By Jenny Neyman
Critics of National Public Radio have been outspoken recently as the House of Representatives has voted to strip funding for the nonprofit organization. If such a measure were to go into effect, it could mean the silencing of popular programs for public radio listeners on the Kenai Peninsula — including “Morning Edition,” “All Things Considered,” “This American Life,” “A Prairie Home Companion,” “Car Talk” and “World Café.”
“It depends on how it all shakes down. If we get cut entirely, we will be losing a lot of programming. We might lose some staff,” said Dave Anderson, general manager for KBBI public radio in Homer and KDLL in Kenai.
The House has passed two bills on NPR funding. One would cut federal dollars for Corporation for Public Broadcasting community service grants, from which NPR and local public radio stations draw some funding. Another measure, passed Thursday, would restrict local stations from using CPB community service grants to pay NPR dues and purchase programming.
KBBI gets about $120,000 a year in CPB grants, and KDLL gets about $65,000, Anderson said. About 23 percent of that grant funding is required to be used to purchase programming. The rest is unrestricted and is used for general operating expenses, such as maintenance, equipment purchases and salaries — including a central peninsula news reporter position at KDLL.
If the amount of those grants is cut, Anderson said he isn’t yet sure how the stations would deal with the decrease in funding.
“That’s a very good question,” he said. “For KDLL, that news position is a very high priority, so before we lost any positions at KDLL we’ll cut programming and anything else in the budget that can go before we touch that.”
KDLL and KBBI get revenue from other sources, as well, including pledge drives to solicit donations from listeners. Last fiscal year KDLL took in about $50,000 in membership donations, and KBBI about $95,000, Anderson said. Businesses, individuals and organizations pay to underwrite programming, having their names mentioned on the air in return. Underwriting generated about $75,000 for KDLL last year, and about $70,000 for KBBI, Anderson said. KDLL gets some revenue from pull-tab gaming, although that’s been decreasing with a downturn in the economy, he said, and the stations occasionally get grants, such as from the Denali Commission and Rasmuson Foundation, for equipment purchases and infrastructure repairs and upgrades. They also get funding from the Alaska Public Broadcasting Commission.
If federal funding is reduced, Anderson said he doesn’t think local support could compensate.
“There’s no way we can increase our fundraising locally to make up that deficit. Stations in larger markets may be able to, but the real impact of cuts to the CPB budget will be in the rural stations,” he said. “We do amazingly well. Our communities are very supportive of public broadcasting and public radio, but when you’re talking about dollar amounts like that, it’s hard to pull that out of your local economy.”
There’s already a growing need of financial support among local nonprofit organizations. That’s likely to increase as governments — federal, state and local — look for ways to rein in spending in order to ward off deficits. Anderson said he wants KDLL and KBBI to support the work of other nonprofits, not further compete with them for local dollars.
“There are lots of other nonprofit organizations that need support. The pie is getting split up in smaller and smaller pieces as far as community financial support for nonprofits. We like to think that we help support the entire pie with the programming and the local information that we provide for nonprofit organizations,” Anderson said.
Public radio, public service
Providing information is a vital part of the mission of public radio, he said. That means airing announcements of community happenings as well as emergency information — such as advisories of storms, hazardous driving conditions, school closures, fires, floods, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
“You see that plume of smoke rising in the air and people wonder. They want to know, is there a threat to their life and property? Being in a position to provide that kind of information to our community is important,” Anderson said. “We feel we have a responsibility to be able to keep people informed about the status of those kinds of situations.”
To what extent the functions of KDLL and KBBI may be affected by proposed cuts to CPB grants would depend on how significant the cuts were. Such a measure is expected to face opposition in the Senate, and a possible veto from President Barack Obama. Even if local funding is spared, there is speculation that cuts to NPR funding may have a snowball effect to the entire public radio system.
“Other services that NPR provides might not be available, such as the satellite system used to deliver their programs. There are big questions marks about that, and Amber Alerts — are those kinds of services going to be a target also? NPR does more than just provide programs, it provides distribution networks for those programs,” Anderson said.
The bill passed in the House on Thursday wouldn’t cut funding from the CPB grant program, but it would restrict stations from using the funding to purchase programming, and not just from NPR. It would affect any purchased programming — such as from American Public Media, Public Radio International, the Alaska Public Radio Network, the British Broadcasting Corporation and individual stations producing shows. That includes news and news analysis shows, such as “Morning Edition,” “The World,” “BBC News,” “Marketplace” and “All Things Considered,” and entertainment shows, including “This American Life,” “Car Talk” and “World Café.”
“Pretty much you name it, we wouldn’t be able to use those funds for those,” Anderson said.
It may be possible for KDLL and KBBI to shift funding around to free up allocations from other sources to still purchase some programming. In that case, news programming would be the priority.
“Public radio news is held in a high esteem in most all quarters for being accurate and balanced and in depth. So you’re not just getting sound bites from an organization that might have corporate sponsors that are trying to bend the slant of a story one way or another. Public broadcasting makes a real effort to present all sides of an issue as fairly as possible,” Anderson said.
Yet in Congress, part of the debate about federal funding for NPR is about the quality of its reporting. The House NPR bills passed on largely party lines, with Republican NPR critics decrying taxpayer money going to support a news organization that they say has a liberal slant.
The NPR funding debates heated up following the release of an undercover video showing an NPR executive criticizing the tea party and saying that NPR didn’t need millions of dollars in public money. That executive and NPR’s CEO resigned in the ensuing fallout, though critics of the video charge that it was edited to misrepresent what the NPR executive was saying.
Anderson said that, despite the uproar over the video, NPR does produce quality news coverage. Doing so is an important service to the public, even though politicians may not always like it, he said.
“It goes to politics and finger-pointing and the fact that NPR and BBC don’t soft-pedal their news. If something is unpleasant, they will let you hear the unpleasant side about things, too. Or if there are issues going on that aren’t being covered and need to be, they’re not shy about covering those things. And in some quarters some people would rather not have their dirty laundry presented on the news,” Anderson said. “The perceived liberal bias of NPR is one of those catchphrases and assumptions that gains momentum, but when you ask for specifics I think a lot of people that are making those statements are hard-pressed to come up with much in the way of any basis for those.”
Marc Berezin, of Soldotna, said he is an avid “automobile listener” of public radio, and volunteers to help host KDLL’s spring and fall membership drives. He said he likes local programming, especially KDLL’s news reports from Ben Stanton, but didn’t think there was enough local content to fill the airtime that is now used for syndicated programming. Local music shows are enjoyable, as are syndicated entertainment shows, but he said the main reason he listens to KDLL is for state, national and international news.
“I like the news and talk shows because they’re so much more in depth than you can get in any other medium, other than print” (which isn’t as immediate as radio), he said. “Instead of a 60-second little blip to try and get in all the national and world news, you get an in-depth look at both sides of the issue. I don’t see a bias. To me, it seems pretty objective.”
Quality of what’s being funded with federal money is one issue, being spurred on by a larger look at quantity of funding, with the U.S. facing a $1.3 trillion debt and $14 trillion deficit. Anderson said that budget scrutiny is certainly warranted, at a federal level and among the recipients of federal dollars. He also said that budget cuts to public broadcasting aren’t a cost-effective way to reduce the federal budget.
“I think it’s always good for organizations and corporations, whether for-profit or nonprofit, to be looking at your expenses and how you’re using the money, especially for nonprofits that do rely a lot on community support to be very cognizant of how you’re using that money. I will say that KDLL and KBBI budget very conservatively and really try to make the money that we receive go as far as possible,” Anderson said. “There’s no doubt that we’ve got a huge problem with our federal budget and cuts do need to be made. (But) I think that the money that goes to support public broadcasting is really a drop in the bucket when you’re looking at the overall federal budget.”
Unbiased, not uncontrolled?
In order to achieve true accountability to local supporters, Bill Glynn, president of Kasilof Public Broadcasting and general manager of KWJG in Kasilof and KMJG in Homer, advocates that the federal government should cut support of public broadcasting. His two public, commercial-free radio stations exist entirely on local donations and underwriting, without seeking or accepting money from any governmental source. To him, that’s the way all public radio should be.
“I’d like to see the funding disappear. It would level the playing field and make those other guys run their radio stations the way they’re supposed to be run, and that is funded by the communities they serve. If the communities that they serve can’t or won’t support them, then our (Kasilof Public Radio’s board of directors) opinion has always been that those communities don’t deserve the stations,” Glynn said.
Federal and state funding comes with too many strings attached, Glynn said. For instance, the CPB grants stipulate that a certain percentage of the money be used to purchase syndicated, nonlocal programming.
“These radio stations that exist on the noncommercial end of the dial, unlike commercial stations which their audience is the advertising community, noncommercial is about serving the audience. And it just becomes very difficult to serve the audience when the government is telling you what to do,” he said.
Glynn said he doesn’t object to NPR programming or see it as biased. In his 36 years of involvement with public broadcasting in Alaska, he’s often dealt with NPR, including as a co-founder of public broadcasting in Kodiak, which became the first NPR outlet in the state.
“As far as them being excessively liberal, I disagree with that assessment. NPR covers all the same stories the commercial outlets cover, they just maybe cover them in a little more depth. The whole broadcast medium has shifted so far to the right that where NPR is now they’re perceived as being left, but really they’re what used to be the middle,” he said.
Rather, he takes issue with governmental funding carrying the stipulation that a public station be an NPR and Alaska Public Radio Network affiliate, and other dictates. The board of directors must be elected from the membership of station donors, for example, Glynn said.
“Our board of directors chose to remain independent of the state, simply because we don’t want the state telling us those things, like you must be an NPR outlet, you must be an (Alaska Public Radio Network) outlet,” Glynn said. “The other guys will scream loud and long that this isn’t the case, but when you accept those funds you can only accept them if you structured your nonprofit corporation in such a way that gives the state of Alaska the final say over a lot of things.”
Governmental funding of public broadcasting may not come with news directives —cover this or don’t cover that, for instance — but even requiring network affiliation is a form of interference with a medium that should be solely responsive and responsible to local supporters, Glynn said.
“It comes down to constitutional issues. The First Amendment is supposed to keep the government out of media,” he said. “The government has no more business in the broadcast business than they do in the newspaper business, and when they provide the funds they dictate policy and how you do things.”
Stay tuned …
Glynn, Anderson and radio listeners to any area of the dial will have to wait and see as the budget process continues through Congress. Rep. Don Young and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, have both been supportive of public broadcasting in the past, and Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, has made statements that he recognized the importance of public radio, especially in rural Alaska. Young missed the Thursday House vote, but submitted comments in opposition.
“There are 26 National Public Radio stations in Alaska and nearly half of them are critically dependent on federal funding. … They serve salmon runs, like KDLL in Kenai and KDLG in Dillingham. The even serve places that are seemingly at the end the world, like KHUB on St. Paul Island and KBRW in Barrow. In many cases, these radio stations are the only broadcast signal that many Alaskans get. To deny them access to basic news, early childhood education programming, and even emergency alerts, merely to serve a political agenda, is irresponsible,” Young wrote.
In the immediate future, Anderson’s focus is more on local funding than federal. KBBI’s one-day spring membership drive is coming up April 1, and KDLL’s spring membership drive is April 14 to 16.
“This is probably one of the most important spring drives for listeners to show their support for their stations, particularly financially. The money is crucial in maintaining operations, and the number of members is important in showing that level of community support,” Anderson said. “Most everyone I hear from is supportive of public broadcasting and are really kind of in shock that the situation (in Congress) would reach this point.”
Glynn said KWJG’s fund drive recently wrapped up, but that anyone wanting more information or to donate to the stations can visit the website (below).
“I don’t wish any ill will on those other stations,” Glynn said. “All the different stations serve their own audiences. They have an audience they’re serving and I would certainly hate to see that stop. But at the same time, we need to have a level playing field.”
For more information on a campaign for public broadcasting, visit http://www.170millionamericans.org.
For information on local public radio stations, visit