NPR fiasco leaves little effect on member stations

CLASHING VIEWS: NPR says the comments Williams made when speaking with Bill O'Reilly, right, were part of a pattern that violated its guidelines.
CLASHING VIEWS: NPR says the comments Williams made when speaking with Bill O'Reilly, right, were part of a pattern that violated its guidelines. (Richard Drew/associated Press)
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 15, 2010; 9:56 PM

A funny thing happened to NPR stations after the worst publicity fiasco in NPR's history: almost nothing at all.

Public radio outlets across the country braced for the worst from their listeners after NPR fired commentator Juan Williams for remarks he made on a Fox News program in late October. With denunciations ringing nightly on Fox and from conservatives in Congress, the stations worried that they might be punished for the actions of Washington-based NPR, public radio's leading programming organization.

Of particular concern: that the storm over Williams would affect contributions from listeners, corporations and local governments, which stations rely on to stay in business.

Yet after an initial flurry of mostly angry e-mails and calls in the wake of the Oct. 20 firing of Williams, the controversy waned quickly and has all but disappeared, station managers say.

More important, perhaps, is that few contributors revoked financial pledges made to the stations during fundraising drives held the week of Williams's firing.

New Hampshire Public Radio, for example, raised $473,000 during its fall drive, a record amount for the nonprofit organization that runs a statewide chain of stations. The number of people who called or e-mailed saying they would no longer support the organization "wasn't significant," says Betsy Gardella, NHPR's president and chief executive.

Adds Gardella: "I think our takeaway is that our audience is very loyal and really values what we do."

The story is almost the same at WMFE (90.7 FM), the NPR affiliate in Orlando. The station is amid a fund drive this week, and contributions are running "above target," says Jose Fajardo, its chief executive.

Fajardo says he occasionally hears criticism of the Williams episode from people around the city, but that he's heard nothing from state legislators in Tallahassee - a sign, he says, that state funding for Florida's public broadcasters isn't in immediate jeopardy.

Washington's leading NPR affiliate, WAMU (88.5 FM), also received a record amount of pledge dollars in its fall campaign, some $1.7 million. The figure topped the proceeding fall's fundraising drive by about $400,000 and came from about 14,000 contributors, another record for the station.

WAMU got approximately 200 e-mails about Williams in the days after the story broke, says spokeswoman Kay Summers, but then "it dropped down and trickled off" - especially after WAMU host Diane Rehm devoted an hour of her NPR-syndicated program to an interview with Williams.

Several station managers say the angriest responses have been from people who appeared not to be regular contributors, based on their cross-referencing caller and e-mailers' names with databases of donors.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company