“In coming weeks, public media in this country could quietly cease to exist as we know it.” That’s the view of my colleague Bill Kling, founder of Minnesota Public Radio. And I agree.
Public television and radio have received a modest amount of federal funding since 1968, but today the Corporation for Public Broadcasting—and stations such as WITF—are facing the biggest threat ever. These funds help pay for the programs you love, including the PBS Newshour, Antiques Roadshow and local favorites such as TV Smart Talk and Radio Smart Talk.
There have been defunding fights before—in 1980, 1995 and 2005, among others. The 1980 fight (which slashed funding by 25%) triggered layoffs and service cuts at WITF. The 1995 and 2005 defunding failed, but required significant, months-long efforts by staff, board and donors. But the challenge now posed in Congress is much more dangerous than anything we have seen before.
Many stations in the country are in a weak financial position because of the Great Recession. While WITF’s balance sheet is strong, we and our Pennsylvania public station colleagues are still dealing with the sudden and total termination of state support ($917,000 per year for WITF). Our staff complement now stands at 86, down from 100 before the recession and rescession. Programs and services have been preserved so far, but only because our staff members are working several jobs and have endured salary cuts.
If federal funding ($1.3 million per year) is severely cut or eliminated, WITF would not be able to absorb the blow without double-digit staff layoffs and dramatic cuts in programs and services. Programs—especially ones produced here, about our region--would disappear from WITF-TV and FM. In other states, some smaller stations in rural areas would cease to exist. National programs are also at risk because stations wouldn’t be able to pay PBS and NPR’s program fees. And the system that links the public stations and the nation together—including PBS’s programs and NPR’s news services—would be damaged or destroyed.
The Juan Williams affair at NPR has given opponents of public funding a rallying point. Add to that concern about the federal deficit and you have a perfect storm of negative trends for public broadcasting. Republican leaders in Congress are proposing draconian cuts, and the Obama administration's own bipartisan deficit-reduction commission has proposed to eliminate CPB’s funding.
The worst case legislative scenario may be upon us, as a vote on defunding CPB could be packaged in a wide-ranging budget-cutting bill that would be hard for our defenders to oppose. The upcoming expiration of the continuing resolution funding the current federal budget is a likelym trigger for such legislation. The debate may occur the week of February 14th.
Here's the reality: public television and radio were designed based on a social and financial compact with states and the federal government. Public stations would provide commercial-free, high quality programs that respect the intelligence of adults and nurture the curiosity of children. In return, the federal government would provide a modest level of support (about $1.35 per citizen today) to make up for the commercial revenue that our stations do not seek. That compact is at risk, and so is a locally based, national system of civil discourse--at a time when citizens need fact-based journalism more than ever to understand the decisions we face.
Speaking recently about the funding cuts proposed to libraries in the U.K., author Philip Pullman said “there are things above profit, things that profit knows nothing about ... things that stand for civic decency and public respect for imagination and knowledge and the value of simple delight.”
I submit to you that WITF and our public television and radio colleagues also stand for “civic decency and public respect for imagination and knowledge and the value of simple delight” and are worthy of the small amount of funding we receive.
Because you are one of the 170 million Americans who use public media every month — I ask you to speak up and tell your legislators that public media deserves federal support and must be permitted to serve its vital public service mission.
You can sign up for alerts at 170MillionAmericans.org. Sometime in the next several weeks, you’ll be called up to take action. I respectfully ask for your help.
President and CEO, WITF
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