Public broadcasting at crossroads; Who will pay Kermit the Frog?

Julia Child, Alistair Cooke, and Kermit the Frog are breathing a bit easier these days. They -- and the other popular figures in public broadcasting -- have been given a temporary reprieve from the sharp budgetary cutbacks proposed by the Reagan administration.

But in upholding the unique "advance funding" concept which keeps federal support steady through 1983, Congress also is headed in the direction of significant changes for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) in the years beyond. The question for hundreds of public radio and television stations -- and their millions of supporters -- is: Can public broadcasting adapt in the interim?

As part of his original belt-tightening plan, President Reagan wanted to cut CPB's 1982 budget by 25 percent (to $129 million), then keep knocking it downward to $100 million in 1985. This could have meant immediate and severe changes for public broadcasters, particularly the many smaller stations that rely heavily on federal grants for daily operations and program production.

In 1975, President Ford won legislation granting three-year funding for CPB. It was a move designed to meet the need for long-range planning and (perhaps more significantly) insulate public broadcasting from attempted political influence. The Republican-controlled Senate Budget Committee recently cited this as the reason for not rescinding CPB money for 1982 and 1983, as Mr. Reagan had wanted.

Beyond 1983, the picture is less clear. Sen. Barry Goldwater (R) of Arizona and Rep. James M. Collins (R) of Texas have introduced legislation that would retain advanced funding, but cut the CPB budget to Reagan levels in 1984 and beyond.

The bills also would limit individual community service grants to $1 million annually, well below what bigger cities now are getting ($4.7 million in New York, $2.5 million in Boston, for example), and require that more of the federal money go to "needier" smaller stations. Under these measures, CPB authority would be reduced substantially and its board of directors whittled from 15 to seven.

To make up for funding reductions, the Goldwater-Collins bills would allow public broadcasting stations greater freedom to engage in profitmaking activities (leasing equipment and facilities, for example) and sell commercial advertising. This latter point would require approval by the Federal Communications Commission.

Reaction from public broadcasting executives to all of this is cautious and mixed. They are relieved that Congress apparently will uphold their advanced funding, but less sure about the future. Public radio stations are especially worried.

National Public Radio (NPR) president Frank Mankiewicz points out that 70 percent of CPB-funded radio stations are tied to institutions (universities or municipalities, for example), many of which are themselves facing financial difficulties. Mr. Mankiewicz also notes that such radio stations also rely on grants from the national arts and humanities endowments, both of which are slated for 50 percent budget cutbacks by the Reagan White House.

On a hallway wall at the headquarters of National Public Radio in Washington, someone has taped a handwritten note: "Courage is important!! Verym important."

Alvin Bolt, general manager of NPR member station WPLM-FM in Nashville, remembers that "the whole attitude changed" among local private donors when the station began receiving federal support. He's afraid that "the psychology of the Reagan cuts" will influence potential supporters (especially corporations) to pull back as well.

If that's the case, Mr. Bolt says, public affairs programs in Nashville -- "one of the most popular things we do" -- will have to be reduced.

Television -- with greater access to major local donors, advertising possibilities, and services to sell to commercial broadcasters --"Reaganomics."

Millionaire philanthropist Walter Annenberg recently donated $150 million to CPB to produce college-level television courses. This is the kind of thing President Reagan would like to see more of, but CPB spokesman Tom Otwell worries that "there just aren't that many Annenbergs out there willing to part with $150 million."

"Obviously, we're not going to sit on our hands and wait until the ax falls," says William Pearce, general manager of WXXI (public radio and television) in Rochester, N.Y. The organization is exploring new fund-raising projects, such as "galas" held with local department stores.

Underwriting of local programming by area businesses has risen from $30,000 three years ago to more than $200,000 in Rochester, a trend that is found elsewhere as well and one that Mr. Pearce expects to continue.

The number of public television viewers in the United States increased by nearly half in the past six years, and public radio listeners have nearly doubled. Individual contributions to public television and radio have increased tenfold over the past decade.

"Are there enough people out there to support us?" asks WXXI's Mr. Pearce. "We're obviously going to face that test in coming months, but all the signs are that there are."

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