Defunding Public Media: Disaster Or Opportunity? Supporters of public broadcasting say zeroing out federal funding would mean lights out for hundreds of local radio and TV stations. But critics say it would give stations a chance to reinvent themselves.
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Defunding Public Media: Disaster Or Opportunity?

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Defunding Public Media: Disaster Or Opportunity?


NPR recently found itself in the headlines after its chief fundraising executive was caught on tape making controversial remarks. The incident has fanned the debate over federal funding for the public broadcasting system.

This year Congress gave $430 million to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Roughly three-quarters went to public TV stations and a quarter or so to public radio stations.

With Republicans again calling for CPB funding to be cut, NPR's Jim Zarroli looks at how that money is spent and what might happen if it's eliminated.

JIM ZARROLI: Over the years, conservatives have often tried to eliminate money for public broadcasting without succeeding. In 1995, for instance, congressional Republicans tried to zero out CPB funds. Within a few years, CPB's budget was bigger than ever.

Still, Pat Butler of the Public Media Association, which lobbies for PBS and public radio, says the odds against public broadcasting are greater this time.

Mr. PAT BUTLER (President, Public Media Association; CEO, Association of Public Television Stations): There is a $1.6 trillion federal budget deficit that there wasn't in 1995. There is a much larger and more diverse media universe than there was in 1995.

ZARROLI: With the proliferation of new media outlets in television and online, it's tougher for public broadcasting to argue that it's indispensable. In this climate, the effort to defund public broadcasting is gaining steam, and Butler says people need to understand what's at stake if CPB is cut.

Mr. BUTLER: The first thing that would happen is that hundreds of local public television and radio stations would go dark almost immediately. And many of the 21,000 jobs that are represented in public broadcasting around the country would just disappear.

ZARROLI: The stations most at risk are small rural outlets like KPBT in Midland-Odessa, Texas. Daphne Dowdy Jackson is its general manager.

Ms. DAPHNE DOWDY JACKSON (General Manager, KPBT): We're in far West Texas. We vote primarily Republican. This is the home of George and Laura Bush. As a matter of fact, Laura Bush was a founding member of our public television station back in the mid-1980s.

ZARROLI: With just seven employees and no studio of its own, KPBT still produces local programs, like a high school quiz show.

(Soundbite from quiz show)

Unidentified Woman: What are the names of The Jonas Brothers?

(Soundbite of buzzer)

Unidentified Woman: Andrew?

ANDREW: Nick, Kevin, Joe.

ZARROLI: KPBT gets more than half its budget from CPB. And Jackson says without federal money, there simply aren't enough local donors to keep the station going.

Ms. JACKSON: I hate to say it, but it would probably spell the end or certainly serious hurt for my station and for many, many small stations across the country.

ZARROLI: Even stations that survive, Butler says, would suffer without federal money.

Emmy Award-winning TV producer David Grubin says CPB funds act as seed money to make documentaries.

Mr. DAVID GRUBIN (TV Producer): It gives me the credibility when I go out to a foundation or a corporation to say that we're going to be able to get some money from PBS, even though it may not be a lot.

ZARROLI: If smaller stations die off, Butler says, the impact would ripple through the system. PBS and public radio networks make money selling programs to local stations.

Mr. BUTLER: Even very large stations, successful programming stations, depend for a great amount of their overall budgets on the programming fees that they receive from smaller stations. And if the smaller stations can't pay the programming fees, then even the larger stations are going to have to retrench considerably.

ZARROLI: Critics scoff at the notion that public broadcasting would collapse without federal support. PBS and public radio, they say, have a loyal, affluent audience that will come to its rescue if funding is cut. Others point out that the media landscape has changed. The Internet gives audiences multiple ways to access national programs like MORNING EDITION.

Florida Congressman Rich Nugent said on the House floor earlier this month that losing federal funds would force stations to reinvent themselves by becoming more community-oriented.

Representative RICH NUGENT (Republican, Florida): Local stations can create their own programs. They can reorganize their financing so grant money they might use for membership and programming fees can go elsewhere, and can do private fundraising they need for the dues and programming from NPR.

ZARROLI: Even some public broadcasting fans say weaning the system off federal money would reap benefits. Jesse Walker of the libertarian magazine Reason says stations pay a price when they take federal money. For one thing, there's the perennial threat of government interference.

Mr. JESSE WALKER (Managing Editor, Reason): I don't think that's good for freedom of speech. And I don't think it's good for broadcasters who want to do their best, and I don't think it serves audiences well.

ZARROLI: Walker says public broadcasting needs to devise a new funding mechanism that will protect its independence, such as a private trust supported by an endowment. It's an idea that gets talked about during each funding crisis.

TV producer David Grubin says the real question facing public broadcasting is this...

Mr. GRUBIN: How do we produce the best quality programs? And this is an opportunity, I think. We should look at this budget crisis as an opportunity to look at the public television system and to see how to use the money most wisely that we have, rather than to just think of it as, well, who should pay?

ZARROLI: PBS and public radio stations have long been governed by a web of federal regulations. They are barred from running the kinds of advertisements that commercial networks routinely air, for instance. Changing these regulations in any meaningful way won't happen overnight. Still, many people believe public broadcasting would be better off in the long run if it found a new way to support itself and did so in a way that stays true to its mission.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News.

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