Public stations could lose a big supporter

Pressure building to end US funds for broadcasters

By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / February 18, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Call it the ultimate pledge drive for public broadcasting. Near the midnight hour on Capitol Hill, Democrats tried to preserve at least $430 million that the federal government plans to spend this year to subsidize radio and television stations across the country, including Boston’s WBUR and WGBH.

They lost.

Now House Republicans believe they are on the verge of voting to end federal subsidies for public broadcasting, setting the stage for a Big Bird-size battle in the Senate and potentially thrusting the issue into the hands of President Obama, an avowed fan of the public networks.

Even supporters are worried that the funding may not survive the latest attempt to cut public broadcasting. There are growing calls to reduce the deficit, and governors and state lawmakers have recommended cutting state funding for public stations. Even the president’s deficit-reduction commission proposed eliminating the funds.

“This is an ideological attack on public broadcasting,’’ said Representative Edward Markey, a Malden Democrat who failed Wednesday in his effort with other Democrats to protect the funding.

But Republicans said the time for funding public broadcasting with taxpayer money is over.

“We are borrowing almost 40 cents out of every dollar we spend,’’ House majority leader Eric Cantor said in an interview. “We’ve got to figure out how to do more with less. It’s unsustainable.’’

More than 1,000 people in Massachusetts work for public radio and television stations. WBUR, the Boston-based public radio station, gets about $1.3 million in federal funds each year, about 6 percent of the station’s $21 million annual budget.

“WBUR will absolutely survive,’’ said Charles Kravetz, the station’s general manager. “But will there be stations around the country that probably will go dark? Yes. Will lots and lots of people probably lose their jobs? Yes. Will there be some programs that are marginal that will disappear? Probably. It will have an impact.’’

Kravetz sent an e-mail to supporters yesterday, warning them of the dire cuts being proposed and urging them to contact members of Congress.

WGBH, the Boston public television station, gets nearly 8 percent of its $156 million budget from federal funding. Many of the station’s operations are funded through corporate sponsorships and pledge drives. The impact of losing federal funds could be seen in a reduction in the number of new programs that get started without sponsors, said Jeanne Hopkins, a vice president at the station, which produces a number of nationally known programs, including “Frontline,’’ “American Experience,’’ and “NOVA.’’

“If we didn’t have that money, a lot of programs would not get made,’’ Hopkins said. “Because we don’t have the money to start them up.’’

The loss of federal funding would hit hardest at smaller stations in rural states. In New Hampshire, the federal cuts would be compounded by the decision this week of the state’s legislature to cut off its support for public television. New Hampshire Public Television would have to halve its $8.8 million budget under combined state and federal cuts.

“To say that the staff is demoralized and discouraged is an understatement,’’ said Dawn DeAngelis, New Hampshire Public Television’s chief content officer. “Will we go dark? No. Will it be severe and very harsh? Yes.’’

The federal government provides an average of 15 percent of the budgets for some 1,300 public television and radio stations across the country. The federal funding for Massachusetts has varied from year to year, from as low as $13.4 million in fiscal 2005 to as high as $34 million in fiscal 2007. During fiscal 2010, stations in the Bay State received $19.7 million, according to the most recent data from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Markey helped lead an effort this week to try to restore the funding, starting with a press conference outside the Capitol that featured a stuffed Big Bird on the lectern and a poster of Bert and Ernie being handed sign that read, “GOPink Slip: You are fired.’’ A costumed Arthur the Aardvark, a character on a children’s program produced by WGBH, stood silently among a half-dozen members of Congress, one of whom held a stuffed Elmo under her arm.

Markey joined several other Democrats in bringing up an amendment just after 11:30 p.m. Wednesday that would have protected the funding. But the move was ruled out of order because it would have required changes to the tax code that could not be done through a budget amendment.

As a result, the proposal to end the subsidy for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is included in a sweeping GOP measure that would cut at least $61 billion from a budget plan for fiscal 2011, which began Oct. 1. The House was still debating the plan late yesterday. If the measure passes the House, as Republicans expect, it is likely to face opposition in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Obama, who could veto the measure if it passes Congress, is an avid supporter of public broadcasting and has requested slight increases in funding. Even if Obama vetoes the bill and protects funding this year, it may be harder for him to maintain public funding in coming years, given the deficit crisis.

Republicans have long targeted public broadcasting for fiscal and ideological reasons. Most recently, public broadcasting has been criticized by Republicans after NPR fired its high-profile conservative commentator Juan Williams, following his comment on Fox News that he gets nervous when he is on a plane with Muslims. NPR later said it mishandled the situation, which spurred calls from Republicans to cut funding. House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio called NPR a “left-wing radio network.’’

“In a time of real austerity, programs that have strong opponents are in trouble,’’ Representative Peter King, a New York Republican, said in an interview. “If people have been waiting for years to get you, this is the time. . . . Don’t underestimate the whole Juan Williams thing.’’

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting was established in 1967 to develop more television and radio options for the public. But critics say the media landscape has changed vastly since then, with the advent of the Internet, cable television, and satellite radio. At the same time, media companies are going through vast changes, with cutbacks in coverage and staff.

Aside from federal funding, public broadcasting also receives support from corporate donations, pledge drives, and large gifts. Philanthropist Joan Kroc, for example, donated $200 million to NPR upon her death in 2003. Those other sources of funding have led to calls to cut the federal subsidies, particularly at a time when deficits are growing.

“I listen to a lot of NPR; I’m a closet NPR listener,’’ said Representative Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican. But, he said, “I think a lot of these programs could survive the market test and do fine on their own. I’ve long felt that we could cut funding and be fine.’’

Matt Viser can be reached at