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Thursday, March 16, 2017

Defend the Underdogs of Public Media

Jim and I and our friends at WSSB in Orangeburg, SC
Since the November 2016 election, people in public and community media have been speculating about the future of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). This agency provides funding for public and community stations throughout the country through its Community Service Grant program and other special funding initiatives for infrastructure and collaborative projects.

Now, the Trump administration has announced its first pass budget that, to little surprise, zeroes out funding for the CPB, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

I could go on about the politics of the elimination of funding. But not now. What I want to address is the very real impact of this potential loss on small, rural and minority stations.

First, an apology to my larger market station colleagues. I respect you and what you are doing to provide educational service to your communities. You invest local resources in Ready to Learn programs. You have some of the largest, and most under-resourced, teams of journalists in the country. You engage community leaders in civil discussion about local issues as wide ranging as racial profiling and restaurant reviews.

You will be fine.

CPB funding, for many large or medium size market stations, has become an increasingly small portion of their budgets. These stations may have survived elimination of other funding sources, such as state funding. Some have even explored what it might mean to withdraw from the Community Service Grant program. And I can confidently say that larger market stations have rallied their audiences to provide higher levels of voluntary support.

Some of my colleagues who have worked with only major market stations agree that eliminating funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is a bad idea, but they are being practical. We can consolidate. We can raise the difference.

That's why I'm not really worried about you. I'm worried about the stations who can't do that.

The small but mighty KAWC team, 2016
(Steven Hennig is missing because he was taking the picture)
We work and have worked with small, rural and minority stations. We work with KAWC Colorado River Public Media, based in Yuma, Arizona, which provides two noncommercial programming streams to rural Arizona, including local coverage of real life on the border from a four person news team, and the only news service to some areas where cell phones still don't work.

We work with KGHR Navajo Public Radio, based at Greyhills Academy High School in Tuba City, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation, which serves as a community information board, sharing news about health fairs, home maintenance, public safety and other basic services that might otherwise go unnoticed.

We have worked in the past with KUYI Hopi Radio, licensed to The Hopi Foundation, one of the pioneers in Native American public media, which provides programming in the Hopi language and contributes to the protection and growth of the Hopi culture.

For all three of these stations, their CPB grant is a significant portion of their budget. It pays for programming that connects these remote communities to the rest of the world. It helps cover staff that keep the station running and provide a local voice. These stations are running with the bare minimum of staff to keep them going; the grant does not cover “fluff.”

In addition, these stations are not in communities with high resources. The idea of having the local audience bear the full cost is not realistic for these smaller stations. For instance, in a project funded by the CPB through Greater Public, we worked with four African-American licensed stations to try to build their local capacity for fundraising. Could we give these stations the tools to raise more money?

The answer, as you might expect, was “yes and no.” The stations did, to varying degrees, increase the amount of money raised, but not to the level of doubling or tripling their revenue. The communities that they served simply did not have the financial capacity to increase their giving dramatically. If faced with the loss of their CPB grant, they might be able to cut some expenses and generate a little more revenue, but not enough to continue.

So that begs the question...why do we need these small stations anyway? Wouldn't it be more efficient to just merge them into another larger station? Doesn't the internet provide the services these stations do? Couldn't we just have a national feed of NPR and PBS and call it done?

What would we lose if these small, rural and minority stations went away?

We lose the voices of these communities in national discussion. It doesn't work to ask people from these communities to go someplace else to share their opinions: that automatically makes them an outsider and immediately changes the nature of the conversation. We need to speak with people where they live to get their real perspectives.

We lose the connection within rural and small communities. Stations help residents in their communities stay connected. Particularly in radio, the station is often the only way to communicate with the whole community, not just about local events, but also about emergency situations. And the suggestion that everyone can get what they need through the internet? Well, internet access is not as universal as many in larger communities think, and what happens during a crisis when local internet might be down? In recent floods and hurricanes in the southeast, often the public radio or television station was the only source for updates.

We lose sight of issues that face people who live outside of metro areas. Let's face it: problems are different in major cities than they are in small towns and rural areas. For example, we are still dealing with getting cell phone service to some of these communities, when people in big cities complain about not having free WiFi. Stations have the ability to have issues moved to a larger stage that are simply foreign to metro audiences.

We lose the stories and rich histories of diverse cultures. You can't simply send a correspondent into a community for a day or two and expect them to understand the culture and way of life. There are so many stories that can only be crafted over time, and by someone who is a part of life there.

And we begin to ignore small, rural and minority communities and the issues that are important to them. By saying, “really, only large markets can have this service,” you tell people that they are not worth having a voice.

A colleague suggested that threats to federal support to public broadcasting might be a good thing for us. Like with the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Planned Parenthood, and others, perhaps this is an opportunity for the public to rally and provide unprecedented levels of support. I worry that stations that really need the funding will not have the ability to access it.

Annie Lin (my mom), Mr. Rogers and me, circa 1971.
 I've been a public media supporter for a long time.
There will be much more discussion about this issue in the coming days, and, like in previous battles, I expect that many people will voice their support for public media. If you would like to do so, please visit Protect My Public Media to add your story. Also, contact your Representative and Senators regarding your position.

And find your local station and support them. They need all the help they can get.

We have worked with so many stations that deserve your support, but a special shout out to KAWC Colorado River Public Media, KGHR Navajo Public Radio, KUYI Hopi Radio, KXCI Tucson, Arizona Public Media, Arizona PBS, WSSB Orangeburg, WSNC Winston-Salem, WUVS Muskegon, KBBG Waterloo, Mountain Lake PBS, WGVU Grand Rapids, KCOS El Paso, Houston Public Media, KPFA Berkeley, WBAI New York, KNPB Reno, KUAC Fairbanks, and Wisconsin Public Television.


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