Public radio signals for help to keep Congress from pulling the plug

For Bob Edwards, timing is everything. As host of public radio's "Morning Edition" news show, he juggles the minutes from the moment he rolls out of bed at 1:45 a.m. until he hits the airwaves at 6 .

In the office by 3 a.m., he writes, tapes introductions, and researches through the wee hours.

But just as his show is attracting more listeners than ever before -- about 500,000 on an average morning -- its time may be running out.

National Public Radio (NPR), producer of "Morning Edition" as well as the popular "All Things Considered" program in the afternoon, is looking over its shoulder at proposed federal budget cuts that would dig deeply into its funding and possibly eliminate these and other programs on public radio.

At the same time, a battle over the advance-funding mechanism, which many say is the network's only protection against political interference, is being fought on Capitol Hill.

"I think it's unfortunate," says NPR president Frank Mankiewicz, "that just as the investment Congress has made over the last 10 years is bearing fruit, OMB [the Office of Management and Budget] is coming along with an ill-informed and ill-advised analysis of public broadcasting which threatens to cut our funding in such a disorderly fashion."

The budget proposal suggests deep cuts in funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the umbrella organization that funnels money to public radio and television.Mr. Mankiewicz says public radio can tighten its belt along with everyone else, if need be, but he objects to OMB's methods.

"The OMB would like to cut the budget wherever they can," says Mankiewicz. "But they don't understand this case."

The confusion, he says, is over already approved funds for 1982 and 1983 which Reagan budget-cutters want to pare down. To do this, Congress would have to rescind the earlier appropriations. Opponents of the move say that by setting up appropriations two years in advance, public broadcasting is "insulated" from a fluctuating political climate.

"If recision goes through in the way OMB has proposed it," says Mankiewicz, "it would destroy NPR -- we'd have to close up."

The recision would cut Corporation for Public Broadcasting funds for 1982 and 1983 from $172 million for both years to $129 million and $120 million, respectively. In 1984, funding would drop to $110 million, then to $100 million in 1985 and 1986.

Mankiewicz points out that the OMB-Suggested cuts are aimed at national programming, while leaving direct support to local stations mostly intact. This is fine for television, says Mankiewicz, because much of it is proudced by local stations and then nationally distributed.

NPR, on the other hand, produces the bulk of public radio's national programming from their studios in Washington. Federal support for this programming amounted to about $14.5 million this year, an amount Mankiewicz likes to compare with what the Army spends on marching bands.

Public radio stations around the country, to varying degrees, count on the NPR-produced shows for about 25 percent of their programming. Many of the 243 public stations say that shows like "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition" are their prime audience-getters.

"If worse comes to worse, and I lose that program [All Things Considered]," says Carl Matthusen, station manager at KMCR-FM in Phoenix, "I have no possibility of producing something comparable on a local level, and I lose that as a draw for listeners and the money from those listeners."

But many observers say recision is losing the fight in the halls of Congress. The Senate Budget Committee voted unanimously against recision in March. But the issue must still be considered in the House and Senate Appropriations committees.

"I think the recision will ultimately be turned back, and we'll proceed in an orderly way," Mankiewicz says. "There will be cuts in 1984, but those we can live with."

Creative funding approaches, such as leasing excess satellite space to commercial networks and increased use of corporate underwriting, are some of the ways NPR hopes to pull in the slack before 1984. Mankiewicz also believes an enlightened Congress will see the need for "more sophisticated funding mechanisms" that distinguish between television and radio.

Three public broadcasting bills have been introudced in Congress so far. A bill introduced by Sen. Barry Goldwater (R) of Arizona would cut funds for public broadcasting by about 50 percent and change the way the Corporation for Public Broadcasting distributes money to individual stations.

In the House, Reps. Timothy E. Wirth (D) of Colorado and James M. Collins (R) of Texas are both sponsoring bills, although no hearings are set on the Collins proposal.

The Wirth and Goldwater bills both protect the concept of insulating public broadcasting from political pressures. Congressman Wirth told the Monitor he believes the budget planners overlooked the importance of advanced-year funding in their budget proposal.

However, the long-term problem is how to maintain funding for public broadcasting, says Wirth. The congressman points to several moneymaking activities he believes do not violate the principles of the public radio network , such as allowing commercial networks to lease public-owned facilities. But the key, he says, is better community support.

In the meantime, local stations are jacking up their fund-raising activities, hoping to enlist as much listener support as possible before the federal spigot is turned down.

Most public radio stations are reporting their best fund-raising efforts ever , says Nathan Shaw, station development manager for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. "Many attribute this to the talk of the coming cuts in federal funds."

More significantly, though Mr. Shaw says that public radio is winning the hearts and donations of its listeners in less time than in the past. The bumper crop of pledges is not the result of drawn out fund-raising drives.

"We just had our most successful fund-raiser in the history of this station," says William Siemering, station manager of WUHY-FM in Philadephia. "And we talked very candidly on the air that down the road there wasn't going to be much money."

The Philadephia station's eight-day drive received pledges amounting to more than $87,000. This compared with an 11-day fund-raiser in 1977 that netted $41, 000.

Some other successes include:

* WAMU-FM in Washington, D.C., where more than $120,000 was pledged during a five-day drive. The station had planned to stop at the $100,000 mark, but changed its mind because of the uncertainty over federal funds.

* KUSC-FM in Los Angeles, where a seven-day effort brought $210,000 in pledges --

* WKAR-FM in East Lansing, Mich., where a nine-day drive earned the station more than $75,000 in pledges. The station's goal had been $60,000.

Station officials say the public is aware of the money pinch, even when their fund-raising efforts soft-pedal the funding situation.

"We got calls from people who said, "I support the President's cuts, so I'm putting my money where my ears are,'" says Ann Stonehill, director of development at WAMU-FM in Washington -- a station that held to a low-key appeal.

Meanwhile, stations also are stepping up fund-raising efforts aimed at foundations, corporations, and the business community. "But I'm sure there's going to be a long line at their door, not just for the arts, but also such things as legal aid," says WUHY's Mr. Siemering.

Corporations already pick up the tab for some nationally distributed programs , such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which is broadcast in 190 communities around the US.

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