Even as Congress debates funding for National Public Radio, the network's top officials said this week they are pressing ahead with plans to strengthen the franchise's technology and news-gathering abilities.
Within the coming months, the network expects to launch new multi-casts, further enhance its burgeoning satellite and podcasting capabilities, while also continuing an ongoing three-year, $15-million expansion of its news division. NPR's audience has doubled over the last seven years and now reaches an estimated 26.1 million listeners every week.
The new technologies "are going to change the way people listen to radio," said Ken Stern, NPR's executive vice president, who, along with Kevin Klose, the network's president, was in Los Angeles this week for planning conferences. The executives met with local journalists Thursday night.
NPR officials said they are paying special attention to podcasting and will be looking for new ways to promote it. Viewed as the "TiVo-ization" of radio for its ability to let listeners with portable devices hear programming on their own schedule, podcasting has been a particularly big hit on NPR member station KCRW of Santa Monica. Earlier this summer when Apple Computer Inc. offered an updated version of its music software, iTunes, that featured KCRW programming, their downloads skyrocketed from about 3,500 a day to 100,000.
Ideas for future growth were derailed last month when the House Appropriations Committee voted to slash funding by some $200 million to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, from which NPR receives about 2% of its annual budget of approximately $118 million. The proposed cutbacks would have been especially hard on public radio stations that serve rural areas, said NPR officials.
Along with the proposed cutbacks came accusations from CPB Chairman Kenneth Y. Tomlinson that public television and radio exhibit a liberal bias. But NPR officials rejected that charge and reaffirmed their commitment to fair and balanced news coverage.
"Some like to polarize us into red and blue states," said Klose. "We don't accept that proposition at NPR."
Subsequent votes within both houses of Congress have made drastic cuts appear far less likely. This week, a key Senate subcommittee approved restoring funding to near its original level -- an action that represents about $111 million more than was approved last month by the House.
The two congressional bodies are expected to work out the funding differences between the two measures by late summer or early fall, but NPR officials are optimistic they will keep all, or almost all, of their funding. Their confidence is due in part to an outpouring of popular support for the network that followed the proposed cuts.
"The speed and power of the reaction was staggering," said Stern, who like Klose is based in Washington, D.C. "It wasn't tens of thousands or hundreds of thousand, but millions."
Meanwhile, by the end of the summer, NPR hopes to launch five programmed music formats through multicasting. The relatively new digital technology allows a station to transmit multiple channels over a single bandwidth. The move will add about 600 new hours of programming for the network.
As for now, NPR has only two talk-based shows on Sirius Satellite Radio, but network executives clearly want to expand that role. NPR contracted with Sirius more than five years ago.