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In NPR scandal, small radio stations stand to be biggest losers

If Congress pares back funding for NPR, small stations will be hit the hardest, so many are already looking for ways to survive if the worst happens.

By Staff writer / March 10, 2011

National Public Radio's (NPR) Washington headquarters is shown in this July 9, 2010 file photo.

Gingold Nicholas/SIPA/Newscom

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In the hidden-camera video that shows him calling tea partyers "racist" and most of America "uneducated," former NPR executive Ron Schiller also makes a statement that is not remotely controversial: If NPR loses it federal funding, many of its smaller stations will "go dark."

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In a scandal that is, for the most part, political theater, small public radio stations clearly have the most to lose. As Mr. Schiller said, NPR as a whole will survive – and likely thrive – even if Congress cuts off the federal spigot. But it risks losing scores of small stations nationwide that depend on that money for as much as 30 percent of their budgets.

Now, with that threat looming, many of these small radios stations are asking how they might save themselves if the worst happens – and, in some cases, they are looking at their big-city brothers for inspiration. To some, larger public-radio stations offer lessons in efficiency and ingenuity that can be adopted by stations of any size. To others, their huge and diverse donor bases can't be duplicated.

But the search for solutions is intensifying as NPR's federal backing appears to be facing its greatest challenge in a generation.

Lessons from Chico

For Brian Terhorst, general manager of Northstate Public Radio in Chico, Calif., “everything is scaleable.” This NPR affiliate in northern California services an area the size of Ohio with a population the size of Cleveland alone (about 470,000). That amounts to 23 people per square mile. (The entire state of Ohio, by comparison, has a population density of 256 people per square mile.)

But Mr. Terhorst, who arrived in Chico four years ago from a larger market, says there are many tactics that can be adapted from large-market radio stations, which typically get less than 10 percent of their budget from the federal money. For example, they pursue corporate partnerships, build their endowments, and pursue estate bequests.

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