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NPR fiasco leaves little effect on member stations

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.

Williams was fired after he told Fox host Bill O'Reilly that he gets "nervous" when he flies with passengers dressed in "Muslim garb." However, NPR said it fired him because of a pattern of provocative statements that violated the news organization's guidelines, and not solely because of the Muslim comment.

NPR produces programming - from "Car Talk" to the newsmagazine "All Things Considered" - for its 273 member stations, which in turn pay annual "dues" to NPR. The stations are independently operated, however, and typically licensed to universities and community organizations.

Although any short-term fallout to NPR and its affiliates appears minimal, the longer-term outlook remains uncertain. The Williams episode reignited Republican-led efforts to cut federal subsidies to NPR and public radio generally - an effort that could gain momentum when a new Congress convenes next year with a GOP majority in the House.

NPR receives just $2.7 million - or 1.7 percent of its annual budget of $161 million - directly from federal sources. But Washington plays a critical role in public radio's finances. Congress passes millions of tax dollars through the federally chartered Corporation for Public Broadcasting to NPR's member stations, which in turn use some of those funds to buy programs from NPR. Station fees make up about 40 percent of NPR's annual budget.

For many years, attempts to cut off federal money to public broadcasting has met extremely stiff resistance. Virtually every congressional district has one or more public stations, and public broadcasters have been adept at rousing their viewers and listeners to support continued funding.

A Republican-backed measure to cut all federal funding for NPR failed in the House in mid-November on an almost straight party vote, 239 to 171. The measure's sponsor, Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), has said that NPR has a "liberal bias" and that it is "a luxury we can no longer afford, if we ever could."

Several dozen public TV and radio stations and organizations have teamed on a campaign to rally public support for continued funding. The coalition, which includes NPR, Arlington-based PBS and TV-station operator Maryland Public Television, this week launched a new Web site, 170millionamericans.org, that touts the benefits of continued funding. The Web site's name refers to the estimated number of people who "interact" with public media each month.

NPR's audience has grown steadily for the past decade. Its programs attract an average of 27.2 million listeners per week, according to the most recent figures from Arbitron, the radio-industry ratings service.

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