Big Bird, Elmo, Barney and Arthur the Aardvark may soon be given pink slips or find themselves working for Disney or R.J. Reynolds hawking t-shirts, posters and videos. Public broadcasting is under fire and is facing huge budget cuts at both the federal and state levels. One governor has even proposed selling off his state’s public television and radio stations.
Florida Governor Rick Scott has joined in on the Barney bashing with his recent set of line-item vetoes totaling $615 million, which he proclaimed were “in keeping with his campaign promise to make the tough choices needed to turn Florida’s economy around.”
Scott overruled the state legislature’s commitment to public broadcasting. He vetoed $4.8 million that lawmakers had approved in the state’s $69.7 billion budget for 13 television stations and 13 radio stations for the upcoming fiscal year.
The Pensacola area has two public broadcast stations, WUWF and WSRE. WUWF has been a part of the University of West Florida’s Center for Public Media for over 25 years. It broadcasts National Public Radio (NPR) programs and has an additional 20 hours per week of local programming. Its radio station has consistently finished as one of the most popular in Northwest Florida in the IN’s Best of the Coast poll.
WSRE is part of Pensacola State College and the Public Broadcasting Service. The award-winning station first signed on in 1967. In addition to Sesame Street and other popular PBS children’s daily programming, WSRE has produced a variety of local programs including “Flavors of the Coast,” “Connecting the Community,” “Food for Thought,” “Open Forum,” “Garden Magic,” “AWARE” and “Legislative Review.”
Both stations are integral parts of the community. They had anticipated a 30 percent reduction in state funding, but Scott’s veto, which ended all state funding for them, caught them completely by surprise. WUWF and WSRE are losing $61,715 and $307,446, respectively.
PART OF NATIONAL DEBATE
Gov. Rick Scott’s veto is actually part of a much bigger debate on public broadcasting that has been going on since the beginning of the year. Conservatives see public broadcasting as an anachronism.
When the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) was created in 1967, the media was dominated by three national networks. The push was for better quality and more educational programming. However, today the Web and cable television have allowed for an exponential increase in the diversity of broadcasting. Conservatives argue if Bravo, the Discovery Channel, the History Channel and a myriad of radio stations have to compete to stay in operation, why should NPR and PBS have the advantage of public funding?
In terms of national funding, the CPB has done well under the Obama Administration, receiving $420 million in 2011 and a proposed $451 million for next year. Supporters of public broadcasting see it as a vital part of the democracy and our educational system. They fear that drastically cutting funds will eliminate the safe harbor of children’s educational programming.
According to the pro-CPB website 170millionamericans.org, federal support is critical seed money for local stations, “which leverage each federal dollar to raise over six more dollars from local sources in order to provide the American public with the highest quality programming and services.”
NPR AMBUSH FUELS OPPOSITION
The national debate was pushed to the forefront in March, when NPR was ambushed by James O’Keefe and his Project Veritas, who secretly videotaped senior NPR executives into taking a meeting with two actors pretending to be an Islamic group that was considering making a $5 million donation to public broadcasting.
During the conversation, video-recorded by O’Keefe, NPR executives made disparaging remarks about the Christian Right and Tea Party activists. NPR fundraising executive Ron Schiller expressed a “personal opinion” that Tea Party activists are “xenophobic” and “racist.”
Though Schiller and NPR refused to accept the $5 million, the edited video created a furor among Republicans. Schiller resigned. The NPR board fired CEO Vivian Schiller.
The video wasn’t O’Keefe’s first sting operation. His previous targets had been the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), a collection of community-based organizations that focused on voter registration during the 2008 election cycle, and Shirley Sherrod, Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the United States Department of Agriculture. In both instances, the inflammatory videos were heavily edited to damage the targets.
The Schiller/NPR video was no different. Scott Baker, editor in chief of the conservative news site “The Blaze,” reviewed the video and found O’Keefe had cut and pasted answers to questions to damage NPR. Schiller had actually turned down the contribution six times. Baker said that after watching the two-hour video, he came away with the impression that the NPR executives “seem to be fairly balanced people.” However, the damage had been done.
FROM REPUBLICAN GOVERNOR PLAYBOOK?
Rick Scott isn’t the only first-term Republican governor to cut funding for public broadcasting. The governors of Maine, South Dakota and Virginia have also targeted public broadcasting as they battle budget shortfalls.
Maine Gov. Paul LePage has proposed a $4 million cut for the Maine Public Broadcasting Network over the next two years, which represents 20 percent of its operating budget.
Gov. Dennis Daugaard got the South Dakota Legislature to accept a 16-percent cut for public broadcasting, while most state agencies were hit with a 10-percent budget reduction. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s decision to cut a further 16 percent of the state’s public broadcasting budget brings his total cuts since 2010 to roughly 25 percent.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is privatizing public broadcasting. He recently unveiled a five-year agreement with WNET Channel 13 to operate the state’s TV network. Christie also announced the state will sell the network’s radio licenses to WHYY in Philadelphia and New York Public Radio in New York for almost $5 million in cash and in-kind contributions.
Lane Wright, Rick Scott’s spokesperson, says that his line-item veto wasn’t part of any orchestrated effort by the Republican Party to dismantle public broadcasting. The governor’s office told the IN that it is maintaining with its line-item vetoes its blanket approach of “doing more with less” during these difficult financial times. To Gov. Scott, it’s nothing personal.
“This cut was about what is protecting the taxpayers. We as a government can’t be everything to everyone. We have to make those tough decisions and focus on the core functions of this government and using our resources for our top priorities,” says Wright.
WUWF Executive Director Pat Crawford sees the veto by Scott differently. “Being completely eliminated from the budget by the governor’s veto was disappointing, as it ended a partnership with the state that has existed for more than 30 years,” he said.
He explained this partnership is more or less a network of Florida public broadcast stations who over these past 30 years have invested a great deal into infrastructure to maintain this network, such as emergency operations broadcasting, which during an emergency like a hurricane give the stations the ability to simulcast orders and messages from the governor’s office. Crawford sees this partnership as a true community service to the WUWF listening area, which the governor’s veto threatens.
“The loss of the community service grants jeopardizes the ability of the public broadcasters to keep the citizens of Florida informed during times of crisis, a key component to an important partnership with the Department of Emergency Management begun under Governor Bush’s administration.”
WSRE is feeling the financial crunch with over $300,000 in lost funding, or about 10 percent of the station’s annual budget.
“After the legislature had supported us, the fact that funding was zeroed out left us with feelings of shock and dismay,” said WSRE general manager Sandy Cesaretti Ray. “Had we had more time, we could have been more efficient and effective in making some decisions in short order.”
The veto has caught local lawmakers off guard and left them guessing at the reasoning behind elimination of WUWF and WSRE from the state budget. Gov. Scott had declared all his line-item vetoes as necessary cuts against “special interests” for the “shortsighted, frivolous, wasteful spending.” No one can figure out why the area’s two popular public broadcasting stations deserved to be labeled “special interests.”
“I was surprised, frankly,” said State Rep. Doug Broxson (R–District 1). He plans to discuss the cuts with the governor and has no explanation for them, except possibly the public broadcasting group may have failed to adequately “lobby to the governor’s office letting (Scott) know how important they are.”
Broxson, who recently completed his first legislative session, is hopeful about the sustainability of local public broadcasting despite these recent, drastic cuts. “I think ‘zero’ (funding) says a lot. I do have confidence in our local people. I think they will do whatever it takes to keep them healthy,” he told the IN.
He also disregards the notion that these cuts were a part of a Republican agenda. “(The original budget) made it through both the House and Senate. They thought the stations deserved some funding.”
State Rep. Clay Ingram (R-District 2) agreed. “Those stations are there to serve the entire public. I’ve observed pretty closely, and I have just not seen that as an issue with any of the local stations,” he said. “That’s why I expected those appropriations to stay in the budget.”
State Rep. Clay Ford (R-District 3), who is the senior member of the local House delegation, supports public broadcasting and sees the value of its influence in the community.
“I am extremely disappointed to learn of the veto,” said Ford. “I am a regular viewer of public broadcasting and believe it brings to our area an unbiased view of the coverage offered.
“During the past five years, I have participated in many public events broadcast by WSRE for the benefit of the public. It offers an opportunity to allow the public to see and ask questions live of their legislators without having to leave their homes.”
Ford doesn’t believe Gov. Scott is out to dismantle public broadcasting and hopes the private sector will help meet the funding needs. “WSRE has hosted many events for the public, such as public hearings on consolidation and other current topics. It is a great loss for the public, and I hope the community will rise to the challenge to replace it.”
PIECES OF THE BROADCASTING BUDGET PIE
Both Crawford and Ray agree with Rep. Ford that public support is critical to the future of their stations. WUWF raises 40 to 45 percent of its operational budget through pledge drives, corporate sponsorship and special events.
Regular WUWF listeners are familiar with the station’s spring and fall pledge drives, which brought in $482,000 last year for the station, which accounted for 41 percent of its budget. The spring drive that ended this past March was the most profitable in the station’s history.
“What I’m encouraged by, and the irony of it, is that during the hard time in funding at the same time Congress was considering defunding public broadcasting, NPR was experiencing record growth in audience, said Crawford, “and locally we have seen a remarkable outpouring of concern from our own listeners.”
According to the Arbitron ratings, the national service that measures radio and television audiences, public radio is seeing an increase in listenership, nearly 27.5 million people weekly across the nation. That’s nearly double Rush Limbaugh’s following of 15 million listeners, according to Crawford.
That bodes for local listenership as well. “The trend is definitely up as a result of the new program offerings rolled out in February,” said Crawford. “The response has been overwhelmingly positive.”
According to Arbitron, weekly cume for WUWF is 47,200, with an AGH (Average Quarter Hour of that time period) listenership of 2,200. Cume is the estimated number of different listeners that tune in during an average week, sometimes called “reach” or “circulation.”
Unfortunately, national studies show that only about 5 percent of that local audience contributes to public broadcasting.
That’s a statistic that Pat Crawford knows he has to change. “Budgets for public radio are like that of churches: they are built largely on faith,” said Crawford.
Rather than relying too much on that faith, WUWF plans to take a more aggressive approach in securing corporate sponsorships. However, there are no plans for the station to add conventional advertising as a revenue source.
“Not a chance,” said Crawford when asked about adding commercials to his programming. “Our non-commercial approach to broadcasting is our greatest strength—to be able to produce long-form news and information programs without interruption or influence from advertisers. “Our goal is to engage more corporate sponsors without compromising our programming standards. Businesses who underwrite public radio programs benefit from these non-commercial standards by associating themselves with stimulating and enlightening programming in an uncluttered listening environment.”
EARLY CASUALTY: LIVE MUSIC
While the two stations pump up their efforts to attract corporate sponsors, some local programming has already seen the effects of the reduction in state funding. “RadioLive” has been pulled from WUWF’s line-up. The program showcased local and regional musical talent with a monthly live concert at the downtown Museum of Commerce.
“RadioLive” was actually pulled at the end of the 2009 fiscal year. The Jim Dyehouse Memorial Fund to Save “RadioLive,” established to honor of one of the program’s fans, along with the grassroots efforts of volunteers, managed to keep the program on the air for another two and a half years. The last “RadioLive” aired on June 2, and according to Crawford, is currently on “hiatus.”
The term “hiatus” is also becoming part of WSRE’s regular vocabulary. With over $300,000 in lost state funding, the station has resorted to radical measures of cutting some programming in addition to five full-time staff positions.
“We’ve had to make some tough decisions because of those made at the state level,” said Sandy Ray. “Some of our programs will have to go on hiatus. The word ‘hiatus’ is key, and with donor support, I have every confidence that with this fall-out, the community will be able to help us bring back programming (and staff) and reshape us in the short term.”
According to Ray, a large part of WSRE’s mission is to bring quality, local programs to viewers, which includes the station’s 3,500 members who help sustain WSRE with yearly financial support as well as corporate underwriters. Her station is also experiencing a steadily increasing number of viewers, making this a time when funding for growth and sustainability is imperative.
“Our PBS numbers are growing. People are watching us,” Ray told the IN.
One of WSRE’s local programs that is growing in popularity is “StudioAmp’d.” Finishing its second season, the program featured and promoted local musicians, and according to Ray, was a way to engage the local music community.
“These types of programs are under review,” said Ray. Like WUWF’s “RadioLive,” there is likely to be a format change to reduce costs.
“The need for fundraising surrounding programs like this is inevitable. There’s a different paradigm now. In the past we focused on the programs that resonated with the community and we were able to move forward with those programs.
Now we are going to have to receive the funds and then move forward with the programming.”
The suddenness of Scott’s veto has forced Ray and WSRE to make some drastic moves until money is raised to cut the $307,446 lost as of July 1. On Friday, June 17, the station announced five layoffs in the production area, donor services,
SightLine reading service and broadcast engineering. Longtime favorite “The Lawrence Welk Show” will also be dropped from the schedule.
“With all of our remaining revenue sources under pressure, these actions were necessary to responsibly ensure the long-term sustainability of the organization and put WSRE on a realistic financial path for the future,” said Ray in the statement. “We are counting on the increased support of our viewers, corporate support partners, and private foundations to help WSRE rebound from this loss while continuing to retain our award-winning prominence in public media.”
For now, Big Bird, Elmo and Arthur are safe.
FUTURE’S SO BRIGHT…?
Despite the need for immediate actions to shore up their budgets, the executive directors of WUWF and WSRE remain optimistic. Along with aggressive fundraising initiatives and corporate sponsorship, the bottom line is that the future of our local broadcast stations is left largely up to the listeners and viewers of WUWF and WSRE. Crawford and Ray believe viewers will step up and help.
“Our demographic is great and appreciative of the programs. The local programs are what resonate in our community,” said Ray. And it’s not for lack of a fight in Ray to get the message out about the importance of broadcasting.
“I’m hoping that the listeners will come through. I think they get it, because most people who listen to us know we’re not an abstract social service. This is something I set my clock radio to in the morning,” said Crawford. Even though he’s not hopeful to receive state funding in the future, he is still going to lead the mission of the station by providing a local service to the listening area.
“I don’t want to seem all gloom and doom. ‘RadioLive’ is gone for now. I like to say it’s going on ‘hiatus,’” says Crawford. “I know we’re going to find a way to keep things moving along.”
WUWF 88.1 FM
University of West Florida
11000 University Parkway
Pensacola, FL 32514
Phone: 474-2787 or (800) 239-9893
Online Pledge Form: wuwf.org/pledge/index.cfm
Pensacola State College
1000 College Boulevard
Pensacola, FL 32504
Phone: 484-1200 or (800) 239-9773
Online Pledge Form: secure.publicbroadcasting.net/wsre/default/form.pledgemain