By Joseph S. Pete
Lakeshore Public Media, the Merrillville-based National Public Radio and Public Broadcasting Service affiliate, could face the loss of 17 percent of its revenue if sweeping federal cuts come to pass.
U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs, has proposed a bill that would cut federal funding to NPR and PBS. The Hill, a newspaper and website covering Congress, and other media outlets reported the Trump administration outlined plans with career White House staff to cut off federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a nonprofit that distributes about $445 million in tax dollars a year to more than 1,500 local public radio and television stations across the country.
The administration is seeking dramatic cuts, including termination of agencies like the National Endowment for the Arts, in an effort to trim the budget and cut $10.5 trillion in spending over the next decade.
Lakeshore Public Media Chief Executive Officer James Muhammad recently wrote a letter to Lakeshore listeners and viewers about the proposals to slash all federal funding to public broadcasting. About 17 percent — nearly one-fifth — of Lakeshore Public Media’s current operating budget comes from federal tax dollars.
“I wanted to take a minute and let you know that this has not caught us by surprise and we are fully engaged in conversations with our colleagues in Washington to keep funding at current levels,” Muhammad wrote. “There is no doubt that public broadcasting is highly valued and beloved by millions of Americans, including many influential Members of Congress."
Public broadcasters have cultivated bipartisan support over the last several years, and both the Republican House and Republican Senate fully funded the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in the last two sessions of Congress. Lakeshore Public Media also has established a relationship with Vice President Mike Pence, who was a radio host before he got into politics and was named a
"Champion of Public Broadcasting" in 2014, according to Muhammad.
Muhammad said that the station might need to call on grassroots support from listeners and viewers since “it seems everything has changed these days and we recognize the threats regarding federal funding cannot be taken lightly.”
"The impact would be significant," Muhammad said. "Those funds go directly to costs, such as content from American Public Television and independent producers."
The elimination of federal funding would hurt Lakeshore's ability to buy national programming, put together local shows like "CounterPoint with Garrard McClendon," to help distribute locally made documentaries like "Shifting Sands" and to be involved in the community, such as with its community conversations on race, justice and immigration.
"It threatens the business model," Muhammad said. "This is supposed to be independent alternative content that is not commercially viable, whether educational, history, news or public access."
Lakeshore provides programming that's accessible to the entire public, whether giving people a chance to see the New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera, teaching them about history with Ken Burns documentaries, or informing them about science with shows like "Nova," Muhammad said.
"We have the best educational programming, and the model is to provide the content to all children," he said. "When we do parades, the kids in downtown Gary run to Clifford the Big Red Dog the way kids in downtown Crown Point run to Clifford. The point and the mission is that we provide an educational experience that does not discriminate. It's available to all."
Other funding sources
NPR and PBS affiliates across the nation rely mainly on sources of income other than federal, such as grants from private foundations and individual donations made during pledge drives. NPR estimated in 2013 that only 5 percent of its overall revenue came from state and federal tax dollars.
“I can tell you that the vast majority of our support comes from our listeners, followed by sponsors and foundations,” said Senior Director of Community Engagement and Marketing Communications Haley Carlson with WBEZ in Chicago.
Indiana Public Media, which operates the WFIU radio station and WTIU television station in Bloomington gets about 15 percent of its overall budget from the federal government. Public broadcasters in cities with more engaged audiences often get only a fraction of their operating budgets from the federal government, while NPR and PBS affiliates in more rural areas sometimes depend on federal funding for 40 percent to 50 percent of their annual budgets, Station Operations Director John Bailey said.
“We’re probably in a fortunate situation,” he said. “We believe we would be able to survive in the near term without any programming or staffing cuts. In fact there would probably be somewhat of a spike in individual giving.
Bloomington's Indiana Public Media, however, likely would not be able to recoup the entire $1.2 million it would lose if federal funding were cut.
While stronger stations would survive, weaker stations — those carrying a lot of debt or operating close to the bone — might go under, Bailey said. Some might hang on through joint operating agreements, but it could have a long-term ripple effect.
PBS and NPR would have fewer stations to buy their programs, which could lead them to jack up fees, pinching the finances of the remaining stations, Bailey said.
“They’d have to make up the lost fees, and the survivors might then have to tighten their belts,” he said. “In some ways, it would have chilling effects on innovation.”
Local stations might respond by playing popular programs like "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" for four or five hours to stretch their purchasing dollars, Bailey said. They might run shows for two or three more reruns to cut programming costs. Some might deem national programs too expensive and devote more airtime to locally-made music shows that are relatively cheap to produce.
A big return for little
Talk of cutting federal funding to public broadcasting has been ongoing for decades, said Andy Klotz, director of marketing and promotion for WFYI in Indianapolis. But studies have shown it yields a return on investment of about $6 or $7 for every $1.35 spent, and 83 percent of people surveyed say they would ask their congressional representatives to look elsewhere to cut funding before eliminating public television, he said. A survey commissioned by PBS found 73 percent opposed ending federal funding for public television.
“Time after time, they’ve understood the importance of public media to the general public,” he said. “It has strong support across the aisle.”
WFYI is in the process of putting together a page on its website to explain to listeners what’s going on, and encourages them to voice their opinion on www.protectmypublicmedia.org.
“Everybody understands the educational value of PBS, that it’s a trusted educational media provider and it’s free,” he said. “People understand you can’t get something for nothing.”
Joseph S Pete
Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.