News: Saving Public Media

A victory -- for now -- against funding cuts

Roni Moermond

A distrust of journalism — rather than concern about the federal deficit — appears to be the real motivation behind budget cuts for public broadcasting proposed by Congressional Republicans, according to Susan Howarth, CEO of CET.

Thanks to an outcry by listeners and viewers, Congress has dropped plans to slash federal funding for public broadcasting. But that doesn't mean the struggle is over.

In June the House Appropriations Committee proposed $100 million in cuts for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). The Senate Appropriations Committee voted July 14 to keep funding for the CPB at current levels.

The cuts would have affected local stations more than national organizations such as National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), because they would have significantly decreased Community Service Grants awarded to stations such as CET (Channel 48), WNKU (89.7 FM) and WGUC (90.9 FM), according to Susan Howarth, CEO of CET.

"People tend to think of us as Masterpiece Theatre or The News Hour or Sesame Street, but they don't think about that's only half of what we do," Howarth says. "The other half is not only local television programs but educational services. We have a whole corps of teachers that provide training in the classrooms. We have a connection to every school in the area. We do teacher training, we do workshops, we do arts integration workshops, we do educational multi-media kits in partnership with the Art Museum or the Freedom Center, and all of those things would go away if we weren't here as a local institution."

Political interference
CET, with an annual budget of $7 million, receives $1 million in community service grants. WNKU receives $90,000, which is 10 percent of its annual budget. WGUC included grant funds in its budget when it was approved for a $15 million loan to purchase WVXU and the X-Star Radio Network.

Richard Eiswerth, president and general manager of WGUC, credits the public with stopping the funding cuts.

"That's where the genesis of our support comes from," he says. "It is local listeners, local viewers, local representatives and senators saying, 'In Ohio, public broadcasting is important. Regardless of whatever problems there are on a national basis, I want to preserve that.' The vast majority of the funds that were proposed cut from CBP would have had a direct impact on stations across the country, much more so than NPR or PBS."

U.S. Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), chair of the House subcommittee that proposed the funding cuts, defended them as necessary to reduce the federal budget deficit. But given some of the projects Congress has approved, that argument doesn't hold, Eiswerth says.

"It's interesting to note that the same budget that eliminated $190 million for public broadcasting had funds for two bridges in Alaska that each cost $200 million, one of which connected the mainland with an island that only had 50 people on it," he says. "I mean, so the federal government could buy each of these people a $1 million yacht and save $150 million. It just doesn't make sense monetarily."

If the cuts don't make sense monetarily, they start to make sense when you consider the politicking at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. CPB is supposed to protect publicly funded journalism from government interference. But its newly appointed president, Patricia Harrison, is the former co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee. The chair of CPB, Kenneth Tomlinson, secretly commissioned polls looking for liberal bias within the organization.

"My take on it is that the people in power generally don't like the media at all," Howarth says. "It's not just public broadcasting. They generally have a problem with journalists or anyone who might question those who are in power. It just so happens that since we're the only media who gets government funds, they actually use that as a way to get to us when they can't necessarily get to the rest of the media."

Eiswerth says the threat of budget cuts and Tomlinson's suggestion that public broadcasting lacks balance won't influence journalism as it's practiced by public radio stations.

"I'm happy to say of the people I know locally that we have on staff and that we're bringing on staff, in terms of news staff, have very strong credentials and very high ethics," Eiswerth says. "I know on NPR they do. I have great faith in those people that they will not flinch, and we may go down with the ship but we'll go down holding our head up high."

It's not over yet
This summer's close call doesn't mean funding for public broadcasting is sufficient for the future. The Public Telecommunications Facilities Program, which provides funding for equipment and capital purchases, remains almost entirely unfunded.

WGUC and CET each have grants pending for replacement cameras and a generator. WNKU also needs equipment.

"A lot of the equipment here hasn't been upgraded in 20 years, since we went on the air," says Ben Singleton, general manager of WNKU. "So in the next two years we're going to have to do a lot of upgrading, and those grants will be very important to us. Public radio stations have to have a plan where we replace this equipment, then next year we replace this equipment, because budgets are very tight. If you miss a year and don't replace this, that means when it does go bad, you may have to replace two things at once and then you're just really in the hole."

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted July 14 to restore $100 million of funding to CPB and provide advance funding for 2008. The committee allocated $35 million for the conversion of public broadcasting to digital — $10 million less than was requested — and $40 million for systems that connect stations to NPR and PBS.

The Senate proposed $73.2 million in cuts to total federal funding for public broadcasting. The sum of all program cuts in the House amounts to $146.2 million. Sometime this fall members of a House and Senate conference committee will try to reach a compromise on the funding. Vigilance by supporters of public broadcasting remains important.

"The neat thing about public radio audience, public television audience is that they're really proactive," Singleton says. "They're usually involved in politics. They know the right buttons to push. Lots and lots of calls to congressmen really helped to restore the funding." ©