On the latest episode of Hello Internet*, CGP Grey and Brady Haran were discussing the almost mystifying instructions that NPR give out when asking for donations from the public. The reason has to do with the hideously complex nature of what NPR actually is and the myriad of minutiae of how the thing is put together.
Unlike the BBC in the United Kingdom, or the ABC in Brady's country of origin Australia, although NPR itself is a single corporation, the number of radio stations which run under its banner are not. The NPR network is not a singular government owned entity but more like a federation of loosely radio stations which all fly roughly in a similar direction.
NPR has a head office in Washington and just like PBS, it produces national news bulletins and programs and really that's as far as the national organisation goes. NPR as a national syndicator owns no transmission facilities and no public radio stations, as the model used for public radio is quite different to a single government owned and operated entity.
Every single one of the local public radio stations in the United States is its own little corporation and although they might receive some funding from the Federal Government through the Corporation For Public Broadcasting, they still find much of their funding from advertising and the goodwill of the general public who donate money. Just like PBS, NPR affiliated stations also receive funding from "viewers like you", or rather listeners like you.
Within that broad affiliation, the various radio stations are free to buy in content from wherever they like or wherever they can get it; that also includes rival public radio networks such as the Public Radio Exchange (PRX), the American Public Radio Network (APR), other national broadcasters from other countries such as the BBC, ABC, CBC, Deutsche Welle and whatnot, as well as independently funded organisations like the Maximum Fun network of podcasts.
The show "Car Talk" which was produced by WBUR in Boston, Massachusetts, was sold independently to some stations such as WNYC but sold via NPR to other affiliate stations throughout America. NPR Morning Edition was produced is produced in the head offices of NPR and is sold via the NPR network. 99% Invisible is produced by Roman Mars for the Radiotopia podcast network, is distributed by PRX and airs many NPR stations who choose to buy it in. As an Australian in the United States, I found it both familiar and singularly weird to hear Just A Minute from BBC Radio 4 on an NPR station, early in the morning and not late at night.
Not only do you have a massively complex web of little independent radio stations all with their own independent governance, who all kind of buy programming from each other, but to compound complexity upon complexity, the fifty states in the union also have their own right to levy income and sales taxes. This means that the treatment of donations with respect to taxation, is going to change for every state in the union as well.
In that respect, it makes complete sense to ask patrons to fund their local public radio stations because from a purely logistical standpoint, that is more direct in making the system work, than throwing money into the national funding pot and them letting the Corporation For Public Broadcasting spread it around the place. A local radio station which produces some content which can then be sold either on PRX or into the NPR network is better placed to negotiate its own prices when it comes to buying programming in. In this respect, that explains why WBEZ in Chicago is reasonably well known; it produces "Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me" the NPR News quiz and "Invisiblia". Supporting the local public radio station which may or may not buy all or only a portion of its programming from NPR, helps to ensure the viability of the whole network because it's harder to pick off a whole bunch of independent little corporations than one big one that lives in the pocket of the federal government.
The solution for overseas listeners is to either support their local public radio station in their own country so that it continues to buy in the programs it wants, or to try a more direct approach and kick a few bucks towards the radio station which produced the actual content in the first place. Perhaps overseas listeners might also like to sponsor the independent networks like Maximum Fun or Radiotopia who also produce content.
As an aside, this is one of the reasons why I am grateful to the Great British taxpayer. Through their licence fees, they fund the BBC and by extension Radio 4, Five Live, and the BBC World Service.
So why ask listeners to support their local public radio station? Mostly because the world is complex and doesn't respond well to simple answers and this is the simplest answer available. As NPR is a syndicator and producer of programs rather than an actual radio station, it doesn't make a whole heap of sense to ask listeners to fund programming unless there's a terrestrial broadcaster to play it over the airwaves, or else NPR would be like PRX or Maximum Fun; it wouldn't really be public radio anymore.
* Hello Internet with CGP Grey and Brady Haran - http://www.hellointernet.fm