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Opinion Stimulus funding can’t come fast enough for public broadcasters

A lone SUV travels down the normally bustling 20th Street Viaduct on Thursday in Denver after a statewide stay-at-home order took effect in Colorado. (David Zalubowski/AP)

Mike Wall had planned a vigorous fundraising season for his Kodiak, Alaska, public broadcasting outfit. The drive for contributions would have started on March 31 on KMXT-FM, along with “Twangfest,” a benefit for the station at a local bar.

The coronavirus canceled all that. Kodiak Public Broadcasting is placing those efforts on hold till June. “How do you fundraise in the middle of a pandemic?” asks Wall. “I don’t want to be the guy going on the air in the middle of the virus saying, ‘Hey, by the way, now give us some dough.’”

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

Turbulence on the balance sheets is the reason that broadcasters like KMXT need relief. At least some may be arriving, too: The stimulus bill passed by the Senate this week includes $75 million earmarked for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) to “to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus.” The money is directed to small and rural stations so as to “maintain programming and services and preserve small and rural stations threatened by declines in non-Federal revenue.”

To hear Wall tell it, there are plenty such declines. The state of Alaska last year zeroed out funding for public broadcasters; whereas Wall’s outfit once received around $130,000 from the state, he now gets nothing. Under Alaska law, certain nonprofits are allowed to run gaming operations, and Kodiak Public Broadcasting operates two pull-tab facilities that are now shuttered because of the coronavirus. “We’re significantly in the hole without the state funding, without the gaming,” says Wall, who also notes that trend lines aren’t encouraging for membership drives. “Now nobody’s got any money,” says Wall, whose operation toggles between five and six employees. “Everybody’s getting laid off.”

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How quickly has the coronavirus started to strangle public broadcasters? Listen to Paul Hunton, general manager of Texas Tech Public Media, with operations in Lubbock (KTTZ-TV/FM) and El Paso (KCOS-TV). Last Friday, says Hunton, underwriters for programming on his air started announcing their intent to pull out of their deals with the station. By the end of the day, the operation had lost $30,000 in commitments. Now it’s $100,000. Underwriters are the public broadcasting version of advertisers; they apprise the audience that they support the programming but cannot issue “calls to action, qualitative language, comparative language, inducements like pricing or sale information.”

Even as revenue dried up, news blossomed. To meet the demand for coronavirus coverage, Hunton’s outfit shifted four cultural-arts-entertainment staffers to the breaking-news beat. Even after the coronavirus outbreak subsides, the shift in resources toward news will remain in place. “We’re going to stick with it,” says Hunton. “This sort of showed us what we can do in that field.”

Public broadcasters rely on various streams of revenue to pay for news-gathering activities, administrative overhead, broadcasting facilities, fundraising costs and so on. Such streams include membership contribution, underwriting revenue and state and federal funding. CPB was created by the federal government and channels grants to public radio and television stations across the country. It calls itself the “steward of the federal government’s investment in public broadcasting.” The vast majority of the stations receiving CPB grants have licensing deals with NPR or PBS. “If the balance between those three [major funding sources] or one of them gets knocked off kilter between federal, state and donor funding, a small station can easily go under,” says Brad Kimmel, president and CEO of Tri-State Public Media (WNIN-TV/FM) in Evansville, Ind.

Trouble is, the coronavirus outbreak is attacking at least two of those sources — many underwriters are tanking, and the crisis will no doubt shrink household budgets for membership fees. To round up whatever membership money is out there, stations need to do fund drives, which are in limbo. Several stations under the management of North Dakota’s Prairie Public Broadcasting — which has a total of 19 TV and radio stations — had scheduled drives for March, which they either canceled or “radically reduced the messaging,” according to director of radio Bill Thomas.

Becky Magura, president and CEO of WCTE-TV, a PBS-affiliated station in Cookeville, Tenn., pulled in $30,000 thanks to a fundraising dinner headlined by country musician Ray Stevens. She had to cancel the event on account of coronavirus. Though she’s hoping to reschedule, she can’t use the funds. “We were counting on that money to come in and pay expenses,” says Magura. WCTE serves a rural area in the upper Cumberland region of Tennessee, where, according to Magura, the station’s signal is the only one many residents get in their antennas. During a recent software upgrade, the station went off the air for several hours, prompting viewers to call in. “People were so nervous,” recalled Magura, with many callers saying, “You’re all I’ve got.”

Asked if she could use a bit of the stimulus money, Magura said, “Oh my goodness, yes.”

On the line is local news. Between 2004 and 2018, nearly 1,800 newspapers closed in the United States. Those that remain are taking a licking from the coronavirus, as explained in this space earlier this week. Pay cuts, layoffs, furloughs — any measure to cut costs with the sudden slumber of key advertising sectors — are sweeping the newspaper industry. Who’s left to cover the county? “In many cases smaller stations are the only ones doing local journalism,” notes Kimmel. In a March column, NPR Public Editor Elizabeth Jensen highlighted efforts by NPR to partner with its network of 260-plus member stations to strengthen local reporting in the country’s so-called “news deserts.”

There’s a reason the stimulus language cites rural broadcasters as recipients of coronavirus relief. As explained on the CPB website, grants from the organization represented “19 percent of an average rural station’s revenue, versus 11 percent for the rest of the industry.” CPB declined to issue a statement on how it would distribute the stimulus funds; as of Thursday night, the package’s timeline in the House appeared uncertain, according to The Post.

While $75 million may sound like a lot, a previous version of the stimulus contained a $300 million allotment for the CPB. “Seventy-five million is good but it’s really not enough,” says Viktorya Vilk, program director for digital safety and free expression at PEN America. Though Vilk notes that newspapers still provide the bulk of local reporting across the land, radio broadcasters are critical in times like these, in updating their audiences on cancellations, closings, health measures and the like. “They help get the word about what’s happening. I think governments need those outlets,” says Vilk.

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There’ll be no dissent from Mike Wall on that point: “Public radio is always the voice of emergency in a time like this, so you have to move all your resources from fundraising to telling the community what the hell is going on,” he says.

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