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Shock Waves

Legislative wrangling threatens to hit rural public radio broadcasters and those that serve low-income audiences the hardest

By Peter Koht

It's 10am on a Wednesday and four local radio stations are deep into their morning schedule. On Eighth Avenue in Santa Cruz, award-winning radio producer and journalist Rachel Anne Goodman adjusts her headphones and pots up the microphone for another edition of KUSP's Talk of the Bay, the station's public affairs program, a call-in show that features local politicians, policy makers and activists discussing issues that affect our community.

Across the Monterey Bay in Pacific Grove, KAZU begins streaming NPR's flagship call-in show, Talk of the Nation. Though operated by local personnel, this station went fully digital and automated two years ago, the previous rat's nest of reel to reel players and CD cases replaced by flat-screen monitors and digital wizardry.

Meanwhile, in Salinas, KHDC, part of the Radio Bilingüe network, airs México de Mis Andanzas. Produced by Radio Educación in Mexico City, this cultural program tells of the imaginary travels of Enrique Rivas Paniagua, as he explores the varied ethnic backgrounds of modern Mexico. Also in Salinas, Radio Campesina affiliate KSEA broadcasts Punto De Vista. Hosted by Carlos Ortiz, Radio Campesina's public affairs director, this popular program discusses social and cultural issues that affect immigrant families and first generation Americans. It's but one show in a schedule aimed at California's vast, growing and increasingly politically influential Latino population.

At first glance, these four programs seem to have little in common. Aimed at different audiences in different languages, they cover widely divergent topics. Yet, by exploring issues such as immigration, housing prices and youth violence, they arguably offer some of the most compelling news and informational programming available on the radio dial.

As KUSP's Rachel Goodman puts it, "Public radio is the voice of the people. This is the only media outlet where a community's own perspectives are aired. It's one of the only media sources that operates outside of the context of what sells."

Goodman's statement underscores why in recent weeks, broadcasters, listeners and supporters at all four stations have watched nervously as a huge battle has raged in Washington, D.C., a funding conflict, which, if lost, could reduce local public broadcasting to static.

Just last week, lawmakers in Washington, D.C., proposed significant cuts to the budget of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, cuts which could cramp or completely cripple the ability of local public radio stations to produce and distribute quality programming.

As KUSP's general manager Terry Green puts it, "Programming is the only place that you have much discretion when you are faced with declining resources. After all, you can't bail out of your rent and you can't renegotiate with PG&E."

That said, not all stations will be equally affected. "How this all shakes out at the local level is determined by individual circumstances," continues Green, in the measured tones of a man who has made his career in radio.

The blunter truth is that if any of the proposed cuts go through, they'll hit rural broadcasters and those that serve low-income audiences--such as our two local Salinas-based Spanish-language stations--the hardest. Radio Bilingúe's executive director Hugo Morales says if significant cuts are adopted, his station will have to let its staff go and cut out local programming entirely. "KHDC will then essentially become a repeater for our Fresno signal."

Follow the Money

Understanding the equation that determines how much government support the CPB receives each year involves descending into an Alice in Wonderland-style warren of congressional committees and subcommittees. To complicate matters further, unlike most federal programs, the CPB is "forward funded."

Traditionally, this funding mechanism has meant that Congress decides how much money it's going to give the CPB two years in advance. This money is then earmarked and supposedly protected from further budget wrangling. But like many traditions in the Congress, this one is currently under attack. For the first time in the CPB's 38-year history, a promised appropriation was placed under threat of being rescinded.

Three weeks ago, U. S. Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio) proposed reneging on the CPB's projected budget by 25 percent. (Regula also proposed zeroing out support within two years, a bullet that was dodged, thanks to a last-minute motion by Wisconsin Democrat David Obey.) Still, the House subcommittee that Regula heads (the onerously titled House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education) did vote to rescind funds by 25 percent, beginning this October. In a related motion, a separate subcommittee voted to eliminate the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program, a $21 million fund-matching grant that pays for large capital expenditures, such as those incurred when lightning strikes the radio tower, or when the intern fries the Optimod. Cutting this program would not only leave stations stuck in the desert without a spare, it would also leave them without a portion of the funds needed to convert to digital transmission technology--a process that only KAZU has completed.

"For some funny reason I had the feeling that something like this was heading down the pipe," says KAZU's current general manager, John McNally.

For Radio Bilingúe, a station with fewer resources and fewer contributors than KAZU, the proposed cuts threaten the future of its signal.

"If these funds are cut," says Hugo Morales, "then we could not convert to digital."

All is not yet lost. Though the whole Appropriations Committee suggested some major cuts, last week the entire House voted down Regula's proposed cuts to the CPB budget by approving the attractively titled "Obey-Lowey-Leach Amendment" by a vote of 284 to 140. This amendment does not, however, restore all of the CPB's promised appropriation, and neither digital conversion nor PTFP funds are included in this year's appropriations package.

Asked for his perspective, local U.S. Rep. Sam Farr (D-Carmel) says, "There are still cuts in this budget. All they came back to is where they were last year, to base funding." Farr also believes that this summer's political machinations are the first salvo in what is likely to be a long battle. "I think that public broadcasters are on the blacklist as long as the conservatives have them in their gun sights," he says.

As of presstime, the Senate had yet to vote on its appropriations package, but it's likely its funding framework will differ from the House's. As KUSP's Green explains, "Typically, the Senate moves later and has a larger appropriation." Any differences between the House and Senate packages would get worked out in July, and while it remains to be seen how deep any actual cuts will go, it's unlikely that public broadcasters will remain completely unscathed.

Trouble at the Home Office

All this budget wrangling is taking place against the backdrop of some highly disturbing developments in the public broadcasting sector, most of which have been centered around the policies and statements of the CPB's chairman of the board Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, ever since his September 2003 election to a post that traditionally has been apolitical.

As Farr says of Tomlinson, "He's a lightning rod. We probably wouldn't be here with this kind of fight, were it not for his words."

In addition to his CPB post, Tomlinson continues to serve as the head of the Broadcast Board of Governors, a government agency that, according to its own website, is "responsible for all U.S. government and government sponsored, non-military, international broadcasting," and whose services include the Voice of America, Radio Sawa (which serves the Middle East) and Radio Martí (which broadcasts in Cuba), none of which are allowed to broadcast within the United States, precisely because they are recognized as government-funded propaganda programs.

Tomlinson has come under repeated fire for his criticism of, and influence over, Voice of America's news reporting. Additionally, he has waged a very public campaign against the perceived "liberal bias" in public broadcasting, including retaining demographic researcher Fred Mann to report on the political leanings of Bill Moyers' Now guests. Mann was paid $14,170 from the CPB coffers for said report--a payment made without the knowledge of the corporation's board.

According to a recent NPR report, Tomlinson's own email correspondence with the White House confirms that "on several matters over the past year, the Chairman has pursued policies, and appointed executives at the behest of the White House." This connection with the current administration seems to validate the claims of an anonymous FCC official, who alleged, in a Washington Post article two months ago, that the CPB "is engaged in a systematic effort not just to sanitize the truth, but to impose a right-wing agenda on PBS. It's almost like a right-wing coup. It appears to be orchestrated."

Farr agrees.

"I think there is a connection, " Farr says. "It scares the hell out of me. The conservative movement in Washington has taken strong hold because the president has been able to stack appointments to boards and commissions. Now they are starting to implement their policies."

All of the above-mentioned concerns led U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-New Jersey) to call for Tomlinson's resignation--a call reinforced last week by an additional 15 senators in a letter addressed to President Bush.

The drama doesn't end there. Two months ago, Tomlinson accepted the resignation of Kathleen Cox, who held the top job at the CPB and championed continued federal funding for rural stations and those that serve a predominantly minority audience. As Bilingúe's Hugo Morales puts it, "Kathleen Cox was particularly responsive to the concerns of the people of color in radio. Under her tenure, she started a major program of support for Native American radio stations, which are our sister stations. She was just beginning to look at what she could do [for Latino Radio] when she left."

Last week, Cox was replaced by the staunchly Republican Patricia De Stacy Harrison, the former co-chair of the Republican National Committee and a current executive at the State Department. During Harrison's tenure at Foggy Bottom, she oversaw the work of the State Department's Office of Broadcasting Services, which was instrumental in crafting "video news releases." These policy-advocating tapes were aired by a number of news stations without identifying their source.

Harrison's appointment further heightens concerns that partisanship is being introduced into a corporation that traditionally protects public broadcasting from political pressure.

As KAZU's McNally sees it, Harrison "seems like someone with a definite point of view. It doesn't mean to say that these people are going to destroy something. But it's their team [the Republican Party] that is trying to cut out funding for the CPB, so it would seem to me that the people being proposed aren't going to fight very hard when the budgeting comes down."

Local Fallout

Over at KUSP, Green says the station had planned for reduced levels of CPB support, but the threatened cuts were far more "drastic" than expected. That said, KUSP is capable of some serious dialing for dollars to recover from the worst-case scenario of losing $112,000, which equals 11 percent of KUSP's budget. After all, the interruption of Terry Gross every other segment for pitching is less dire than the alternative: cutting programming.

At KAZU, should the final round of CPB-appropriations-wrangling significantly reduce station support, McNally would have to face replacing 7 percent of his annual operating budget, a situation that's made even more sketchy thanks to the fact that KAZU already barely has any local programming budget, owing to its decision two years ago to feature mostly syndicated news and information programs.

McNally says, "We would have to cut back on certain programs."

For instance, while NPR's flagship programs, like Morning Edition are likely to be retained, they might have to be rebroadcast during the day to cover hours in the schedule where the station can't afford its current syndicated content.

"You might have to extend them and repeat hours. Then what kind of station are you running?" McNally asks rhetorically.

As for job losses, McNally is circumspect but realistic about the potential impact on his tiny staff.

"Would we have to cut back on staff? I don't know. If we were at the 45 percent level of actual cuts from our budget, we would probably have to. At the 25 percent level, we would have to take a look at it."

To his mind, the solution, like most things in public radio, is to talk to the listeners.

"We are going to have to be quite transparent about it and tell them that we are going to be able to afford fewer programs. At what point does it become a downward spiral?"

Either way, much like KUSP, the Pacific Grove-based station has an upscale zip code and access to some of the wealthiest listeners in the United States. So both stations are much more able to weather any coming shortfalls than stations that serve less affluent and less urban communities, such as Radio Bilingúe, which presents its broadcasts alternately in Spanish, English and Mixteco, an indigenous Native American language from Mexico. Founded on July 4, 1980, by a group of activists, farmworkers and artists in Fresno, the station has grown into a $2 million a year nonprofit serving audiences in the Central, Imperial and Salinas valleys, and currently receives about $300,000 in support from the CPB in community service grants.

Bilingúe's Morales says if that money goes away in the ongoing budget battle, "We will have to do away with the 30 hours of local programming per week in Salinas."

Even more disturbing is what would happen to Radio Bilingúe's Noticiero Latino, the nation's "only independently produced, nationally syndicated news and information service that is produced by Latinos."

Currently, the CPB underwrites a further $300,000 in production costs for the show, which is syndicated to about 80 stations nationwide--monies that, if lost, would mean, according to Morales, that "we will have to do away with the show."

Unlike KUSP, Radio Bilingúe is not financially empowered to send out glossy mailers and solicit major donor support to make up a shortfall that would equal a full third of its budget. Accordingly, Morales foresees that Bilingúe would have to rely on an all-volunteer staff in Fresno and discontinue support for local programming, not only in Salinas, but also in the Imperial Valley and at its satellite stations arrayed throughout the Central Valley.

"The problem with the cuts," Morales says, "is that they are not replaceable. There is no other way that we could generate general support."

At this point, concerned citizens have several options. Sure, the appropriations work in the House is over, but there is still a long way to go before the appropriations process is finished. Public broadcasting fans will be heartened to see the restoration in the House of what nationally adds up to $100 million in funding for the CPB in 2006. In the meantime, neither the Senate nor the conference committee has cemented full appropriations for the CPB. So contacting representatives can still have an impact.

As Farr puts it, "You can't rely on the media to be independent, if you have vertical integration of radio, television and print media being aligned under corporate ownership."

And even though this isn't pledge drive season, local radio stations will doubtless accept any tax-deductible donations.

KUSP's Goodman sums it up, thusly, "Public radio is the most empowering media outlet that there is, and the burden of these cuts falls unduly on the shoulders of rural and poor stations. Public radio is the last public space that is not politically controlled and not financially driven. To cut off that place for debate is dangerous for democracy."

Peter Koht, when not writing about music for Metro Santa Cruz, hosts 'Fast Forward' on Sunday afternoons and sits on the board of directors for KUSP.

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From the June 29-July 6, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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