Kalispell lawmaker seeks to defund public radio

Chad Sokol, Daily Inter Lake, Kalispell, Mont.
·3 min read

Feb. 26—A Kalispell lawmaker has introduced a bill that would eliminate state funding and other support for Montana's public radio stations.

House Bill 542, sponsored by Republican Rep. Derek Skees, would prohibit the state from allocating money or making in-kind contributions to any radio station. That would cut off state funding to Montana Public Radio and Yellowstone Public Radio, as well as college student-run stations such as KGBA in Missoula and KGLT in Bozeman. Public universities would have to stop providing free space for those stations to operate.

During a hearing before the House Energy, Technology and Federal Relations Committee on Wednesday, Skees argued there is "no compelling reason" for the state to subsidize any radio station, regardless of the content or viewpoints it shares, though he also accused public radio in general of liberal bias.

"To me, it's just not fair to put taxpayer money into one component of the market and not give to everybody else," Skees said, suggesting public radio stations could make up the difference through paid advertising and philanthropy. His bill makes one exception for the state to pay to air public service announcements.

Eighteen people testified against the bill, including Montana residents who said they rely on public radio for local news and cultural programming — including subjects often overlooked by commercial stations that rely on advertising. Only Skees spoke in support of the legislation.

"There is a place for public radio in Montana to serve listeners across the state with news, weather and public safety," said Dewey Bruce, president and CEO of the Montana Broadcasters Association, which represents public and commercial radio and TV stations across the state. "They are the first informers in your communities, and the more voices we have in our communities, the better the people of Montana are served."

Bruce noted the state contributes only a fraction of the funding for Montana's public radio stations, and he said those stations serve as a "training ground" for broadcasters who move on to work for commercial stations.

"We need to support the organizations that help to provide future people in our industry," he said.

The University of Montana holds the broadcast licenses for Yellowstone Public Radio and Montana Public Radio, both of which are member stations of National Public Radio. A 2019 financial report for YPR shows state funding accounted for just 6% of the station's revenue that year. A university spokesman said Thursday state funding accounts for 17% of MTPR's operating budget, while 74% comes from private sources and 9% comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Noelle Huser, general manager of KGBA, told lawmakers Wednesday that Skees' bill would jeopardize the student-run station's existence by taking away its facilities on the Missoula campus.

"And might I add that students, time and time again, have voted in overwhelming support to keep our station around," Huser said. "They know the value of our station, the educational opportunity, the way that we provide them resources, information, entertainment, the ability to know what's going on in their community and their campus."

Rep. Andrea Olsen, D-Missoula, told Skees she didn't understand the motivation behind his bill.

"I think there's almost nothing more culturally and community-orientated than the way people come together to communicate through public radio, and I just am confused about why you think this is important," she said.

Skees reiterated his argument that all radio stations should compete with the same private resources.

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

Reporter Chad Sokol can be reached at 758-4434 or csokol@dailyinterlake.com