Public broadcasting and all money considered | St. Louis Public Radio

Public broadcasting and all money considered

Mar 30, 2011

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 30, 2011 - Even with all the back and forth in Washington, Greg Conroy doesn't have to worry about public funding of his media organization. WSIE, the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville station where he is interim director, has a 0.8 market share and tiny staff. Because of that, the station fell out of the federal funding pool a few years ago.

"We're too small," said Conroy, whose organization gets most of its support through underwriting and university funding.

Yet worry he does. Not only because he hopes to grow the station and regain funding, but because he and his wife also donate to public media personally. He said he has real concerns about the future of government allocations to ventures such as NPR and PBS.

"It might hurt the smaller stations even worse and they might have to close," he said of potential cuts. "I just think we'd lose something of the culture."

The Battleground

Of late, that branch of the culture has come under increasing fire by an amalgam of budget hawks and small-government conservatives. They allege the four-decade-old web of public media institutions to be at best an unnecessary expense in an era of massive deficits and at worst a forum for liberally slanted news bias.

That battle is being waged now in Congress. Earlier this month, in a vote that fell largely along party lines, the Republican-dominated House of Representatives voted to deny funding to NPR. The move is expected to meet a chillier reception in the Senate, which remains under Democratic control and which nixed an effort in February to zero out the CPB entirely.

The amount of money that NPR receives from the federal government and CPB directly is only 2 percent of its budget. But a third of its revenue comes from stations paying to air NPR programming. And the House-passed bill would bar individual stations from using federal funds to pay for NPR content.

While the CPB money makes up about 15 percent of an average station's annual budget, said Nicole Mezlo, director of media and public relations for the CPB, it can equal half or more for stations in sparsely populated or economically depressed areas.

"The folks who own and operate these stations live in the communities where they work so they are really familiar with the needs of the people around them," Mezlo said. "They work hard to fulfill those needs in ways commercial media cannot do."

NPR is clear about how it feels regarding the proposals running through Congress.

"We believe we are facing one of the most dedicated, sophisticated and sustained assaults on public broadcasting that we've ever faced," said Mike Riksen, NPR's vice president of policy and representation.

Riksen notes that the measure that recently passed the House doesn't just exile NPR from the public trough, it prohibits local stations from using federal dollars to purchase national programming from anyone else, a lesser-known but wider-ranging proscription that would include content producers like Public Radio International and American Public Media. It could also affect the budgets of large urban stations that create material for sale to smaller broadcasters, Riksen said.

"It is an erosion of the way public radio programming is produced and acquired and consequently is a destabilizing factor in a local station's ability to build a sustainable local revenue base," he said.

Or as a mid-Missouri manager of community and corporate support for a PBS affiliate and NPR member noted, the tough economy has already prompted cuts in programming and staff. Losing more revenue would mean deeper cuts and less service to the area.

The Gateway Picture

St. Louis Public Radio, widely known as KWMU, gets $360,000 in CPB money, which is about 7 percent of the station's budget. Tim Eby, general manager of the University of Missouri-St. Louis-based broadcaster, said his organization might be buffeted by shifting winds in Washington but could likely move funds from other sources to purchase content.

"The worrisome piece is what would happen to the network overall, the whole system of stations," he said. "The public radio community has been built around this economic model that stations in rural areas get more federal funding from a percentage standpoint; and if we lose those stations, we will lose a lot of what public broadcasting stands for - free, universal service to citizens across the country."

Eby said his organization is blessed with a strong donor base that makes up slightly more than half of its revenue. Roughly 30-35 percent comes from corporate gifts or underwriting, and the remainder is made up of a variety of sources from foundation grants to university funding.

Not every station has those kinds of resources, however, noted Eby, who said St. Louis Public Radio spends about $650,000 a year on NPR programming. He said he knows of outlets in remote areas as well as Native American reservations that could find themselves in trouble if the flow of cash from CPB ceased.

"There are villages in Alaska where federal dollars make up a large portion of the money," he said. "It may be the only news service those areas have."

Indeed, among the CPB's extensive criteria to determine funding are whether a station is the sole source of broadcasting in a region. Other aspects include everything from signal strength to staffing size to content.

When the Beacon talked with Eby late last week, he said that despite the politicization, there has been little effect on KWMU's fundraising as it wrapped up its annual campaign. Checking back, he said KWMU received about $520,000 in pledges from about 4,200 listeners for its most recent fundraising effort.

"We were very pleased," Eby said. "It was a record for a spring membership campaign for us."

Galvanizing Support

Or perhaps the politicization is helping. Jack Galmiche, president and CEO of the Nine Network, KETC, the PBS television affiliate in St. Louis, said his institution's fans have been moved to action by the controversy.

"We are just coming off of our latest membership drive and are seeing that our members are actually mobilized because of this," he said. "They see that there is a threat to public television and they are rising up and showing their support."

Like its local radio counterpart, about 7 percent of Nine's approximately $15 million budget comes from CPB. It also relies on its 28,000 members to pick up about 30-35 percent of the remaining tab while foundation support, major gifts from philanthropists and corporate underwriting make up nearly three-fifths of the total.

As with many other public television stations, some funding used to come from the state, but those dollars became a victim of Missouri's budget crunch and have since dried up.

Galmiche said that while television was unaffected by the move to defund NPR, attacks on CPB dollars are always an issue of concern.

"The funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is very important enabling money for us to create and commit to programs as we raise the additional dollars to leverage those enabling dollars," he said. "If we were to lose those monies it would definitely affect those programs and services that we provide."

Galmiche said that institutions such as his benefit from strong backing by Missourians who enjoy public media.

"On a per capita basis, there are more people watching public television in our area than any other place in the country," he said. "Public radio enjoys a similar position in the market."

Beverly Hacker, co-executive director of KDHX, a mostly music-oriented radio station in the Tower Grove area, said her station receives about 12 percent or $110,000 annually from CPB. The small, independent broadcaster would not likely be directly affected by the restrictions passed in the House given that it purchases no national programming.

In fact, Hacker said that KDHX was only recently promoted to its present level of CPB funding, having spent most of the past decade-and-a-half receiving only $15,000 a year. A cut would be troubling, she said, but the organization would survive.

"What it would do is make it difficult to do some of the things we have done over the last couple years in terms of production and programming that we create in-house," she said.

'There's No Real Way to Know'

Outstate, the picture comes into sharper focus. Michael Dunn, director of KBIA, an NPR station that serves Columbia and Jefferson City, is blunt about what would happen if CPB cash disappeared.

"We've had those discussions internally, and we'd have to reduce the size of our staff," said Dunn, whose enterprise simulcasts much of its programming on sister stations serving Kirksville and Mexico.

CPB accounts for only about 12 percent of KBIA's budget. By contrast, Dunn said that from information he's read, he believes it's possible that as many as one in every five public radio stations might leave the air completely without government help.

As painful as staffing cuts are, Dunn said they can still be better than the alternative.

"If you start cutting the programming, which is why people tune in, then it's a double-edged sword because you are going to create less revenue," he said.

Still, in a weak economy, some stations aren't grappling with tough choices between staff and programs. They are cutting both.

"Due to budget concerns last year, we had to drop five members of our staff between TV and radio; and the year before that we had to drop some of the entertainment programming available through PRI and NPR," said Mark Pearce, manager of community and corporate support for PBS affiliate KMOS-TV and NPR member KTBG-FM.

Run from the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, a town along Route 50 in rural Johnson County, KMOS and KTBG have reason to cast a wary eye at Washington's tense political machinations. Around a quarter of their budget comes from CPB.

Pearce said it was difficult to predict what a potential post-CPB landscape might look like or what cuts might have to be made, though he said the present CPB allocation is about the same as the station's cost for PBS's membership and programming making that a potential target.

Still, the picture is murky at all levels, he said, not just in Warrensburg.

"There's no real way to know what mitigating factors would happen were federal funding to end tomorrow or two years from now because at the national level what would PBS do or become?" Pearce asked. "Obviously, everyone would be looking to restructure their organizations and operations."

Meanwhile, boosters of public media nationally have begun to organize. The website 170millionamericans.org was founded to show support for broadcast outlets funded by CPB. The name comes from the 121.9 million television viewers and 64.7 million radio listeners the site says are reached by public media each month. The initiative represents about 400 public TV and radio stations, including KETC and KWMU. Its Facebook companion page now has more than 122,000 followers.

But, as expected, the battle continues. Various competing "Defund NPR" Facebook pages have sprung up as well. With anywhere from dozens to thousands of members.

"I think it's a sad situation," said KDHX's Hacker. "CPB has made it possible to create some really great programming, and it's unfortunate that it's being caught up in a political fight."

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David Baugher is a freelance writer.