Vt. public radio fears cuts if funding is lost

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By Johnny Diaz
Globe Staff / March 25, 2011

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COLCHESTER, Vt.—It’s noon on a Friday in the middle of March, and Mitch Wertlieb, Vermont Public Radio’s local host of “Morning Edition,’’ leans into his microphone to deliver the day’s news.

There’s a story about the town of Rutland, sister city to a small Japanese community struggling with the aftereffects of the recent earthquake and tsunami. That’s followed by an update on Vermont’s nuclear power plant.

But there’s another story that listeners of this National Public Radio outlet — the only one in Vermont — are discussing in local diners, bookstores, and state offices.

VPR, as it’s known locally, is one of a handful of small, rural radio stations in New England that each depend on hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal funding for 9 percent or more of their budgets. Those federal grants have been criticized by Republicans in both houses of Congress. Last week, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would prohibit federal funding of National Public Radio, and bar affiliates from spending federal money, which is distributed to radio stations by the not-for-profit Corporation for Public Broadcasting, to buy programs from NPR or other public radio producers.

Jon Wallace, state coordinator for the Vermont Tea Party , supports the proposed ban. Wallace said he’s a VPR listener, but government money is needed elsewhere. And although he’s not a donor himself, Wallace said public broadcasters could survive solely on contributions from listeners and underwriters. “They should stand on their own two feet,’’ he said. “We are in dire straits, and these tough decisions have to be made.’’

But Vermont state Representative Peter Welch, a Democrat with an office in Burlington, believes the federal money is well spent. “VPR is the unifying source of state news, everything from what is going on with the maple syrup harvest to the budget in Montpelier,’’ he said. “We need more VPR, not less.’’

Vermont Public Radio is the only source of National Public Radio programs such as the interview show “Fresh Air’’ and the news magazine “All Things Considered’’ for an average 170,000 listeners a week. It operates two broadcasts: VPR, with local and national news and arts programs, and VPR Classical, airing classical music and live performances. Because Vermont’s mountainous terrain blocks radio signals, the station broadcasts on 24 frequencies from 20 transmission towers across the state.

At Vermont Public Radio, station officials and listeners fear they’ll be forced to cut staff or programming, or both, if the federal funds are lost. Supporters said the station is not only a source for news, but provides a platform for local artists and authors.

“VPR is really a significant way to link Vermont authors with readers, and I think federal funding is what makes that all possible,’’ said Thomas Christopher Greene, a Montpelier listener. “VPR is really a cultural beacon that unites the state.’’

Vermont Public Radio operates on a much smaller scale than Boston’s two large NPR affiliates, WBUR-FM 90.9 and WGBH-FM 89.7. The Vermont station employs 50 people and receives about $600,000, or 9 percent of its $6.5 million annual budget, in federal funds.

WBUR has 120 employees and receives $1.3 million in federal grants — 6 percent of the station’s $21 million budget. And WGBH, which has both radio and television stations, has 850 employees and receives 8 percent of its $156 million budget from federal funds.

WBUR and WGBH’s local operations get most of their money in donations from audience members and corporate donors. If they lose their federal grants, they could potentially boost fund-raising efforts to make up the difference. Smaller stations like VPR would have a tough time replacing such a big chunk of their budget without the deep pools of sponsors and listeners enjoyed by the Boston stations.

“They have less means,’’ said Art Singer, a Boston management consultant for public broadcasters. “Their expenses are much more modest than the larger stations, but they are also dependent on fewer sources of revenue.’’

There are about 140 public radio stations across the country that receive 20 percent or more of their budgets from federal grants (none of which are in New England), according to a Corporation for Public Broadcasting spokeswoman, and they would be in serious financial trouble without those funds.

A station in rural Unalakleet, Alaska, for example, receives 90 percent of its funding from the government; another, in the northern California community of Hoopa, gets 47 percent of its revenue from federal money.

“Many of these stations are in rural or underserved areas, where it can be more expensive to operate and more difficult to raise the remaining funds,’’ wrote corporation spokeswoman Nicole Mezloin an e-mail.

On average, federal funds pay for 10 percent to 14 percent of the budgets for NPR affiliates in New England. The Maine Public Broadcasting Network, for example, includes a TV operation and NPR affiliate radio station, and gets 14 percent of its $11 million budget from federal funds. WFCR-FM 88.5 in Amherst, Mass., receives 10 percent of its $4 million budget from federal grants.

“That federal piece is an extremely important part of that mix,’’ said Martin Miller, chief executive and general manager of WFCR. “To lose it would mean making it up on our own, or cutting back on our local programming.’’

At Vermont Public Radio headquarters, a two-story brick building that once was a military veterinary hospital, chief executive Robin Turnau said federal funds have been vital since the station was established in 1977.

The funding “was the seed money that grew VPR into this network,’’ said Turnau.

In the wake of the recession, the station lost $500,000 in corporate funding. Turnau had to reduce salaries and travel. “We cut where we could,’’ she said.

More than half of the station’s budget is donated by about 25,000 supporters and corporate sponsors. If its federal grants were to vanish, “the loss of funds could be devastating,’’ Turnau said.

Listener support could help make up for the lost money. “That will help in the short term, but it’s not a long-term solution,’’ she said.

Vermonters dining in highway rest stops and coffee shops in the Burlington area were almost all aware of the push to cut federal funding for NPR. Some listened to Vermont Public Radio for national programs, and local segments such as a commentary series that allows residents to speak about any issue for three minutes.

“They’re part of my day,’’ 20-year listener Jerry Jeffords, 63, said at a welcome center off Interstate 89. “I would hate to see something happen to them.’’

Strolling along downtown Burlington’s Main Street, psychologist Sarah Friend said, “I really can’t imagine not having VPR.’’

Friend, who sports a white and green VPR bumper sticker on her Toyota SUV, said she enjoys “Fresh Air’’ and weekend culinary show “The Splendid Table.’’

“I leave a VPR show feeling that I’ve learned something,’’ she said. “They are like a friend.’’

Johnny Diaz can be reached at