Why Budget Cuts For Public TV Roil Some Voters

In Washington, it's Big Bird vs. Big Newt; but in Alaska, it's life-saving weather reports

EACH weeknight at 5:30, a National Weather Service meteorologist stands before a camera in the studio at Anchorage, Alaska, public television station KAAM and recites in detail the winds, seas, and atmospheric conditions for every corner of Alaska's vast territory.

High drama it is not, but the 30-minute show, ``Alaska Weather,'' broadcast live to the state's most remote pockets, is must-see television for fishermen who routinely ply treacherous seas, and pilots and dog-sled drivers who face dangerous whiteouts on the roadless tundra.

The telecast is but one example of how rural Alaska relies heavily on public TV and radio - and on the federal funding that provides nearly half of the revenues for some village stations. It shows why many Alaskan broadcasters, as well as counterparts from other far-flung corners of the US where public stations mean basic communication, are anxiously watching GOP efforts to kill federal funds for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

``People depend on the radio stations in the bush for their very health and lives,'' says K.C. Jackson, general manager of public radio KDLG in Dillingham, Alaska.

In Washington, the debate over CPB looks very different than it does from Bristol Bay, Alaska. On Capitol Hill, Big Bird vs. Big Newt is a culture war, with GOP lawmakers charging that CPB and its associated organizations, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR), are run by liberal elitists who tend to dole out grants to their friends.

CPB is one of the highest priority targets for Republican budget cutters, with House hearings on its future set to begin today. The $285-million federal payment to CPB now accounts for only about 14 percent of its total budget, point out critics. If the tax money spigot were turned off, it wouldn't be the end of Barney or Washington Week, they say. Foundations, individuals, and corporate donations would make up the slack.

``They would go out in the marketplace and they'd do fine,'' said Speaker Gingrich on Jan. 17.

Maybe not, counters Ervin Duggan, chief executive officer of the Public Broadcasting Service. The federal payment is the ``seed money,'' he says, which attracts other donations. PBS and NPR are unique organizations that provide a counterweight to an increasingly coarse commercial broadcasting environment, argues Mr. Duggan. He denies that public broadcasting has a liberal tinge - pointing out, for instance, that while Ken Burns's ``Baseball'' mini-series featured ex-New York Gov. Mario Cuomo talking about his brief pro career, it devoted more air time to conservative commentator George Will's view of the sport. ``Public broadcasting is always at the center of culture wars,'' says Duggan.

Rural public stations are particularly concerned about CPB's future because they depend more heavily on federal funds, which typically are used to purchase NPR or PBS programming as well as to pay for daily expenses.

In Alaska, the image of brie-chomping elitist public broadcasters raises some ire.

``We're not an alternative radio station,'' says Len Anderson, general manager of public station KOTZ in Kotzebue, an Eskimo town in the northwest of the state. ``We're the only radio station for an area about the size of Indiana.''

Cultural survival is also at stake, Alaskans insist. Jackson's station is located in a largely Athabascan Indian town of 2,000 on Bristol Bay, site of the world's biggest sockeye-salmon run. Area fishermen hang onto KDLG broadcasts for the station's hourly eight-minute weather report. ``It's not real exciting, except it's real vital to the people who live and work and fish out here,'' Jackson says.

Without federal funding, radio stations in such interior settlements as McGrath and Fort Yukon - communities with no other form of information - would be replaced by towers repeating broadcasts from larger cities, says Mark Badger, general manager of Fairbanks's KUAC-FM and TV. If those radio stations are reduced to repeater status, says Badger, who likens rural radio to the traditional tribal fire, ``you'd further the homogenization of America.''

Still, funding cuts are not new for Alaska public broadcasting. Declining oil revenues have forced state funding to drop to $5.7 million for the current fiscal year, from a high of $7.4 million five years ago. In interior and southeastern Alaska, stations have formed regional mini-networks, sharing administrative and engineering costs and swapping broadcast material.

In recent years, as the federal budget axe has swung ever closer, Alaska public radio has relied on the defense of Alaskan Sen. Ted Stevens, a Republican who vigorously defends CPB because of its importance to his state.

``We're going to try to remind everybody about the rural, underserved, and unserved areas of Alaska and the nation,'' says Mitch Rose, press secretary to Senator Stevens. ``No matter what system comes out of this debate, it has to be a system that provides for those areas.''

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