Public Radio: Don't Touch That Dial

As the Republican Congress threatens to eliminate government funding for public radio stations, station managers contemplate how these cuts would affect their communities and programming

The new Republican Congress has created quite an upheaval among supporters and employees of public radio and television. The new Congress has threatened to eliminate government money for both. The House Appropriations subcommittee began hearings Jan. 20 on whether to continue the federal subsidy for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. These hearings are expected to continue in the weeks, and possibly months, ahead.

Speaker Newt Gingrich last week appeared to temper his call for rapid defunding and apologized for the discomfort his remarks might have caused.

To find out how the proposed cuts would affect individual stations' programming and their communities, the Monitor contacted managers from five public stations around the country. Managers feared some of their programming would have to be cut, and that they would be forced to lay off personnel. Here are some excerpts from their opinions:

American Indian Radio on Satellite (AIROS)

Lincoln, Neb. Susan Braine, manager

IF federal funding is cut or eliminated, this will be the impact on American Indian Radio on Satellite (AIROS) and native owned/operated stations across the country:

AIROS, a satellite delivery system for native American programming to and by native American-owned public radio stations, for native American and nonnative audiences, is, at this point, entirely funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). Our business plan calls for self-sufficiency within the next few years, which we are diligently working toward. However, AIROS is a brand-new network and it will take some time to establish the service, form strong bonds with the 25 Indian stations, and bu ild a good reputation with nonfederal funders.

Recognizing that the majority of these Indian stations are located in very isolated, rural areas and are oftentimes the sole form of communication, CPB has over the years invested millions of dollars in native radio stations and projects (like AIROS) that are designed to strengthen those stations. At a time when the AIROS infrastructure is starting to jell and most of the native stations are finally finding the start of a financial footing, AIROS would disappear. And so would a number of reservation-bas ed stations if CPB funding is eliminated or even reduced.

If CPB is eliminated, I hope that our congressmen and senators are thinking of ways to preserve these vital communication services. Commercial radio can't survive in many of these unserved and underserved areas because of the pitiful tribal economies. These stations are the only viable alternative on most Indian reservations that are fortunate enough to have a public radio station. Indians deserve to have access to basic information, a commodity that mainstream America takes for granted! I don't think i t's fair that all public stations are lumped together as ''sandboxes for liberal thinkers,'' to paraphrase Speaker Newt Gingrich. These native stations literally save lives!


Los Angeles Will Lewis, management consultant

SHOULD Congress ''zero out'' the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, KCRW is faced with replacing 17 percent of its cash budget of $631,625.

There are no immediate prospects for dramatic increases in the three income categories: membership, foundation grants, and underwriting. All categories are expected to rise a mere 4 percent -- just enough to keep up with inflation.

So where will the cuts be made? Almost all network programs outside of the core National Public Radio (NPR) newsmagazines would most likely be cut. These include Marketplace and Monitor News Mid-Day. The number of new productions of radio drama will shrink. KCRW could no longer distribute free, by satellite, programs to other stations. Our coproduction of the Capitol Steps comedy specials would end.

The station will be forced to lay off talented freelance journalists like Kitty Felde, who has won two American Bar Silver Gavels for her reporting.

We might be forced to shut down some of our smaller repeater stations in rural areas.


Berkeley, Calif. Marci Lockwood, general manager

KPFA/Pacifica operates on a yearly budget of $2.1 million. Pacifica owns five national stations, and there are 55 affiliate stations that take Pacifica national programming. KPFA went on the air in 1949 as the first listener-sponsored radio station.

We are open to different points of view. Within our mission, we do allow people to act as guests on our program, make their opinions and voices heard. We have gotten into trouble with the powers in Washington. But what we do on the air isn't any different from the views of America right now.

The phone calls I have been receiving have been overwhelmingly supportive of public broadcasting. Our listeners tend to be on the activist side, so it's been positive.

This year, we received $263,000 from a basic grant in the category of Community Service Grants, which is about 12 percent of our operating budget. If we were to lose this grant, we would have severe cuts in staffing. We would have to rely on volunteers.

Our biggest loss would be our training program. We operate a 12-month training program that teaches radio and production skills to women and people of color. We've been operating this program for over 10 years. Graduates from this program go on to other public media outlets as producers or broadcasters.

With this program, we are providing an audience a diverse picture of the world. Because KPFA produces its own local program (not NPR-affiliated), to lose this program would be a major setback.


Durango, Colo. Tami Graham, general manager

KDUR, a small rural station, has been in operation since 1975 and its yearly budget is approximately $75,000. In the Durango area there are two public radio stations. The other one is more mainstream, with NPR and Public Radio International (PRI) programming. As the only alternative, we serve a significant niche. We do not receive any CPB funding right now, but have applied for one small grant. We are ''interconnected'' with the public radio satellite system, which enables us to pull down programming, s ome of which is free. So if those programs lose CPB funding, we would be affected indirectly, since they would probably no longer be free to us.

But one option that they [Congress] are considering is to distribute a larger portion of the money to smaller stations and rural areas, which would really help. Right now it's skewed toward big, urban stations.

WCFE-FM -- Mountain Lake Public Broadcasting

Plattsburgh, N.Y. Bruce Longstreet, director of radio

WE are a station in a rural market with a small signal. We've just turned four years old, and are in an area that is blessed with four other public radio stations, all of which have strong signals and established reputations. Thus, even without a cutback of federal funds, we struggle daily for our survival. We are proud of our commitment to news and public affairs, although mounting a local news operation is expensive and labor-intensive. Our news director just left us, and we are holding that position open until the future of our funding is more clear.

If we are severely rocked by CPB decisions, the next area we cut would most likely be network programs. Our news sources, including Monitor Radio, are, alas, the most vulnerable. We prefer the international scope, the acute reporting and the overall sound of Monitor Radio to our other options, but we have at least two evening newscasts available to us that would not cost anything at all.

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