What would happen to public radio without federal funding?
A poke around the Seabright headquarters of KUSP reveals vestiges of vintage radio: a floor-to-ceiling collection of vinyl records, pledge drive volunteers waiting patiently by landline telephones, and the afternoon host bent over the San Francisco Chronicle as he waits to go on air during a break in NPR’s “The Story.” But the office also impresses something timeless: that hard work is being done, and that the staff are passionate about doing it.
KUSP’s March pledge drive ended earlier than expected, garnering $104,791 for the Santa Cruz NPR-member station. “Community support has been really encouraging,” says General Manager Terry Green. “A lot of donors have said that they’re either increasing their gift, coming back, or becoming a member for the first time because they’re concerned about what might happen in terms of federal funding.”
On Thursday, March 17, a week after the pledge drive wrapped up, the House passed a bill that would completely bar federal funding from going to National Public Radio, be it through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), competitive grants, or from local stations using federal funding to pay their membership.
In a same day press release, Rep. Sam Farr (D-17th District), condemned the bill, stating, “Contrary to Republican rhetoric, this legislation does nothing to produce savings or reduce our national deficit. But it does directly attack the free flow of information, and closes the door on smart, educated programming that millions of American’s value and listen to on daily basis. … Today, Republicans have overreached, and placed a price on public radio without having a clue about its real value.”
The bill has little to no chance of making it through the Senate, but it comes during a blitz of similar attempts—including an interim budget measure that cut capital improvement and infrastructure grants for public broadcasting, and the House’s fiscal year federal budget, which seeks to terminate all funding for CPB. The budget was shot down by the Senate, but is still on the table during negotiations. While public radio waits with bated breath for a budget to be hashed out, they sit at the crux of a heated national debate that calls into question its role, value and future.
By all indications, public radio is among the healthier of today’s media. Station Resource Group, a research-based alliance of public media organizations, reports 38 percent growth in individual donations to public radio from 1999 to 2010 (adjusted for inflation), as well as 38 percent growth in weekly public radio audience from 2000 to 2010. “It is not surprising that the number of listeners and the amount of individual giving grew at the same rate,” says Tom Thomas, SRG co-chief executive officer. “People give because they listen and value the service. These two measures have tracked very closely for years.”
KUSP and KAZU, the other Monterey Bay Area NPR-member station, are both riding this auspicious wave. Like KUSP, KAZU recently finished one of its most successful pledge drives in history, according to General Manager Douglas McKnight.
The fact that radio audiences have grown while newspapers and other media have seen their numbers dwindle is due in part to its smooth transition to the web. In fact, it officially became an Internet medium in 2010, when more radio listeners listened online than on air. This is according to PEW Research Center, whose “State of the Media 2011” report found that 56 percent of people who say they listen to radio do so only online (up from 46 percent in 2006).
“In the winter of 2010, radio reached 240 million people over the age of 12, an increase of three million over 2009,” states the report. “While audiences for terrestrial radio have remained mostly stable for the past 10 years, it is clear that new technologies, over time, do have an effect on traditional radio listening.”
NPR has around 10 million unique monthly visitors to its website, npr.org, and local stations have found ways to adapt to the tech-age via websites, live streams and social media, as well. “Radio, commercial and noncommercial, is the most resilient of the pre-web media,” says Thomas. “Whereas newspapers, television networks, magazines, and other major media have seen significant audience erosion, radio has not.”
According to Green, KUSP was one of the first stations to produce a show that has as big an audience online as it does over the air. The show, “Geek Speak,” now has “a truly worldwide audience, reaching far beyond where our regular signal reaches,” says Green.
Whether because of web prowess or a lack of comparable options in today’s media landscape, public radio is alive and well—according to the CPB, 64.7 million Americans listen to public radio each month.
But will it stay that way if funding levels change?
The government currently spends $450 million per year on public broadcasting, representing .003 percent of the annual budget (or $1.35 per American, per year). Federal funding accounts for less than 2 percent of NPR’s budget and less than 14 percent of the average local station’s budget, according to the CPB. KUSP and KAZU both have operating budgets just shy of $1 million and receive between 10 and 11 percent of their funding from CPB. The rest comes from member donations, underwriting from local businesses, and special project grants.
While there have always been legislators who feel that government has no role in media, today’s debate represents the first time it has been so partisan. And although many conservatives have also charged NPR and the like with a liberal bias, Green believes that public broadcasting is able to be objective and wide serving because of its nature as a non-commercial venture. “I think that objectivity is a real, crucial core value of public radio and something that, right now, the commercial market for news wouldn’t say is a great idea,” he says. “When someone gives us $10 a month as a member, how that money gets divvied up has only to do with creating the content. It doesn’t have anything to do with how sellable it is.”
If the House Republicans have their way, and all federal funding is axed, Green says KUSP would try to make up the difference by turning to members and the local philanthropic community. “We can probably make up most or all of the 11 percent because the community would rally—this pledge drive sort of indicates that,” he says. “But that doesn’t answer what happens to the national public radio economy.”
While KUSP and KAZU are mid-sized stations, and could turn to their communities for emergency funding, the real impact would be at the smaller and rural stations. “If the smaller stations fold or are so constrained that they can’t stay in NPR anymore, then what happens to those costs?” Green asks, adding that KUSP currently pays $115,000 to NPR annually. “To maintain the same level of service, do we have to pay twice as much for NPR? That’s the hardest question to answer about ‘what would happen if.’
“I think there are a lot of people in public radio who are distressed at the prospect that it would become a service that is only reaching the big cities and the smaller relatively prosperous areas, rather than being a truly national news service,” Green continues. “But it’s not unthinkable that that is how it could end up.”
Of all the proposed budget cuts, Rep. Farr reports hearing the most complaints from his constituents about those that would affect public broadcasting. “Of all the phone calls, mail and emails [I get], this is the number one thing people say ‘don’t cut,’” he tells GT. A daily NPR listener and yearly contributor himself, Farr believes that listening to public radio is “probably the most informative way to start your day.”
“If we lose [the funding],” he adds, “we lose the ability to have those choices, and [public radio] provides very valuable programming we wouldn’t otherwise get. We’d be less informed and less entertained.”
Whatever happens, CPB is forward funded by two years, meaning that stations have until 2013 to prepare.
In the meantime, KAZU’s McKnight says he’ll focus on putting quality radio on the airwaves. “Am I worried about it? Yeah, it’s $100,000 of my budget I have to make up or cut,” McKnight says. “But I don’t control whether that happens. I believe passionately about this radio station, and about public radio. And I’ll do everything in my power so that it’s not only successful but that it serves the needs of the community.”