'This is the most serious threat we’ve seen': Public radio prepares to fight Trump's funding cuts

Donald Trump
Donald Trump

(President Donald Trump walks to the White House after arriving on Marine One, Sunday, March 19, 2017, in Washington. Trump is returning from a trip to his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla.AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Local radio stations are gearing up for a fight to beat back President Donald Trump's proposal to cut funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funds hundreds of local radio and television stations across the US.

"This is the most serious threat we’ve seen in 30-40 years," Maine Public President Mark Vogelzang told Business Insider in a Thursday interview. "I’ve been in public broadcasting since 1980, and I’ve never seen this serious, sustained effort to defund public broadcasting."

But, he added: "We’ve been preparing for this day, and I would say we are ready to mount a very vigorous and successful defense."

Vogelzang, who oversees Maine Public's 15 radio and television shows, which have over 200,000 viewers and listeners respectively, says his staff has been expecting the cuts for months, and planning on how to engage readers and listeners.

This month, the organization launched a public awareness campaign urging listeners and viewers to submit testimony and print our signs and stickers. Vogelzang told Business Insider he met with Maine's Independent and Republican senators last week, who both told him that it will be a "real fight" to secure funding for 2018, but they support funding for the current public broadcasting model.

Other stations are using the threat of proposed cuts to spur donations: WNYC went as far as to advertise the potential federal funding cuts in its annual pledge drive.

While larger organizations like Maine Public and New York Public Radio have already begun informing audiences about the proposed cuts, many smaller stations are quietly laying the groundwork to mobilize supporters for a public campaign in the coming weeks.

National organizations like NPR and PBS are planning similar campaigns to inform the public about the proposed cuts as budget negotiations begin in earnest, while station managers in states like Maine and Indiana have been privately lobbying members of Congress.

Many stations have emphasized the CPB accounts for far less than 0.1% of the federal government's annual budget — it was allocated $445 million in 2016 of $3.5 trillion spent by the government. The funding would not eliminate PBS and NPR, which only receive a small percentage of their funds from the federal government, but would impact local public radio and TV stations. CPB divides up its the budget among hundreds of local public television and radio stations across the US, which are supported by the federal government and individual and corporate donors, and pay to license national programs such as NPR's "All Things Considered."


(NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C.AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Many public radio stations pointed out that many of the hardest-hit stations would be in rural areas with listeners of all ideological stripes.

Perry Metz, who oversees WFIU and WTIU in Indiana, said that he was concerned by the proposed budget and argued that the percent of the federal government's budget that is spent on public media is "tiny."

"As a joint licensee, we broadcast to both blue and red counties and have long enjoyed bipartisan support. Eliminating this funding would remove the crucial seed money we leverage to raise additional funds from individuals and corporations," Metz wrote in an email.

He added: "We are hopeful that Congress will continue the support it has shown public broadcasting for the last 60 years, through all kinds of administrations."

New Hampshire Public Radio President Betsy Gardella described the cuts as potentially "devastating," though she acknowledged that the radio stations had yet to get in touch with members of congress. WVAS station manager Candy Capel pointed to different programs that "would not be possible" without funding directly by CPB, including a series on Alabama high school dropouts, a program that covers veterans after deployment, and an investigation into the effects of the Gulf Coast oil spill.

Opponents of Trump's plan have leveraged the influence of iconic public broadcasting figures to urge lawmakers against the cuts.

Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey shared Fred Rogers testimony in 1969 defending funding for PBS, which aired his educational children's show "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood" for decades. The clip — in which Rogers described the "expression of care every day to each child" his program offered — went viral, racking up millions of views and garnering coverage on local and national outlets across the country.

The White House defended the proposed cuts in blunt terms, dubbing the funding non-essential.

In an interview on MSNBC last week, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said that Trump discussed similar funding cuts on the campaign trail, and would honor the promises he made to reform the federal government.

"We went back and pulled lines out of speeches, out of interviews, talked to the president. And we turned his words, his policies, into numbers," Mulvaney said. "So folks who voted for the president are getting exactly what they voted for. Those are the numbers he campaigned on."

He added: "One of the questions we asked was 'Can we really continue to ask a coal miner in West Virginia or a single mom in Detroit to pay for these programs?' The answer was no. We can ask them to pay for defense, which we will. But we can't ask them to continue to pay for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting."

mick mulvaney
mick mulvaney

(Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Many stations have argued that some stations help fight and bring to light local issues.

Brent Molnar, the station operator at Indiana's WTIU, said station representatives met with the state's two senators, as well as five Republican-controlled districts the station covers.

He acknowledged that many Republican members and their staff were "very cautious about promising support," they "seemed more open" to learning about the station and collaborating to fight the heroin epidemic, and address early childhood education and veterans issues.

"If there was a positive note, it was that a few of the legislative assistants seemed to indicate that their bosses are aiming to keep their staff tightly focused on the needs of their constituents, rather than the issues surrounding the White House," Molnar said.

He added: "The more that we can show legislators how we are responding to the needs of their constituents, the more likely they could be to see us as partners in solving the same issues."

Some stations are concerned about cuts, but cautioned against embracing overly sensational proclamations about the death of public radio should federal funding disappear.

David Feingold, who runs Blue Ridge Public Media in North Carolina, noted while other public radio stations depend more heavily on CPB funding, "a 10% bite is a 10% bite."

"With CPB support, we’ve been able to extend our coverage into parts of thirteen, largely rural, counties in Western North Carolina," Feingold said. "We’ve also been able to grow our news department to provide quality journalism at a time of shrinking commitment to coverage by traditional, commercial media organizations."

Vogelzang cautioned against losing perspective.

"We don’t want to hit the panic button," Vogelzang said, "we want to have a serious discussion with our community, we will let them know how they can support public broadcasting to tell broadcasting strong and healthy."

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