The new management of financially troubled National Public Radio is considering a 40 percent cut in the news and public affairs budget that could drastically change the network's two most popular programs, "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition." Already, reaction from some member stations and staff of the NPR network has ranged from alarm to anger.
A preliminary working budget for fiscal year 1984 would slash the news and public affairs budget from $5.3 million to approximately $3.3 million.
"There is no firm decision on those figures," said Ronald C. Bornstein, the new acting chief operating officer of NPR.
The future shape of the two programs, Bornstein said, would be decided by the full board in June. "I don't think the format of the two programs would be that altered, and the board would be presented with several alternatives."
For the past two months NPR has been battling a severe financial crisis caused by an unexpected $5.8 million deficit. The financial situation led to the resignation of president Frank Mankiewicz, who had brought the network to national respectability since he took the post in 1977.
The preliminary proposals are "the worst-case situation," said Jack Mitchell, special assistant to Bornstein. "That is a working proposal and it is kind of premature to talk about it. But it is very drastic. The budget next year has to be balanced, and we are talking in those kinds of ranges."
Mitchell, who was the producer of "All Things Considered" when it debuted in 1971, discussed the proposals with senior producers and editors yesterday in Washington.
"They feel the programs should not be cut and I agree," he said.
Even in these early stages, reaction to the proposals by the NPR staff and some member stations has been angry. At a public radio conference last month, the stations passed a resolution urging the NPR board to save the news programs, calling the two "the number-one programming priority."
John Beck, director of WNYC in New York, one of the largest member stations, yesterday sent a telegram to Bornstein expressing his outrage.
"It said this is a critical issue for us and we will carry on the debate in any way we can," said Beck. "In my opinion cutting those two shows would destroy the basic credibility of public radio. Quality in news is what we have created. Any reductions undermine our relationship. This is the single most important issue in public radio."
Bornstein said he sent an immediate reply to Beck saying, "It is important the members of the system express their viewpoint."
Other reaction included consideration of a protest letter to Bornstein and the NPR board by the senior staff. One reporter said yesterday, "I think if the proposals go through, every senior on-the-air person would seek employment elsewhere."
Ruth Hirschman, general manager of KCRW in Santa Monica, Calif., said, "I am sending a night letter asking for a communications hookup with the member stations to discuss the proposals. We have not received any information. The whole sense one has is of tremendous high-handedness. We feel a lack of energy, as if the only approach would be to cut, cut, cut. What is the motivation of going after 'All Things Considered' and 'Morning Edition'? They are the lifeblood of the stations."
In the three days that Bornstein has been the temporary chief executive at NPR, Mankiewicz formally resigned and Bornstein issued memos to the staff on contacts with the press, the board members of NPR and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the federal agency that assists in funding NPR. The memos instructed that all media contacts be channeled through the public information office and all contacts with the board or CPB be reported to Bornstein.
"That is standard procedure," said Bornstein. "Neither one of those things is designed to be punitive or restrictive. I just want to make sure everyone is receiving the same information."
The interim executives, said Bornstein, will submit the proposals to the financial committee of the NPR board next week. The full board will meet in June, when an internal audit of NPR finances is expected to be finished. The General Accounting Office is also conducting an audit.