Shortly after the inauguration of President Trump, whose plan to defund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting leaked on the eve of his swearing-in, the NPR member station in Philadelphia held a record-smashing winter pledge drive: $1.3 million from roughly 12,700 contributors — double the totals in previous years.
New York Public Radio, which produces syndicated radio programs such as “Freakonomics” and “Radiolab,” raised $3.4 million during its best fundraiser ever, in February.
And in the days after Trump officially proposed stripping the CPB's entire $445 million appropriation, on March 16, half the traffic to the website of PBS SoCal, in Los Angeles, flowed to a page explaining the importance of federal dollars to the local TV station.
These audience responses are exactly what Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) had in mind when he filed a bill in January that would cut off funding to the CPB and said that the public media system “is perfectly capable of standing on its own two feet and not on the financial shoulders of the American taxpayers.”
But at KWIT, the NPR affiliate in Sioux City, Iowa (median household income: $43,888), general manager Mark Munger can only fantasize about the kind of donation bursts sustaining stations in the nation's largest media markets.
“I don't see that happening in our community — not that I don't think there are people who are generous or would want to give,” Munger said. “They want to, and they would, if they could. We don't have the community that's going to give us millions of dollars a year. And that's why we should be here. That's why we need the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.”
Republicans have tried, on and off, for decades to defund the CPB, which awards less than 10 percent of its grant money directly to PBS and NPR and sends the rest to the local member stations, such as KWIT, that comprise their networks. Now, the GOP has a prime opportunity to accomplish its longtime mission, since it controls the White House and both chambers of Congress.
At public radio and television stations across the country, the current moods range from concern to existential fear, depending on how deeply their budgets rely on federal funding.
“It's a very serious proposal,” said PBS SoCal chief executive Andrew Russell, whose station depends on the CPB for 11 percent to 15 percent of revenue each year. “It's a very serious threat to public television and public radio.”
Generally speaking, stations in small, rural markets — many in red states — receive more money, per capita, than their counterparts in big cities, who have greater access to corporate underwriters, foundations and affluent populations. In 2014, $186.1 million in CPB grants went to stations in the states that voted for Trump in the fall.
At Philadelphia's WHYY, grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting represent about 7 percent of the station's budget; at Sioux City's KWIT, they make up one-third of all revenue.
“It would be devastating to us” to lose CPB funding, Munger said. “We're going to be the ones who are in trouble. Likely, stations like us will go out of existence.”
Munger is drafting a letter to listeners in which he will explain the stakes and solicit whatever donations his audience can manage. Some large-market stations are doing the same. WGBH, a public radio and TV broadcaster in Boston, has sent at least two fundraising emails to listeners and viewers since Trump unveiled his budget proposal. Chicago public radio station WBEZ emailed listeners last week and asked them to do three things: donate, sign a petition and call members of Congress.
Nationally, WBEZ is best known for partnering with NPR on “Wait, Wait … Don't Tell Me,” the weekly comedic quiz show. What would happen to the program if CPB dollars dried up?
“What would happen is we would do everything possible to replace those funds with something else and not impact our programming or our listeners,” WBEZ chief executive Goli Sheikholeslami said.
Public radio stations all over the country pay WBEZ a fee to air “Wait, Wait … Don't Tell Me.” The fee is manageable, even for small stations, because there are so many of them; the NPR network includes more than 900 local affiliates. The same principle applies to all syndicated shows, including NPR's flagship programs “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.”
“The entire public media system is hung on an economy-of-scale play,” said Bill Marrazzo, president of the Philadelphia public radio station, WHYY. “No one of us — even in the richest, most robust local — could afford to muster the resources that enable you to create a public radio or public television program stream as robust as ours is, absent an economy-of-scale play where every station at the local level elects to participate in chipping in.”
Sheikholeslami said that without money from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, WBEZ and other large stations “would have to try to raise more money than we would just for ourselves to make up for what other, smaller stations are losing” — assuming the smaller ones survive.
New York Public Radio chief executive Laura Walker added that another, undesirable option would be to try to produce syndicated shows like “The Takeaway” and “On the Media” more cheaply.
“If smaller stations have to cut back, it could hit the line of national producers, which will basically put the quality and the quantity of productions that are being created for public radio at risk,” she said.
Walker said the recent influx of donations at stations like hers should not be viewed the way Lamborn suggested — as evidence that the public media system would be just fine without federal funding. Listeners and viewers might be able to step up right now, she said, but “you'd have to be careful about projecting forward and being able to say, 'Okay, in the second and the third year, people will be able to do the same.'”
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that WBEZ produces "Wait, Wait ... Don't Tell Me"; in fact, the show is produced by NPR, in partnership with WBEZ.