Debating NPR underwriting announcements

The new NPR ombudsman is taking on an old complaint from some public radio listeners: the choice of what commercial interests to allow to underwrite NPR programming.

Elizabeth Jensen responded to a campaign against NPR’s acceptance of America’s Natural Gas Alliance by noting the complaints don’t stop there.

How NPR accepts or rejects underwriters is a question that comes up often, and ANGA credits are not the only sponsorships that some listeners find objectionable.

The Vermont Teddy Bear Company in February promoted a “50 Shades of Grey” bear, tied to the release of the movie of the same name. Maria Jette, of Excelsior, Minn., called that “a very, very unfortunate choice for a sponsorship message,” given that it “is supposed to adorably reference a loathsome piece of S&M ‘literature.'”

In early March, some listeners wondered why NPR was still accepting underwriting funds from longtime supporter Lumber Liquidators, after a report on CBS’ 60 Minutes alleged some of the company’s products had unsafe levels of formaldehyde. (Bryan Moffett, general manager of National Public Media, which handles NPR’s corporate sponsorship sales, said NPR has “never proactively pulled a funder from NPR based on allegations,” although it does pay attention to the type of allegation, and sometimes sponsors themselves ask to pause their campaigns if they are in the middle of a controversy.

NPR News did a follow-up report on the controversy over the products, in which it disclosed that Lumber Liquidators was a sponsor.)

Jensen says the ads are legally not commercials, but a recognition of those who support programming. That’s unlikely to satisfy anyone.

Why do NPR sponsorships come in for so much criticism? For one, listeners cannot avoid hearing sponsorships on the radio in the same way they can avoid looking at ads in a printed newspaper or magazine — or zap through TV ads on the DVR.

And the amount of NPR underwriting continues to go up; last fall, the amount of time devoted to credits in Morning Edition and All Things Considered jumped by 30 seconds, to a total of 2 minutes and 20 seconds per hour. (The number of sponsors stayed the same but the length of the credits grew.) That figure doesn’t include additional time that member stations devote to local sponsorships.

The amount of underwriting is going up because the dues and fees paid by member stations (which are in turn partly funded by listener contributions), do not provide enough financial support to enable NPR to do its job. Corporate sponsorships made up 22 percent of NPR’s unrestricted operating revenues on average over the three-year period covering the 2012 to 2014 fiscal years.

Her concern is NPR’s journalism, she writes. She see not evidence that accepting money from a fossil fuel industry influenced the reporting.

If NPR were to start picking and choosing its sponsors that would cast doubt on the very firewall it has created to guard against sponsors influencing its coverage. How could any report on a controversy be seen as fair and unbiased if someone inside the organization had decided that sponsorship from one side or the other was objectionable?