverse sources. This will not reduce affiliate funding while eliminating the problems with funding NPR and the corporation that enables them, including by ending the shell game of financing. A small office at any federal department can step in for the administrative duties of CPB at much lower cost.  

Thank you again for this opportunity to testify, I look forward to any questions at the hearing or for the record. 

Erwin has also written an op-ed for the Washington Examiner arguing for the defunding of NPR, which can be found here