Life without federal funding? Create a $10 billion endowment

Is it possible? Let's talk...

Mark VogelzangPosted on, April 12, 2011
Commentary by Mark Vogelzang

Friends: I’ve been dismayed by the events of these past two weeks, as you probably have. The House of Representatives March 17 debate about funding for NPR was the first time in recent history that our elected representatives voted specifically against public radio. For you and me, that “yes” vote to cut off funding will have real consequences, some still unknown and some already clear.

Your comments, pleaseThis vote prepared Congress for further serious attempts to curtail funding for CPB and the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program or eliminate them altogether. It will also no doubt affect public television, our technical infrastructure and our digital-media work.

For those of us who work inside public broadcasting, and for our legions of fans and supporters, much is at stake. In our news reporting, we have worked hard to give voice to all sides in complex discussions. We’ve built our mission and our reputation on strong journalism, excellent cultural programming and independent community service, all the while trying to prevent partisan voices from influencing our journalism, our governance, and public broadcasting’s uniquely American funding structure. Now, that formula seems likely to change.

What should we do?

Our leaders are already beginning a strong, principled response, defending the relatively modest amount of federal funds appropriated for this year and next. These tightly coordinated national efforts are making a difference with legislators.

In spite of our best efforts, however, the events in the House and budget negotiations on Capitol Hill only highlight the urgent need to begin quietly planning for the day if federal funds are materially reduced or zeroed out for public broadcasting.

So in that spirit, I offer four admittedly provocative suggestions as a starting point for discussing our response. 

1. Create and build a Public Broadcasting Endowment of $10 billion.

This permanent trust would eventually replace the CPB appropriation, which is $430 million this year. Call it what you want, but my back-of-the-envelope estimate is that the system would need combined revenue-producing assets of about $10 billion. (Invested with a 4 percent annual yield, it would pay out about $400 million a year.)

The goal is beyond what NPR could achieve by pitching in, beyond the reach of a few extra on-air drives. It will take a sophisticated, coordinated, multiyear effort by every station, every network, every producer in the United States.

The $10 billion goal is sky-high, but it may not be out of reach over the next 20 years if our audiences come to realize that there’s no federal help coming to the rescue. The endowments of 10 well-known universities, from Brown to Vanderbilt, total $27 billion.

2. Call a national summit to find ways to support and expand public media for this century.

If CPB was created more than 43 years ago as a mechanism to help build the fledgling public broadcasting system, isn’t it worth examining anew the expectations of our citizens and elected officials when it comes to public media at this critical moment?

Who should attend this summit? Unlike past “blue-ribbon panels” whose reports are gathering dust, this summit wouldn’t invite only the accomplished broadcasters and the civic-minded famous of a respectable age but also younger people who love what public media are and could be. Our audiences include literally thousands of our country’s best minds who would enjoy the challenge, including thinkers from all points on the political spectrum who have a deep interest in keeping public radio and TV strong in this country. We have not yet included them, or invited them to help solve this dilemma. They must be at the table.

NPR demonstrated the potential powerfully in 2009 when the brightest lights of Silicon Valley volunteered their time for two days to give their vision for our digital services. Those discussions helped Kinsey Wilson and his NPR Digital Media team take a leadership role in public media. Every community has one or more thought leaders who could help retool public media’s funding model. Let’s ask our friends to help us break out of conventional thinking by using presentation techniques borrowed from the annual TED conferences (“Ideas worth spreading”).

3. Merge with urgency, restructure with confidence.

We can find ways to combine institutions where effectiveness suggests. Our public service would improve, and our stations would be stronger (see Bill Kling’s 2010 report).

Look around your public broadcasting neighborhood. Are two or more stations providing duplicate services? Could some benefit from combined back-office functions, a single board, shared fundraising or facilities? Many university licensees should take this opportunity to ease their NPR or PBS stations into the community, perhaps using a five-year countdown to independence. My station — WBFO, licensed to the University at Buffalo — is working with our colleagues at WNED to find the best mix of donated and tax-based funds. Sure, it’s complicated, but I believe the station will be stronger outside of the university, with the governance of a community organization and the clear mission devoted to public media.

Now that federal dollars are likely to shrink and consolidation is probable, public broadcasting can get on with its work, retool and capitalize its operations and get credit for decisive action rather than passive acceptance of changes required by external forces. Can we demonstrate that the professionals in the system aren’t just another self-protective interest group, as many Americans might believe? Until now, our merger and consolidation efforts have been notoriously slow. Let’s not wait until changes are forced upon us.

4. Fundraise with purpose and in new ways for ongoing operations.

We need to make the case to our most generous donors that public radio and television have a plan to replace federal funding. Those major donors and philanthropists in our community expect us to ask them for additional assistance when times are tough, and they’ll step up to help us if the need is real and the cause is authentic.

And while we talk with major donors about operational support, it’s abundantly clear that planned giving is our single biggest area of future growth. The NPR Board passed its first-ever plan for gift annuities this February, which will make it much easier for stations to begin planned-giving programs. Let’s get that rolled out rapidly across the country. Our donors want to keep public media alive and healthy for the next generation, and if the structure is in place, they will give substantially through their estate planning. During my time as head of Vermont Public Radio, we started a planned-giving program. More than 10 years ago we hired a staff member with a single task: to meet with our older donors interested in placing Vermont Public Radio in their wills. The hiring felt expensive at the time, but today Vermont is one of the national leaders per donor in receiving estate gifts. That’s where spending seed money pays off in future harvests.

There are many more substantive ideas. Let’s begin to talk and plan for ways to do this in a responsible and timely manner. Our listeners and supporters expect nothing less from us.

Mark Vogelzang led Vermont Public Radio for 16 years as its president. Now a radio consultant based in the Boston area, he’s serving as station manager of WBFO in Buffalo, N.Y., as its licensee considers combining it with WNED. He also served as interim executive director of the NPR Foundation for most of 2009. Before joining VPR he served as p.d. and radio manager at Philadelphia’s WHYY-FM, where he launched national syndication of Fresh Air and was instrumental in a round of differentiating format changes among the city’s public radio stations. Email:

Originally published in Current, April 4, 2011.
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Copyright 2011 American University


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