Can NPR Bear The Burden Of Wealth?

A $200 million bequest could pit the nonprofit against its local radio stations

Who wouldn't welcome a $200 million gift? As the reality of the surprise donation from late philanthropist Joan B. Kroc in early November settles in among National Public Radio staff, its 750 member stations, and listeners, everyone seems to know how to spend the dough. But the windfall could pit NPR, provider of shows such as Bob Edwards' Morning Edition, against the cash-strapped local stations that buy them, dividing the public radio community. "It's like when a cousin wins the lottery and everybody in the family squabbles over how he should spend it," says Marcia Alvar, president of the Public Radio Program Directors Assn.

Some staffers already call NPR too corporate, despite its scrappy, grassroots origins 33 years ago. They worry the money will make NPR more risk-averse. "In the past, when NPR or other big organizations have had money given to them to experiment, they tend to be derivative, as opposed to distinctive," says Chicago Public Radio President Torey Malatia. Another fear: Individual gifts, which keep many local stations alive, will fall if listeners think public radio has cash.

The reality is the gift won't go directly to stations. There's also worry Congress may cut the pittance (about $1 million of NPR's annual $104 million budget) the feds mark for public radio. The Kroc estate doesn't say how to spend the gift, expected in six months. But NPR's board already plans to invest it in the nonprofit's endowment and dole out only up to $10 million yearly from investment income.

A syndicator of shows and a programmer, NPR has had a few good years: Weekly listeners are up, from 13 million to 22 million since 1998. It broke even in 2002. Half of its income is from station dues and programming fees; 25% from corporate underwriting; and the rest from foundations and its endowment.

But for all the success, member stations still rely on individual donations for about 33% of their budgets. Less local giving would sting, since stations say fees for NPR programming are high. Some pay NPR $1 million or more a year. One idea is to have the Kroc money help stations defray costs. That's unlikely, but it hasn't been ruled out.

Also, member stations are more subject to political pressure: They get about 12% of their funding from Washington, unlike the mother ship. If conservatives, who often call public radio a platform for liberals, opt to exploit the gift, it could hurt still more. Stations' budgets are already stretched as they upgrade to digital transmission. The stations have no choice but to "find local versions of Joan Kroc," says Minnesota Public Radio President William H. Kling.

The top priority, says veteran public radio broadcaster Larry Josephson, should be to draw young talent. He has a point: If the voice of public radio isn't distinctive in the cacophony of today's airwaves, no amount of money will help.

By Tom Lowry in New York, Joseph Weber in Chicago, and Catherine Yang in Washington

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