Stifling the airwaves
New legislation threatens public radio

A giant satellite dish beams the KDUR signal to listeners throughout the Durango area outside the station’s trailer on the Fort Lewis College campus on Tuesday. KDUR, KSUT and other local public radio stations are facing a threat from Republican congressmen, who want to cut or limit funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. CPB, which funds NRP among other things, is a substantial part of most rural public stations’ budgets./Photo by Stephen Eginoire.

by Missy Votel

Proposed legislation that would slash, if not eliminate, federal funding for public radio could result in dead air for the Four Corners.

Introduced Jan. 5 by Colorado Spring’s Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., H.R. 68 and H.R. 69 would cut all or part of the federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The CPB distributes, among other things, National Public Radio. On Jan. 7, Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, also introduced H.R. 235, which proposes cuts to several government programs, including CPB.

Although threats to CPB over its nearly 45-year existence are nothing new, the most recent threat is seen as the most severe since Newt Gingrich threatened to pull the plug on NPR in the late ’90s. Gingrich and several other ranking Republicans have once again come out denouncing NPR in the wake of the firing of former NPR correspondent Juan Williams. Williams was fired in October for what NPR said was the latest in a series of public remarks that violate guidelines, this time on Fox News.

Further compounding the renewed Republican interest in dismantling NPR is the current outcry over curbing government spending. With the Obama Administration looking for ways to trim the budget, CPB has come under increasing scrutiny.

“It is much more alarming this time,” said Ginny Berson, vice president of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, based in Oakland. “The threat has never come in the form of ‘the country’s going broke.’ Plus, Obama’s Deficit Reduction Commission supported the defunding of CPB, giving an aura of bipartisan support.”

She added that many public stations, which have already had their state funding cut, are facing a “double-whammy” if CPB is defunded. “Many stations will go away, and the ones that don’t will limp along,” she said.

The CPB is a private, nonprofit created in 1967 by Congress to provide telecommunications services (television, radio and now, internet) for the American public, particularly underserved and rural populations. Allocating $420 million in fiscal year 2010, it is the largest source of funding for public television (PBS) and radio programming, primarily through NPR, American Public Media and Public Radio International. CPB created PBS in 1969 and NPR in 1970.

CPB funds nearly1,000 public radio stations across the country, including Fort Lewis College’s KDUR, the Ignacio-based KSUT and KSJD in Cortez. For some of the country’s smaller stations, such as those in Southwest Colorado, CPB funds account for a substantial portion of the budget.

“It’s pretty serious,” KDUR Development Director Ellen Stein said. One-third of KDUR’s current annual budget of $282,000 comes from CPB. The funding, roughly $95,000, goes to staffing and programming, including such popular shows as “Democracy Now,” “This American Life” and BBC news.

“If we lost $95,000, that’s half of our cash budget,” she said. “Right now, we only have 3½ staff members. We already do a lot with very little.”

More so than putting a crimp on the national programming, Stein said the cut will hurt the services the station provides to the local community as well. “From KDUR’s perspective, we are the only public access radio station in La Plata County where a community member can come up and speak his or her mind,” she said. “We also offer training for students and great experience for community members.”

And despite generalizations about the “liberal media,” Stein said KDUR is one of the few media venues offering a variety of viewpoints, including “The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.” The conservative Christian talk show has aired for more than a year in the popular Saturday night timeslot.

“It is just as much his station as it is Rasta Stevie’s and I-Gene’s,” said Stein of show’s host, Mike Eckstein. “And the great thing is, if you don’t like what you’re hearing, turn it off and turn it back on in two hours.”

At KSUT, cuts in CPB funds would also have a dramatic impact, where they account for nearly 25 percent of the annual budget, or $250,000. “If CPB funding went away, there would be cuts across the board, from programs to staff,” KSUT Development Director Bruce Campbell said. “We won’t be able to pay for a lot of national programming, and it will be much more difficult to offer local programming.”

He said the cuts will be particularly hard on rural areas, which tend to rely on CPB funds for a proportionately larger part of their budget than metro markets. “It will hurt the people who need it most,” he said.

Berson, of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, said in many poorer, rural areas, radio is the only source of up-to-the-minute local news and events. These small stations also help to keep local pockets of culture alive, from the Appalachians to Indian reservations to immigrant communities. “Most of these so-called minority stations would not survive without federal funding,” she said.

But more than this, the American public as a whole will feel the effects if NPR and CPB disappear. “We are the ones who will suffer most with the loss of access to a neutral, unbiased source of news and entertainment,” said Campbell. “If anything, the need for noncommercialized voice in media is stronger than ever. If that goes away, we’ll only have spoonfed media with corporate backing.”

With all three bills currently in committee, from which many bills never emerge, the fate of CPB and NPR is anybody’s guess. One fear is that they will be added to a bigger bill, which may slip by the detection of many people. However, public radio stations have banded together across the country to ensure this never happens. KDUR’s Stein has solicited local elected officials and business leaders to write letters of opposition to representatives in Washington, and Campbell encourages the same. “If you have ties to anyone in high places, now’s the time to call them for support,” he said.

Public stations are also encouraging people to visit the website www.170millionamericans.org for more information, updates on the bills and petition signing.

“Independent media is really important,” said Stein in closing. “It’s something people depend on in their daily lives. CPB was established in 1967, and since then no one has messed with it. It’s fulfilled that mission beautifully.” •

 

 

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