President Donald Trump’s proposal to gut funding for public broadcasting in his new budget released Thursday would mostly harm residents of small rural towns, many of who are Republican voters, according to public TV and radio executives.
The 2018 budget plan from the White House would eliminate all federal subsidies for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which was allotted $445 million to fund local National Public Radio (NPR) and Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) stations and productions in the 2017 federal budget. Funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services -- which totaled more than $500 million in the 2017 budget -- would also be eliminated.
While some of the larger stations would see a smaller reduction in their budgets -- between 2 percent and 7 percent -- some smaller stations in rural areas depend on the funding for up to 30 percent of their operating costs, station managers say. And many of those stations are often one of the few sources for news and information in their locations.
“At smaller radio stations, there is no question the cuts would be more significant, for stations in rural areas particularly where there are strong constituents for Donald Trump, one of the ironies,” said Bill Davis, president of Southern California Public Radio, which operates several stations led by KPCC in Pasadena. “It would be a significant hit at every level of decentralized public media we have here. You are going to have different impacts, but they are all pretty significant.”
For his stations, it would mean a $1.2 million to $1.4 million annual reduction. “That would be a cut of about 12 employees,” he said. “It’s a real hit. Even at the largest station level, this will have potential significant consequences.”
William J. Marrazzo, CEO of Philadelphia's WHYY-TV and WHYY-FM, agreed.
“The lion’s share of the money does find its way into local station hands and the term is Community Service Grants,” he said. “The CPB makes definite grants to local public television and local public radio stations.”
He said about 7 percent of his budget comes from the federal government, around $2.5 million per year. But smaller stations need it even more.
“It puts more of the money into communities that don’t have that local infrastructure to build out that universal access model,” Marrazzo said. “It hurts. It’s a very tiny percentage of the federal appropriation and any cut of any size is coming at a time when there is growing evidence that the American public wants more and more from its local public media companies. It is clear by all the research that we conduct that public media has the most trusted form of news and information, that public media has the easiest portal to giving people access to creative expression.”
Public broadcasting veterans and local executives stressed that the biggest impact of such cuts will be on the most needy citizens, those with few free broadcasting options.
“Public stations provide truthful journalism, cultural, educational content throughout the country and today, 170 million people from urban and rural areas alike enjoy and learn from their local public stations that provide content that commercial broadcasting cannot produce,” Anthony Brandon, president and general manager of WYPR Public Radio in Baltimore, said via email. “De-funding public media is foolish and hurts local stations in red and blue states. We hope Congress will think of the origins of the CPB while the funding debate goes on.”
Jeffrey Dvorkin, a former vice president of news and information at NPR and former NPR ombudsman, called the cuts “very disturbing.”
“In the past, public broadcasting has had very strong support in Republican districts. They are listening and it is reasonably balanced,” he said. “In my time at NPR I heard from a lot of conservatives who did not always agree, but they liked the programming. In some important ways public broadcasting is infrastructure, it is important.”
He said CPB pays for up to 30 percent of operational budgets for many stations in smaller areas with smaller populations.
“Small-town America in the middle of the country, in Alaska, where there’s a large population of people who depend on broadcasters for an informational lifeline,” Dvorkin said. “The whole concept of what is in the public interest has been hijacked by conservative think tanks and thinking.”
Asked what will happen if the funding is cut so dramatically, Dvorkin said, “It will be a monopoly situation for talk radio because as some of these stations are finding out now they cannot exist. As these stations are driven close to bankruptcy, their license will be picked up by talk radio and commercial TV.”
Alicia Shepard, a former NPR ombudsman, called this funding threat among “the most serious” in NPR and PBS history.
“This is not the first time, they are threatened. But it is the most serious,” she said via email. “It would be a big mistake to eliminate funding for NPR and PBS. The amount that goes to fair, balanced and thoughtful reporting is minuscule in comparison to the defense budget.” She also noted, “let's not forget that PBS and NPR act as the government's emergency broadcasting network. And in rural areas, PBS and NPR might be all people have access to.”
Leaders of the CPB and PBS each issued strong criticisms of the budget plan today.
“PBS and our nearly 350 member stations, along with our viewers, continue to remind Congress of our strong support among Republican and Democratic voters, in rural and urban areas across every region of the country,” PBS President and CEO Paula Kerger said in her statement. “We have always had support from both parties in Congress, and will again make clear what the public receives in return for federal funding for public broadcasting. The cost of public broadcasting is small, only $1.35 per citizen per year, and the benefits are tangible: increasing school readiness for kids 2-8, support for teachers and homeschoolers, lifelong learning, public safety communications and civil discourse.”
She also cited two new national surveys -- by conservative-leaning Rasmussen Reports and from a collaboration of Republican polling firm American Viewpoint and Democratic polling firm Hart Research Associates -- that revealed voters “across the political spectrum overwhelmingly oppose eliminating federal funding for public television. Rasmussen shows that just 21% of Americans – and only 32% of Republicans –favor ending public broadcasting support. In the PBS Hart Research-American Viewpoint poll, 83% of voters – including 70% of those who voted for President Trump – say they want Congress to find savings elsewhere.”
Patricia Harrison, president and CEO of the CPB, stated:
There is no viable substitute for federal funding that ensures Americans have universal access to public media’s educational and informational programming and services. The elimination of federal funding to CPB would initially devastate and ultimately destroy public media’s role in early childhood education, public safety, connecting citizens to our history, and promoting civil discussions for Americans in rural and urban communities alike.
Public media is one of America’s best investments. At approximately $1.35 per citizen per year, it pays huge dividends to every American. From expanding opportunity, beginning with proven children’s educational content to providing essential news and information as well as ensuring public safety and homeland security through emergency alerts, this vital investment strengthens our communities. It is especially critical for those living in small towns and in rural and underserved areas.
Viewers and listeners appreciate that public media is non-commercial and available for free to all Americans. We will work with the new Administration and Congress in raising awareness that elimination of federal funding to CPB begins the collapse of the public media system itself and the end of this essential national service.
Bill Moyers, the award-winning PBS host and news legend, also spoke out against the proposed cuts. He told Media Matters that a decades-long crusade by some conservatives to eliminate public broadcasting may succeed “now that they control the White House, the House, and the Senate,” while also offering a measure of hope, predicting that “it won’t be the end of us. There’s strong support across the country for public television –- especially children’s and cultural programming –- and even stronger appreciation for NPR’s news and public affairs programming.”
Moyers added that the proposed cuts would mean “many of the smallest stations around the country will struggle and likely perish and the people who supported Trump outside the large metropolitan areas will lose a cultural presence in their lives that they value.” He concluded, “Still, I can’t believe the public at large wants to see public television or public radio disappear and will rally to support both public television and radio in new ways.”