Why a Public Radio Station Got Big Money To Keep an Eye on Members of Congress

Pardon the quick civics lesson, but we were all taught back in middle and high school that our founding fathers envisioned the press as a bulwark against excessive government power. The press is supposed to keep citizens educated and our politicians on their toes.

But in the case of the tri-State New York/New Jersey/Connecticut area, not a single local broadcast news organization devotes a full-time reporter to cover the region's congressional delegation. We think James Madison would consider that a most unfortunate thing.

And so the Hewlett Foundation is stepping into the void. The foundation recently awarded $450,000 to WNYC, the most-listened-to public radio station in the country, to support reporting on the region's congressional delegation, which consists of six senators and 27 House members. The funding will also support its public affairs program, The Brian Lehrer Show.

The gift is important for a couple of reasons. First, it's part of Hewlett's Madison Imitative, an ambitious effort to fix America's broken, polarized democracy so that the nation’s representative institutions "can address problems facing the country in ways that work for the American people."

Related: Inside the Madison Initiative: Here's How Hewlett Is Taking on Polarization

We've reported before on that initiative, which has included a number of sizeable grants to media organizations. For example, check out Hewlett's $350,000 grant to boost the Texas Tribune's reporting footprint in Washington, D.C. The target of their reporting? The Lone Star State's congressional delegation, which exceeds New York's by 11 politicians, proving yet again that everything bigger in... well, you get the drift.

Second, to hear Hewlett tell it, the gift to WNYC could provide "an important model for enhancing local coverage of congressional delegations in other states."

You can see why that may be. With newspaper staffs decimated, expanding the reporting of public radio stations is one way to fill the void in coverage of politics and public policy that affects local regions. As well, the popular shows on these stations offer a powerful way to educate the public on what's going on. 

If you've lived in New York, you know what I'm talking about. The Brian Lehrer Show has a huge audience and also has the juice to book top guests, such as members of Congress. Pair those assets with more money for reporting, and you have a powerful combination. 

The more we report on philanthropy and journalism, the more we see a coherent eco-system taking shapeone where national investigative outfits like ProPublica go after the biggest stories, while regional nonprofit news sites, like InvestigateWest, drill into local stories. Beefed up public radio stations, with more journalistic firepower, are another piece of this emerging media infrastructure. 

Can all of this really take the place of traditional media? Probably not, but it's still super valuable. Is the ecosystem financially sustainable over the long term? That remains to be seen, and we've explored that worrisome question in the past.