Broadcast blues

It’s unlikely that the latest Republican effort to defund NPR will succeed. But what if …

Katie Hanzlik is a news intern at SN&R.

This isn’t the first time Republican lawmakers have pushed to ban federal funding for NPR. But this time, they’re going in for the kill.

And this most recent threat to public broadcasting has inspired discussion among NPR listeners and broadcast executives in Sacramento, who now seriously ponder the question, “What if?”

Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill by Colorado Republican Doug Lamborn that would prohibit federal dollars from going to public radio. Whether the bill will actually pass a Democrat-majority Senate and earn the president’s signature remains to be seen—but is very unlikely.

In Sacramento, though, Capital Public Radio is aware of this threat but is not immediately concerned. “We have always been conscious of the fact that it could happen someday,” general manager Rick Eytcheson explained.

CPR receives approximately 7.5 percent of its funding from federal sources, the elimination of which would be painful, Eytcheson concedes, but not crippling. “Most of our support is from listeners, who are really good at stepping up when there is a need.”

The potential gap that zero fed dollars would leave in CPR’s budget could equal more than $500,000 a year.

But Rep. Lamborn’s legislation would not only prohibit federal funding for broadcasting organizations, it also would prevent stations from paying membership dues or syndicating national radio programs.

This would be problematic for some of the most popular programs featured on many stations like CPR. NPR affiliates across the country use grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a federally funded organization, to buy national programming that they believe will be of interest to listeners, such as Car Talk and All Things Considered. Some stations use these grants to purchase programming from other sources, such as the Pacifica Foundation, which broadcasts programs like Democracy Now.

The percentage of each local station’s total budget that comes from the CPB is usually relatively small, but the impact of losing this funding could be huge. While larger stations in major cities would potentially be able to make up for the lack of federal funding with member donations, smaller community stations face a more serious threat.

Another local station that would have to look to their listeners for donations is Nevada City-based KVMR. A smaller station than Capital Public Radio, KVMR receives about 10 percent, or $100,000, of their budget from federal funding in the form of CPB grants. When asked how KVMR would potentially be impacted, general manager David Levin replied, “I’d hope that [programs like Democracy Now] wouldn’t be compromised, but I would be very concerned.”

KVMR also uses federal dollars to award national radio program production grants to deserving local broadcasters with programming ideas, a program that has spawned many local radio programs.

Levin, however, sympathizes with smaller stations that wouldn’t be so lucky should their funding get cut. “What [politicians] don’t understand is that, as you pass legislation that prohibits us from buying anything of syndication, Latino and Native American stations are getting penalized,” he explained.

KIDE, a tribally owned and operated community radio station in the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation, for instance, gets more than 60 percent of their funding from the CPB.

Levin has faith, however, that passion for public broadcasting will remain strong. Despite the recession, KVMR members are contributing more, and the station continues to employ effective methods of outreach: listener guides, bumper stickers and hundreds of volunteers who “do radio from the heart.” He also cites the website 170 Million Americans as proof of the country’s continued support of public broadcasting.

So while this latest threat to public broadcasting has bolstered support for the industry, the realization of what could happen were it to lose critical funding isn’t lost on employees and the millions of loyal listeners each day.