Public radio
Images courtesy of Pamela Buchignani

What the heck is public radio, anyway?

by Pamela Buchignani

I’ve been working in public radio for about 7 years now, and I often take for granted people understanding what that actually means.

When I worked in the movies business as a “D-Girl,” people often thought I was talking about my bra size. Now, when I tell them I work in public radio, they often assume I work for NPR or PBS – or that all public broadcasting operates under the same umbrella. But the truth is way more nuanced than that.

It was over lunch one day, when my mother told me she’d been donating to PBS for years to be supportive of my career, that I knew some clarifications needed to be made…

Public radio consists of content creators, content distributors and local stations — many of which wear multiple hats.

Content creators like NPR, produce original programming, but don’t actually broadcast their own radio signal. They create content so compelling, like Morning Edition and All Things Considered, that local affiliates (or “Member Stations”) license their shows to broadcast over their airwaves. NPR also sometimes acts as a distributor for shows produced outside its studio walls, like WNYC’s RadioLab.

Local stations carry the ‘terrestrial’ radio signal to you, like KCRW in Southern California or KQED (which also has a public television station) in San Francisco. If they carry NPR, they’re also called a “Member Station.” Local stations also often produce their own programming which can then be picked up for wider distribution via a distribution entity.

Content distributors like PRX (the Public Radio Exchange) market, license and distribute content — fantastic shows like The Moth Radio Hour and WTF with Marc Maron — to your local radio station. Sometimes distributors (like Public Radio International, or PRI) also partner to create original content like PRI’s The World and Studio 360.

Public radio funding comes from a myriad of places – a surprisingly small percentage of which is government funding.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (or CPB) is a private, non-profit corporation that is in charge of distributing federal funding to public broadcasting entities via grants.

Private donations from individuals, foundation grants, corporate underwriting, state & local support (often via colleges or universities) and fundraising events are all additional revenue streams that together significantly exceed funding from the CPB, which typically comprises only 8-12% of station operating budgets.

Local stations, in turn, provide financial support to NPR and other content creators and distributors in exchange for the license to air their programming. That means, when you support your local “Member Station,” you are also supporting NPR.

Some interesting and very detailed revenue source information can be found at NPR and at CPB.


KCRW’s traffic queen Kajon Cermak and board op Holly Adams during KCRW’s Winter Membership Drive 2010. In the background & on the air, Matt Holzman asks for members’ support.

Genuine content is king.

Public radio’s unique way of funding is so important because it enables the programming to remain genuine, and outside the influence of typical advertisers. When you listen to public radio — unlike commercial radio and television — the shows are not just filling time between commercial breaks.

The FCC even gets involved to make sure the public radio on-air “underwriting” spots you hear adhere to certain guidelines, preventing them from resembling the slogan-filled commercials that make you feel as if your head is about to explode while you try to watch The Bachelor.

People who work in public radio do so because they believe in the cause.

Public radio (for the most part!) is not going to make you rich, famous, or powerful. Rather, people who dedicate their lives and careers to the field do so because they are glad that public radio exists, and are proud to be a part of it. If the job they have somehow contributes to its prosperity, it’s that much easier to get out of bed in the morning.

Support my favorite local radio station, KCRW here.

Or click here to find the NPR Member Station closest to you.

Pamela Buchignani

About Pamela Buchignani

Pamela Buchignani is a writer, photographer, banjo enthusiast and Director of Original Content, Live Events for Fuse TV. Follow her on Twitter @MsPamelaB.

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