A public debate

Local stations WBUR and WGBH might actually be better off if the government withdraws funding

By Alex Beam
Globe Columnist / January 14, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

The newly elected members of the 112th Congress are working from a conservative ideological playbook and talking a big game where budget-cutting is concerned. Inevitably they will be tempted by a proverbial piece of low-hanging fruit, the $420 million annual appropriation for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

“This is the most serious threat to federal funding that public broadcasting has ever faced,’’ says Mike Riksen, National Public Radio vice president for policy and representation. Does he expect the CPB budget to be reduced, or eliminated entirely? “A reasonable person would plan for the latter,’’ he said. “That’s what we are planning for, and that’s what we are anticipating.’’

Threats from the un-silent armies who take their marching orders from Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and Fox News make for good bulletin board material at fund-raising time. There is, however, another current of thought within public broadcasting, being kept strictly on the down low: Public broadcasters — and especially prosperous stations like Boston’s WGBH and WBUR — might be better off without the government’s money.

Argument one: Who needs the headache?

Taxpayer dollars flowing though the bloodstream of public broadcasting mean any lickspittle public official or deadline-challenged columnist can wave the bloody shirt of editorial bias, real or imagined. Of course PBS and NPR are biased — so what? Their weak-tea, center-left tilt hardly threatens the republic, and the NPR-niks’ resigned exasperation with bourgeois capitalism is more charming than annoying at this point.

Freed from the yoke of taxpayer funding, you think they’ll unpack their secret Leninist plan for media domination? Nah. I doubt they would change their political orientation one whit. Win-win all around.

Argument two: Who needs the money?

Someone does need the money, but chances are it’s not a station you listen to. Pat Butler represents all 368 of America’s public television stations in Washington. “The smaller the station, the greater the share of federal funding that goes to their operating budget,’’ he explains. His smallest station, in North Platte, Neb., needs the government money to stay on the air. In the public broadcasting eco-system, Butler explains, some of this money trickles back to the wealthy programming stations. “North Platte has to be able to contribute to WGBH programming through its PBS dues,’’ he says.

So how badly do WGBH and WBUR need taxpayers’ dollars? Boston is a honeymoon hotel of public broadcasting love, with loyal and well-heeled audiences; it would be a stretch to say the stations here are desperate for congressional megabucks.

First, WBUR. The radio station receives $1.3 million in CPB funding, toward a total budget of around $21 million. That is about 6 percent. “That’s modest compared to the overall operation,’’ says newly appointed general manger Charles Kravetz. “But it’s meaningful. It would hurt ’BUR if we lost the CPB funding.’’ He does allow that the station “is in excellent financial shape.’’ How else, indeed, could it finance an Enver Hoxha-size billboard of Tom Ashbrook looming above the city’s streets?

According to WGBH’s annual report, federal dollars account for 8 percent of the station’s total budget. That combines the same subsidy that WBUR receives, plus additional funds for ’GBH’s many nationally distributed shows, such as “Nova,’’ “American Experience,’’ and “Frontline.’’ Federal funds take up 14 percent of ’GBH’s local broadcasting costs, a spokeswoman explains, making the station twice as reliant as WBUR on taxpayers’ dollars.

WGBH’s children’s show “Between the Lions’’ gets more than 75 percent of its budget from the feds; “Frontline,’’ about 2 percent. “We would be very damaged by a cancellation of federal funding,’’ says Marita Rivero, ’GBH’s vice president for radio and TV. “The CPB money is leverage for other funds. That’s what everyone uses it for.’’

Argument three: Who needs the little guys?

A funding Armageddon might trigger a drastic re-thinking in how the stations and networks raise money. For now, all direct fund-raising goes to the stations. If you love “All Things Considered,’’ for instance, and go to the NPR website to donate, you will be redirected to your local station. A federal cutoff could set off a money war in which the networks and rich stations prosper, and North Platte gets left out in the cold.

Riksen of NPR says he’s not expecting the existing system to change. A PBS spokeswoman says the network “and our member stations are investigating a number of ways to increase resources in the system as a whole. Online fund-raising is one of several possibilities.’’

Stay tuned.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is