Could NPR survive without public funding? That depends on which NPR you're talking about. There are two NPRs. There's the national news and talk show syndicator formerly known as National Public Radio and there are about 800 local "member stations" that buy its programming.
It is the local stations that serve the more rural and less wealthy markets that would suffer the most without the federal grants they receive. Those grants have come under renewed attack as the new Republican-dominated House looks for ways to make good on promises to trim federal spending.
The issue of government-funded broadcasting became even more emotionally charged after conservative prankster James O'Keefe's infamous hidden-camera video. It catches NPR executive Ron Schiller, since departed, labeling the tea party movement as "racist" and "xenophobic" and saying NPR would be "better off in the long run" without federal funding.
He's right about the funding, if he's talking about the network liberating itself from badgering back-seat-driving politicians. Many conservatives would miss having NPR to kick around as a symbol of taxpayer-funded "liberal elitism."
But in the short run, as Schiller also noted, a lot of smaller stations would "go dark." He's probably right about that, too. Stations in big-city markets have a larger pool of us regular NPR listeners to turn to for support. It is the stations in smaller towns and rural areas that would most likely go off the air or trim their programming.
Grants from the federally funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting -- a private corporation -- and agencies like the Department of Education account for only about 2 percent of NPR's $161 million budget, according to NPR. Another 36 percent of NPR's revenue comes from member stations, which in turn get 10.1 percent of their revenue from the CPB and 5.8 percent from local, state and federal government.
But the smaller NPR stations, which receive 40 percent or more of their funds from the government, would be in serious financial trouble if Congress cuts off CPB funding. In fact, CPB was founded in 1967 to bring more news, information and cultural choices to all Americans than what market-driven broadcasters provided.
It is ironic that the Glenn Beck-Sarah Palin heartland that many of NPR's biggest congressional critics represent stands most likely to lose the benefits of CPB. Of course, maybe those same lawmakers would just as soon see fewer alternatives to conservative radio talk shows.
But the ironies don't end there. Forcing NPR to rely more heavily on private funding through tax-deductible contributions means that much less tax revenue for government, a shortfall that has to be made up by -- who else? -- us taxpayers.
However you slice it, NPR's federal support is such a tiny piece of the $1 trillion budget deficit that the fight centers on ideology more than thrift. Federal spending woes won't be solved until Congress grapples with Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and defense programs that together account for about two-thirds of the $3.7 trillion federal budget. Yet those third-rail issues are not much discussed in Congress' current debate over spending cuts. NPR is.
As for the "liberal bias" charge, make up your own mind. In my experience, the charge too often comes from listeners looking for a conservative bias -- much like the way conservative bias charges come from liberals.
I've been a guest of too many NPR programs to claim disinterest in this issue. But I am reassured whenever I hear conservative critics of government funding point out that they, too, happen to be regular NPR listeners and donors.
"Should NPR lose its federal funding tomorrow," editor Matt Welch of the libertarian Reason magazine writes at CNN.com, "we would see the mother of all pledge drives, and I would be first in line to contribute." He'd have to race me to the front. It's worth a donation to support broadcasters who don't have to shout to hold your attention.