Why should taxpayers subsidize NPR?

By DAVID MOON, Moon Capital Management
October 5, 2003

While my wife's car is in the body shop following an altercation with an inattentive fire hydrant, my sister was kind enough to let me borrow her second vehicle. I don't mean to sound ungrateful ' she is fantastically generous to let me use her truck ' but she needs to get the radio fixed. The only thing it will pick up is National Public Radio. Two weeks of nothing but NPR almost drove me crazy. I suppose I should be thankful, in a way. If not for having to listen to 'All Things Considered,' I would never fully appreciate the enormity of the taxpayer dollars wasted on NPR.

The final straw was a lengthy interview with someone who had researched the hand washing habits of people in various cities. (Women in Toronto wash their hands more frequently than do men in Chicago's O'Hare airport. They didn't check the men's room at Neyland Stadium.) The interviewer, in a very serious radio interviewer voice, asked the researcher, 'what about men who go to extreme caution not to visibly and directly contaminate their hands with human waste product while in the restroom? Do they still need to wash their hands?' The researcher then delved into a technical discussion of the damages of liquid, solid and airborne contaminants. My favorite part of the interview was when the interviewer seriously posed the question, 'could you tell our listeners the proper technique they should use when washing their hands in a restroom?' A detailed discussion followed about the length of time (15 seconds), technique, (alternating, one hand washing the other) and water temperature (hot, but not scalding.)

Although the appropriations were reduced in 1995, National Public Radio receives $400 million of federal funding each year to help subsidize the broadcast of these badly needed research topics. To the federal government, $400 million is like the change in the cupholder of my sister's truck. But a federal subsidy of any amount begs the question: why subsidize any programming at all?

Actually, I've voluntarily listened to NPR on the weekends for several years. Garrison Keillor's 'Prairie Home Companion' deserves its fantastic reviews. It's intelligent, funny and entertaining. But so is Hallerin Hill. I guess I can justify paying for Voice of America; it is our propaganda tool for the rest of the world. But NPR competes with privately-owned broadcasters for listeners and advertising dollars. Why shouldn't they compete on the merits of their programming? What is it that is so valuable about NPR that should force society to help pay for it? And if it's so meritorious, why can't it fully support itself? If no one listens to NPR, our federal tax dollars are wasted. But if NPR provides needed programming to a large audience, it should be able to fully-fund its operations like a commercial station.

Why should all of us help pay for programming enjoyed by only a few? This isn't food stamps or medical care; we're talking about entertainment in people's cars.

David Moon is president of Moon Capital Management, a Knoxville-based investment management firm. This article originally appeared in the News Sentinel (Knoxville, TN).

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