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Public broadcasters rally to save federal money
Scripps Howard News Service


June 22, 2005

WASHINGTON - Eric Smith sees dark days ahead for the public television station he runs at North Michigan University if Congress follows through with a plan to slash federal funding for public broadcasting.

The station, WNMU-TV, receives about $700,000 a year in federal money, roughly half of its operating budget. The campus radio station, WNMU-FM, gets about $200,000 a year, about one-third of its budget.

If that funding disappears, the television station may be forced off the air and the radio station may have to curtail programming, Smith said.

"The cuts that are currently being considered by Congress would just devastate the TV station," Smith said.

A decade after they survived a similar attack, public radio and television stations across the country are once again fighting a movement in Congress to dramatically reduce their funding.

The House Appropriations Committee voted last week to cut spending for public broadcasting nearly in half.

The bill, which could go to the full House on Thursday, would reduce financing for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the agency that funnels grants to local radio and television stations, by $100 million, or roughly 25 percent.

The proposal also would eliminate millions of dollars that now help stations convert to digital programming and upgrade satellite technology. Plus, it would strike all funding for the "Ready to Learn" program, which provides money for popular children's shows such as "Sesame Street," "Clifford the Big Dog" and "Postcards from Buster."

All together, the proposed cuts total 46 percent of public broadcast spending and come at a time when stations are under pressure from conservatives to add more "balance" to their programming.

Public broadcasting's supporters argue that the cuts and the political pressure are part of a campaign by the Bush administration and other conservatives to impose a Republican point of view on programming.

But some GOP lawmakers contend the cuts are necessary to free funding for other programs, such as a prescription drug benefit for the elderly, community health centers and education Pell grants. Besides, they say, the government should not be in the business of subsidizing public broadcasting.

"I would prefer to see the Corporation for Public Broadcasting supported entirely by the private sector," said Rep. Anne Northup, R-Ky., who is vice chairwoman of a subcommittee that approved the cuts.

"You can bet that some will hysterically claim that Big Bird's feathers have forever been plucked, never to be seen again by American children," Northup said. "I predict Big Bird will be just fine."

Local television and radio stations that rely on funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting will be hardest hit by the cuts, said John Lawson, president and CEO of the Association of Public Television Stations.

Some television stations in rural America may go dark if the cuts are approved, while others may come under pressure to go commercial, Lawson said.

"Public TV and radio stations are among the last of the locally controlled media left in America," Lawson said. "It would be a real shame if we lost these local independent voices."

Kentucky Educational Television, for instance, stands to lose $700,000 a year if the federal cuts are approved. Coupled with $2 million in state cuts over the past three years, "this starts to chisel away from the foundation of what we are able to do here because it takes money right out of our local program services," said Malcolm Wall, the agency's executive director.

If the cuts are approved, some popular programs may disappear from the air, key services for teachers and children would have to be scaled back, and local programming that has become the backbone of the network's lineup would have to be significantly curtailed, Wall said.

Stations across the country are fighting back by lobbying members of Congress, circulating petitions among worried parents and enlisting the support of their viewers and listening audience.

In Anchorage, Alaska, KSKA radio and KAKM television, which stand to lose about 15 percent of their operating budget, have been airing "testimonials" about once an hour from business leaders and other supporters.

WNKU-FM, the public radio station at Northern Kentucky University, has posted a message on its Web site warning that the cuts threaten the future of public broadcasting.

"Hopefully, people who find public radio and public television an important part of their lifestyle will make their voices heard and get Congress to understand how important it is to fund public radio and television," said Ben Singleton, the station's executive director.


Contact Michael Collins at collinsm(at)

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