Public radio prepares to cut back

Article by Ed Quillen

Communication – March 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

Now that we’ve got some committed budget-cutters holding the purse strings in Washington, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting may be eliminated, and the result could be less diversity on local radio dials.

The CPB spends about $285 million a year of our money, and the United States of America somehow managed to survive for 190 years without a CPB, so it can’t be essential. (For that matter, the republic prospered and triumphed for even longer intervals without a Drug Enforcement Administration, a Department of Education, an Environmental Protection Agency, or an assault weapon ban.)

Generally, CPB money goes to local radio and television stations, which in turn use the money to buy programs from places like National Public Radio and Public Broadcasting Service. The stations also raise money from listeners with fund drives, and from sponsorships (“this program made possible by a generous grant from Colorado Central, the monthly magazine for baseball players who close the cover before striking…”).

Now, suppose you were serious about cutting the federal budget. CPB’s budget works out to about 1/59 as much as we spend every year on “farm income stabilization” — money that goes to landed people, often of considerable means. CPB’s budget would cover 10 seconds of interest on the national debt. It’s about what the Department of Defense spends on military bands. The CIA, which can’t find spies in its own house and consistently misses every big international development, gets about 1,000 times as much as the CPB.

Doesn’t it strike you as rather odd that the budget-cutters go after CPB first, when there are so many other tempting targets for the clippers?

Not that odd, if you follow the reasoning of Sen. Robert Dole. He says National Public Radio — in fact, he said it on National Public Radio — is a liberal outfit. Dole’s a conservative. Why should all taxpayers be forced to subsidize some political propaganda outlet?

Good question, but I listen to NPR often, and it’s never struck me as particularly leftist. As some friends have observed, if you want left-wing, find a Pacifica station; NPR sounds like The Limbaugh Letter by comparison.

Further, NPR seems committed to carrying voices, left or right, that I wouldn’t hear elsewhere. There’s David Horowitz, for example, who was a dingbat left-wing radical 30 years ago when it served his interests, and is now a dingbat right-wing radical when there’s money in that — but he’s provocative and interesting.

During the 1992 presidential campaign, I was prepared to vote the prudent and traditional way: Libertarian — the only party which shows evidence of having actually read either the Declaration of Independence or the Bill of Rights.

NPR PRESENTED A SERIES of 20-minute stump speeches by every presidential candidate who was on the ballot in all 50 states. Among them was Adrian Marrou, the Libertarian candidate. He bashed NAFTA on the grounds that Mexicans took mid-day siestas, which made it difficult to run assembly lines.

This country would be better off if we accommodated more siestas, and beyond that, the people of any country, Mexico included, ought to be able to organize their days in ways that fit them, rather the bottom-line requirements of multi-national manufacturing companies.

Marrou took the side of corporate efficiency, rather than human dignity, and if I wanted to vote for a corporate shill, I could get the real thing with both Ross Perot and George Bush on the ballot. So Marrou lost my vote, and he would have got it if NPR hadn’t let me hear him speak. In this sound-bite era, that’s the only way that we can hear presidential candidates speak at length; Harry Truman in 1948 was the last president who thought our part of the world was worth visiting.

The other argument against public broadcasting is that the stations appeal only to some wealthy elite, rather than the average person on the street, who is presumably well-served by lowest-common-denominator commercial broadcasting.

This argument sounds plausible, but if we’re really worried about government-funded institutions that primarily benefit wealthy elites, there’s the Federal Reserve Board. Or the entire judicial system, serving those who buy the best legal talent. And, of course, the United States Senate.

But maybe the critics are right, and public radio is indeed too elitist, too liberal, and too expensive. What happens hereabouts if the CPB gets zapped by Congress?

CENTRAL COLORADO gets two public-radio stations by repeater: KUNC from Greeley (89.9 FM in Salida and Buena Vista) and KRCC from Colorado Springs (88.5 in Westcliffe and Gardner, and 89.3 in Salida).

Neil Best is general manager of KUNC. (Disclaimer: Neil’s parents lived down the street from my grandmother’s house in Fort Morgan. He is an old college friend, and a brother of Allen Best, managing editor of the Vail Valley Times and occasional contributor to this magazine. This indicates either that Colorado is 104,000 square miles of small town, or that we’re all part of the global elitist media conspiracy. Take your pick.)

Where would Best cut first if he lost 18 percent of his station’s income?

“Before we cut anything, we’d try to encourage more people to get involved with the station, to contribute during our fund drives.”

After that, “we’d cut Marketplace and Prairie Home Companion. They’re both expensive programs, and even without them we could continue to carry NPR news and commentary. After that, we’d look at staff cutbacks and more station automation. Morning Edition would be the very last program we’d consider cutting.”

Best’s major worry is not his station, but a ripple effect. “We’d manage without CPB money. But there are stations in tiny markets like Paonia and Ignacio. They lose their CPB money, and they quit buying programs like All Things Considered. The program production costs remain the same, so that raises the fee for the rest of us. The fee goes up, more stations drop out, and it’s the classic death spiral.”

At any rate, the repeaters that bring KUNC to the mountains would continue broadcasting as long as KUNC is on the air, Best said. “We’ve made commitments to serve people in rural areas, and we will keep those commitments.”

BY CONTRAST, the mountain repeaters would be the first to go if KRCC lost the 24 percent of its budget, about $120,000 a year, it gets from CPB.

The major repeater expense is rent, $3,600 a year for Westcliffe and Gardner, and $5,700 a year for Salida (which, ironically, goes to KSTC, a public television station), said Mario Valdes, general manager at KRCC.

“We don’t get nearly that much back in $30 annual memberships from your area, so that’s an easy place for us to cut. It sticks right out when you look at our budget,” Valdes said.

In Valdes’s worst-case projection, not only would the repeaters go, but so would one full-time employee, one part-time employee, all student interns, several telephone lines, “and we’d still be $30,000 short. The idea in Washington seems to be that we could try harder to raise money from listeners, but there’s a limit to how far you can push that. But let’s remember that there’s nothing on the table at the moment. All this is just talk.”

Valdes said the federal government sends mixed signals. “We installed the repeaters in Westcliffe and then Salida because Congress mandated that public radio stations serve rural areas. There was a grant program through the Department of Commerce — they paid 75 percent, and we put up 25 percent. The attitude was that rural people pay the same taxes as urban people, and should be entitled to some urban amenities, like public radio.”

And then, “they talk about eliminating CPB, which means we’d quit serving rural areas. Why was it in the national interest to serve you five years ago, and not now?”

Valdes, of course, couldn’t urge people to write their congressman and urge that the CPB subsidy be continued. He made that clear. That’s a violation of all manner of laws. Lobbying to protect your interests is okay for health-insurance companies, but not public-radio station managers.

However, “if everyone who listens to us regularly up there joined the station and sent in the $30 a year, your repeaters would be safe. We’d never consider eliminating them if they were making money, or even breaking even.”

THERE’S ONE MAN who wouldn’t really mind if CPB were eliminated yesterday: Bill Murphy, owner and general manager of Salida’s KVRH (92.3 in Salida, 106.3 Buena Vista, 98.3 Coaldale, and 1340 AM).

He has an understandable irritation at being taxed to support enterprises which compete with him, and he doesn’t think the competition is fair.

“They say they’re ‘non-commercial,’ ” Murphy said, “but you hear commercials all the time on public radio. They just don’t call them commercials. The people who solicit for these ‘sponsorships’ or ‘donations’ or whatever are basically selling ads, but they don’t call themselves advertising salesmen.

“They’re really in the commercial arena, just like the rest of us, except they pretend they’re not. The playing field isn’t level, and I don’t think these stations are being honest about how they operate.”

Murphy also believes that, after years of subsidies, “the public-radio system is like any other government bureaucracy, expensive and inefficient. There’s no market discipline. You look at what a station would pay for NPR news, and for that, you could get AP Radio, two or three commercial networks like ABC and CBS, and all sorts of other culture and commentary, and have money left over. From what I’ve seen, NPR is not a good programming buy; you could get more, including quality in-depth material like NPR’s, for a lot less.”

He also notes that the public system’s equipment “is in general a lot classier than what you see in similar-sized commercial outlets. They’ve got every new bell and whistle. They could function just as well and spend considerably less on equipment, and they’d figure that out pretty fast if they had to support themselves.”

Murphy hastens to point out that the arrival of two public radio stations in the past decade hasn’t really cost his station.

“We subscribe to several ratings services, and they still show us well ahead in our primary market, Chaffee County, with about twice as many listeners as everybody else put together. The public stations are almost immeasurable; the only outside station with any impact is KCCY from Pueblo, and they’re a very distant second.”

KUNC and KRCC probably don’t affect his ratings at all, Murphy said. “The people listening to them are generally people who wouldn’t be listening to us anyway, so they’re not taking away any market share.”

AS FOR MY OWN listening habits, KUNC does a great job on Colorado news, but its musical and cultural programming is generally too elevated for my low-life three-chord twelve-bar musical tastes.

KRCC has the best daytime music if you’re a middle-aged rock ‘n’ roll fan: occasional oldies from our misspent youth, lots of new stuff that your kids like too, an hour of blues at noon every day, and day-brightening humor from attitude problems like John Prine, Country Dick Montana, Mojo Nixon, and the Rev. Billy C. Wirtz.

I once characterized KVRH’s musical repertoire as “elevator country and western,” but that was a few years ago. More recently, I walked into a Salida store and heard “Rainy Day Women” blasting away, and then was shocked when it was KVRH. Somebody there has discovered that we’re not all lonesome cowboys.

KVRH goes after local news aggressively and it tries to give local issues a thorough airing. It is operated by humans here, another virtue. What comes from KVRH is not the result of some consultant in Phoenix advising a limited partnership in Miami about the most profitable satellite-delivered programming from Memphis.

I like having all three available. I also believe that government subsidies are, in general, a bad practice, even when the subsidies go for things I enjoy.

So how about eliminating the CPB gradually, over five years? That would give the stations time to adjust, and the budget-cutters in Congress could then turn their attention to real spending, the stuff in the billions, instead of the relative pittance that goes to the CPB.

Ed Quillen broadcast from amateur radio call sign WN0QNY before he discovered girls and cars when he was 16.