Science Friday On NPR Faces A Funding Crisis
    By Hank Campbell | October 6th 2010 07:00 AM | 12 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Hank

    I'm the founder of Science 2.0®.

    A wise man once said Darwin had the greatest idea anyone ever had. Others may prefer Newton or Archimedes...

    View Hank's Profile
    NPR, National Public Radio, is in a tough spot - they are constantly accused of liberal bias (and, let's be honest, they have never done a story on how taxes hurt poor people or how much better the environment is than 40 years ago, so there is something to that perception (1)) and no one who gets taxpayer money likes being a political football and having people in government asking what they do with the money but that is the price of taking government money.

    When I was young, PBS, the Public Broadcasting System, which is the television brother of NPR and the other big project of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, was a much different animal.   You could fund only specific programs you liked and you knew they were telling the truth about what they did with the money.    I enjoyed watching Andy Hardy movies and Boston Blackie and whatever else they showed when I was young.    They didn't waste money on a lot of original programming because people were getting it from the big networks.    As PBS did more original content and also became more political, that bond of trust with and affection from the public was lost.(2)

    As an adult, and given the more politically charged climate, I still don't think the US should fund a national newspaper...and that means they also shouldn't fund a national television or radio station either.

    Science Friday, hosted by Ira Flatow, is on NPR and is a good show.   Is it good enough to make it in the commercial world?   Maybe we'll see.  I learned only today it is not an NPR show but is privately produced and taxpayer funded.  And NPR doesn't seem to like them much while the NSF doesn't want to be a continual piggy bank for content (who knew they ever did?  You think I'd deal with advertisers if I could get NSF funding??).

    Ira Flatow wrote to Jim Fruchterman of the Huffington Post (errrr, a leftwing blogsite, so you see what detractors mean about NPR bias):
    We at SciFri are facing severe financial difficulties, i.e. raising money. NSF [National Science Foundation] has turned us down for continuing funding, saying they love what we do, we are sorely needed, but it's not their job to fund us. At the same time, NPR has said the same thing, telling us that if we want to stay on the air, etc, we now have to raise all our own money.

    Despite what listeners may think, NPR only gives us about 10 percent of our funding.
    Well, the NSF is right, it isn't their job but it's a funny thing for NPR to say - NPR is basically telling them they aren't very good.   Or that science is not popular.   It may be that freedom of expression and social tolerance, hallmarks of NPR, appeal to the audience but science does not.  Indeed, if that is so, "Science Friday" should take its program elsewhere.(3)

    But who is the NPR audience anyway?    Poor, left-wing hippies you might assume, as I once did.   Once you know, you might agree that perhaps NPR needn't fund "Science Friday" but you might also agree that you shouldn't fund NPR.

    It turns out that while insisting they can only do their quality independent programming utilizing the taxes of the middle class, NPR media salespeople will happily tell you how wealthy and educated their demographic is.   Here are some examples:
    Listeners are affluent, active consumers, business leaders, and involved in their communities. Nearly 70% of all listeners are ages 25-54 with a median age of 42.
    87% more likely to have a bachelor's degree.
    108% more likely to have an individual employment income of $50,000 or more.
    117% more likely to have a household income of $150,000 or more.
    152% more likely to have a home valued at $500,000 or more.

    That's the average NPR listener, folks, that's almost as much as members of Congress, and that is an even more educated audience than we have, despite our being a science site.   Oh, and we get no government funding of any kind, if you didn't notice me mentioning that a few paragraphs up, yet here we are.

    If those are NPR listeners, why does NPR need taxpayer money at all?   NPR executives note that the money they receive from CPB's $400 million budget is only 16% of their total but that again leads to another question of why they need funding from taxes.   Plenty of non-government businesses in America deal with 16% drops in revenue and are forced to work around it.

    Likewise, if "Science Friday" is losing the money they get from NPR and NSF, it's a bad idea to claim it's an insurmountable obstacle - it means their costs are too high and they need to do what businesses do and cut costs.   Or go to actual commercial radio instead of the faux-non-commercial radio NPR pretends to be.

    However, if you listen to NPR you are likely in that $150,000 income range they like to brag about so you can instead support "Science Friday" directly by going to their donation page.


    (1) The last time a Congressional subcommittee voted to cut CPB funding,, Common Cause, and left-wing media pressure groups set out to halt that - it is unlikely they would have done that if Fox News lost money.

    (2) Not that they don't have fine stuff.  I just watched Ken Burns' "The Tenth Inning" but are we to believe no network would have paid for it?   Only PBS can produce this thing or Ken Burns would only work if it was on PBS?  Complete rubbish that only American taxpayers will pay for a documentary on baseball, America's pastime.

    (3) There is a 100% chance that I could get financing to do a nationally syndicated radio block of daily science shows and make it work financially, and people would listen to it the same way they do sports or politics.  So, Ira, if you want to discuss, give me a call.


    Becky Jungbauer
    My beloved Science Friday faces a funding crisis? Poor Ira. Somebody call Gates and Buffett.
    "87% more likely to have a bachelor's degree ... that is an even more educated audience than we have" How many percent is the average Science2.0 reader more likely (than who) to have a bachelor and how do you even know?
    Good point and, as a scientist, you won't like the answer.  You want 5 sigma and 'ratings' for television viewing or demographics on websites instead use a representative panel and extrapolate it out - but it's what advertisers use and we do no direct measurement ourselves, in accordance with our privacy policy.   I have seen estimates on our traffic using those panels to be 4X our actual and 20% of our actual so a lot depends on if even one person on their panel stops reading the site for a few weeks.   Advertisers only pay on actual performance so it makes no difference to them, other than when they get to know the name.

    Our BS/BA is 73% last time I looked, our median age is about the same, but our graduate degree is likely much higher, in the high 30%, so well above the graduate degrees for the overall population.

    Comscore is the only accurate service I know of, and used by larger advertisers, but they cost $50K a year.  It's the free ones (Compete, Quantcast, Alexa, etc.) that are really inaccurate but smaller advertisers use those.

    Err, is this a science blog, or a politics blog? I can unsubscribe (PhD, high income, advertisers, are you listening?) if it is the latter.

    I assume you've read it and saw that my point was that if NPR wants to take government money and use it for their politics but say science is unimportant, it is perfectly reasonable for the science community to question why NPR gets money from taxpayers at all.

    The notion that science should not inform people on policy decisions is in denial of the whole value of expertise; should science not inform the public on evolution, stem cells or global warming, because they are also political issues?   Flatow does a good job and, obviously, my first goal would be to make his program a commercial one along with all of NPR.
    If science content is missing in the mainstream media, that is exactly why NPR should fund it if they take taxpayer money - that was their original mandate.   They shouldn't get any at all if they are just a one-sided forum for politics.
    Dear Hugh and Science 2.0 followers,

    As scientists I know you all appreciate facts and evidence, right? So let me add some facts to the conversation. For more perspective, please check out my full blog post, which addresses the concerns raised about Science Friday, and be sure to see what Ira Flatow has to say in his own blog. There is alot of information about how NPR and public radio really works at for those interested in the facts.

    “NPR” is not the entirety of public radio, though many people refer us that day, kind of like Kleenex vs. tissue. We are an independent not-for-profit organization whose revenue comes from fees paid by member stations, corporate sponsorship, and grants and gifts (in that order – look here for more detail on how our economy works.

    I’d like to clear up the matter of federal funding. NPR, Inc. has received no direct operating support from the federal government since 1983. Roughly two percent of our annual operating budget is comprised of competitive grants awarded to NPR from federally funded organizations such as the NEA and CPB (the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Federal government financial support for public radio is directed to public radio stations through annual appropriations to the CPB. You can read about NPR’s role in helping to secure those appropriations at

    We’ve heard from a lot of Science Friday fans, and people who are concerned about the future of science coverage. Here’s how our relationship works. NPR “acquires” the right to market and distribute Science Friday to public radio stations nationwide. We pay a license fees to Science Friday, and we pass on 100% of the station fees we collect. We aren’t a funder or an investor. And we certainly don’t have deep pockets.

    We’re proud of what Science Friday has accomplished and of our association with this excellent program. It serves the public’s need for smart conversation about science issues and trends, a topic generally neglected by the media, and it fills an important slot in stations’ weekday schedule. Science Friday is one of a small number of outstanding programs with whom we have this “acquired program” relationship – others include The Diane Rehm Show, Fresh Air with Terry Gross and Car Talk.

    Our hope – and our plea really – is that those who care about Science Friday and its mission will do exactly as Ira Flatow asked in his own blog. Make a donation to the station that carries the show, and lend your support directly to Science Friday too. Both are deserving of your help and support so they can keep on delivering on the mission we all share.

    Thanks for listening.

    Dana Davis Rehm

    NPR, Inc. has received no direct operating support from the federal government since 1983. Roughly two percent of our annual operating budget is comprised of competitive grants awarded to NPR from federally funded organizations such as the NEA and CPB
    I included both NPR and PBS under CPB but this is being picky - saying another group gets the money and gives it to you and therefore you don't get taxpayer money is the sort of nuance no one in America agrees with except employees of NPR and the post office.     If only 2% of NPR money comes from taxpayers, then there is no reason at all any of it is needed and congratulations on freeing yourself from it.  Let's hope General Motors can do the same.
    Our hope – and our plea really – is that those who care about Science Friday and its mission will do exactly as Ira Flatow asked in his own blog. Make a donation to the station that carries the show, and lend your support directly to Science Friday too.
    On occasion I see fundraising pleas and read something like 'X needs $100,000 for an operation' and my first thought is, instead of wasting a lot of time raising money, why not go to the doctor and ask him to cut his fee, and then ask the hospital to cut their fee - why is it the profit margin of everyone has to be maintained but poor people have to pay?   It's a non-issue, really.  Looking at the incredibly wealthy and educated demographic of NPR listeners (kudos to you all for that!) I have no doubt "Science Friday" will make their number easily ... and NPR could raise enough to get rid of taxpayer funding all together, which would dispel all of the bias talk.

    Becky Jungbauer
    I think it's great that Dana found your post and replied - it's neat to know that occasionally we may reach the very subjects about whom we write. Your point about the doctor fee is a good one - they were recently discussing on Minnesota's NPR affiliate KNOW that the U of MN is facing significant state cutbacks in funding, and one of the options on the table is to raise tuition (again). Perhaps they can reduce or maintain the exorbitant salaries paid to the higher up officials? There has to be fat that can be cut before students bear the brunt. I honestly don't know whether NPR folks are paid a ton of money - I have a feeling they aren't, with perhaps notable personality exceptions like Garrison Keillor who draw in the audiences - but I would think that a primarily member-supported entity wouldn't have much waste to cut before programs and employees are affected. I read a story (in which Davis Rhem was quoted) that said if members gave an extra $11, it would offset the funding problems for that particular station. Put in those terms, I think people would contribute to Science Friday or any other program - just asking me to give during spring and fall campaigns is more abstract, but saying "everyone, please give $15 and we can continue to provide you with our programming" is concrete and something I feel I could handle.
    Sure, 'loss leaders' are nothing new.  With Sirius-XM losing a fortune, should they pay Howard Stern $100 million?  I suppose so.  Flush times and taking a business chance veer toward  decisions difficult to retract.   The university system in California has tripled employees in the decade since I arrived but the education is not 3X as good nor as there 3X as many students, they just had a governor back then who said education was important.  Now there are furloughs and higher fees for students but no recognition too darn many people are employed but that's because the University of California is the biggest employer of state workers with 24% (followed by corrections with 17% and California State University with 14%) and they vote.

    Like I said, Flatow does a good show and he'll have no trouble raising the money but I still think the model is flawed - NPR disagrees but the people getting the money always disagree.   A weekly show is only slightly less expensive than a week of daily shows.   When I was in college there was no political radio beyond fringe kookiness (some of it on NPR stations) but the market was created by one big name.   Flatow could do that in science also - with 24 hour sports networks on television the market for sports radio is less but there is a huge vacuum in science media, and those holding onto it (the ones complaining that their opinions, which killed the credibility of science journalism, are essential for science journalism) aren't going to win an audience.

    Becky Jungbauer
    I like your idea of going commercial - maybe online, a satellite radio station, etc. I don't know enough about how public radio works to know if this next comment is ignorant, but I do think that we need an outlet that doesn't require spending money to hear about science. I don't have satellite radio and don't plan on purchasing it any time soon, so I'd lose out on the program. And if someone doesn't have internet, he/she wouldn't hear it either. But commercial is an attractive option. I don't know how to solve the financial problem as well as reach the most people possible.
    More concern about NPR.  Nina Totenberg said Friday
    NINA TOTENBERG, NPR: I am already afraid, very afraid. I mean, it’s not like governance has been going great. I think we’ll, I don't know whether I should be afraid, but there will be gridlock.
    Why be afraid of change when things in Congress are not working and the only debate is how much to spend on nothing?   As Noel Sheppard phrases it, "these same people that were thrilled by the idea of America electing as president a junior senator from Illinois with little qualifications for the most important office in the land are now scared to death about who may be going to Congress next January?"

    Because you don't work at NPR unless you hate Republicans and phrases like "historians will probably look back at the 2010 election as a catastrophe for America" are perfectly natural to them (and Newsweek columnists, also).

    Granted, Rush Limbaugh and that sort likely said the same 'catastrophe' stuff about the election of 2008, but they don't get taxpayer subsidies.
    Partisans are trying to allege Jim Lehrer of PBS may not be able to moderate tonight's debate fairly because Romney said he would cut PBS funding.  I disagree.  The numbers in the article:
    87% more likely to have a bachelor's degree.
    108% more likely to have an individual employment income of $50,000 or more.
    117% more likely to have a household income of $150,000 or more.
    152% more likely to have a home valued at $500,000 or more.
    show that the PBS audience has far more in common with Romney than the Fox News audience does.  Jim Lehrer is also quite rich.  I see no issue at all with Romney getting a fair chance, since clearly they are a lot more like him than poor people are.