If NPR Goes, So Go Local Stations

Calls to end federal funding for public radio would hurt the smallest players the most.

As the U.S. Senate resumes debate on whether to cut or eliminate funding for public radio, David Freedman, GM of WWOZ-FM New Orleans, fears that his station — which doesn’t carry news shows but instead focuses on music unique to his region — could be “collateral damage.”

The recent sting operation, which caught a National Public Radio fundraising executive calling the Tea Party racist, has already led to the resignation of CEO Vivian Schiller and resulted in renewed calls from conservative politicians for an end to federal funding of NPR. But according to station managers like Freedman, it’s the 900 local public radio stations — the primary recipients of the federal money that flows through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — that are likely to suffer.

Says Freedman, “It would weaken our efforts to support the culture and music of our city, which has already been damaged by the fact that federally maintained levies failed us and destroyed our city.”

Jennifer Ferro, GM of KCRW-FM Los Angeles, agrees. “It would have its biggest impact on local programming,” she says. “Local programming is the most expensive thing we all do. It does not have the biggest return, but it represents the need for bodies. You have to pay salaries. You need people to cover those stories. Those are things that are going to be cut first.”

About 8 percent of KCRW’s annual $14 million budget comes from a direct operating grant from the CPB. That money, however, is then leveraged to raise money from listeners, who make up the biggest single source of revenue for most stations, along with money from businesses, universities and foundations.

Stephen Schram, director of Michigan Public Media, says each dollar from the CPB grows to about $6 that can be used for operations and programming. He adds that the 176 million Americans — 55 percent of the population — who use public media every month get programming from locally controlled stations that is not available from commercial broadcasting.

“As commercial television and radio broadcasters ease away from their public service obligations, NPR remains our greatest source for news, culture and intelligent analysis,” says Alec Baldwin, an NPR supporter. “There is simply no government-funded program that provides as much for so little.”

Among the public stations funded by the CPB, typically 5 percent of the budget is a direct operating subsidy that is used for everything from keeping the lights on to paying NPR, American Public Media and others for programming. NPR gets no money directly from CPB; instead, about 34 percent of its revenue comes from those station program fees.

At WHYY Philadelphia, which has an annual budget of about $28 million for public TV and radio operations, the CPB provides about $1.9 million. That has become more important since 2009, says Kyra McGrath, WHYY executive vp and COO, since Pennsylvania has gone from providing about $1.1 million three years ago to zero today.

“We swallowed all those cuts but if all the federal funding went away, would we survive? Probably,” McGrath says. “Would we look the same? No.”

Individual contributors aren’t likely to pick up the slack, either. At WAMU Washington, D.C., GM Caryn Mathes says the average gift from a listener is $35, and in the most recent fundraising campaign, it received 3,900 first-time contributors. To replace the 5 percent of its budget provided by the CPB, she says the station would need 7,000 more first-time donors. “That is a really tough, daunting task,” Mathes says.

Says Brian Theriault, senior vp radio for the CPB: “The real impact is probably going to be felt in minority stations that deliver programming to targeted audiences. They could go dark or lose almost everything that matters to them.”           

STATING THE CASE FOR FEDERAL FUNDING
“I just don’t understand why in the NPR case, anybody had to step down. What was the great crime about saying that it’s somebody’s opinion that the Tea Party is racist? That’s certainly not the first time we’ve heard that. Caught in an embarrassing moment of complete truthfulness is the way I would characterize it. I don’t listen to NPR all day long like some people, but what I hear is completely even-handed. The Republicans would like America to think of NPR as if it’s the exact same thing as Air America. We’ve become so accustomed to calling Fox News fair and balanced, that something that actually is fair and balanced seems to be far left. But NPR is really just in the business of getting information out. When I listen to Warren Olney [host of KCRW’s Which Way, L.A.?], he’s got somebody from either side if there’s an ideological debate. He’s just asking questions. I cannot detect any leftist point of view on that program. NPR also only gets a few percent of its funding from the federal government, but if that keeps it in places where it wouldn’t otherwise be, I think that’s money well spent, considering the trillions we spend on bullshit.”  -- Bill Maher

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