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.

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

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."

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.

The biggest obstacle to these solutions, of course, is that stations need staff to oversee them. His work-around is to save money through partnerships with other radio ventures, such as nearby Capitol Public Radio, which produces the California Capitol Network, a news feed that attracts corporate funding.

“We give their corporate donors credit when we air the feed,” says Terhorst. That helps Capitol Public Radio pursue donors and helps Northstate expand programming.

The ability to partner for programming may become more important than ever if Congress moves to cut public broadcasting. Even so, with $180,000 of his $900,000 coming from public money, some programs would have to be cut. “There is just no way around that,” he says.

His top priority: local news. “Local connections are the future of public radio,” says Terhorst, “and that’s true whether you are a rural operation like mine or a big urban station."

Going local

Across the country, Baltimore-based WTMD has carved out a niche by featuring local musicians and co-producing local concerts, says general manager Stephen Yasko. Public radio is being pushed to prove its value to its audience, he says, “and the best way to do that is be connected to what’s going on."

Hyperlocal connections were the salvation of radio 60 years ago, points out Fordham University professor Paul Levinson, author of “New New Media.” He notes that when radio began in the 1920s, it featured national and international news. “But, he says, when television arrived in the early 1950s and took over that information function, “radio survived by going local.”

Not everyone is convinced the strategies of the larger stations will help some of the most at-risk small entities. One of the most valuable fundraising options that big, urban markets offer is “diversity,” says Jennifer Ferro, general manager of Los Angeles-based KCRW.

“We have people who make millions every year as well as those who make only thousands,” she notes, not to mention a vast array of business opportunities.

Nonetheless, says Terhorst, “I’ve weathered threats before,” adding, “I prefer to remain optimistic.”

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