In rural Alaska, public radio is often the only radio

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 20, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Outside of country's most populated areas, tune your radio up and down the AM and FM dial, and you'll often lock in on just one station: a public radio broadcast.

In Alaska, that station might be airing the fishing report, a local school board meeting, a news report from National Public Radio, happy birthday wishes to locals — or even a tsunami warning.

The state's public radio stations have long been woven into the fabric of life, and the state's 700,000 residents could be hard hit if Congress limits how local public radio stations spend federal money — or if it does away altogether with government funding of public broadcasting.

Alaska's public broadcasters, which include 26 radio stations and four public television stations, are keeping a close eye on Washington, where reducing federal spending has dominated the debate and where some cuts to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting are all but assured.

"The more rural and remote you are, the more dependent you are," said Steve Lindbeck, the president and general manager of Alaska Public Telecommunications Inc.

House Republicans last month passed a spending bill that did away with the $445 million budget of the CPB, which disperses money to 1,300 locally owned and operated TV and radio stations across the country. In Alaska, it added up to $8.4 million in 2009, including $1.3 million for the digital television conversion.

The overall budget bill failed in the Senate, but undeterred, last week the House of Representatives specifically targeted NPR, which has been rocked by a series of embarrassments. On Thursday, largely along party lines, House Republicans passed legislation sponsored that prohibits local public radio stations from using federal funding to buy NPR programming.

NPR itself receives relatively little direct federal funding, in the form of competitive grants from CPB and some federal agencies such as the Department of Education and the Department of Commerce. That federal funding amounts to approximately 2 percent of NPR's overall revenues, the network said.

The largest share of NPR's revenue comes from program fees and station dues paid by member stations that broadcast NPR programs. But many small stations use the federal money they get from CPB to buy NPR programming or to pay member dues.

The House singled out the radio network after a recent undercover video that showed a fundraising executive being critical of conservatives and saying that the network could do without federal subsidies. The House seized on that claim as well as conservative anger about the firing in October of commentator Juan Williams.

"What we're doing is just saying public radio doesn't end, but the taxpayer doesn't have to fund a local station using these dollars to pay dues and to purchase programming," said Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.

The NPR bill is unlikely to come up in the Senate, but even President Barack Obama signaled there will be cuts to the CPB, which provides an estimated 15 percent of the funding to public radio and television stations nationwide.

For Anchorage's KSKA-FM, federal funding amounted to about 10 percent of its $2.6 million budget, said Lindbeck, who boasts that the Alaska Public Radio Network is the only media outlet based in Alaska with full-time correspondents in Juneau and Washington.

Smaller stations such as Petersburg's KFSK-FM, though, will have to start thinking about serious cutbacks. The station, on an island in the southeast part of the state, is the only FM station within reach for the community of 4,000. That often includes people at sea, listening aboard fishing vessels, said the station's manager, Tom Abbott.

His $430,000 budget pays his salary plus that of two reporters and a fourth employee who raises money. About $150,000 of the budget comes from state grants, and the station receives about $130,000 in federal radio community service grants. The remaining $150,000 is raised locally.

About 10 percent of their budget pays for NPR dues and programming, but the station's focus is local programming. Four volunteer hosts have music shows during the day. The station broadcasts all school board meetings and city council meetings, as well as a 30-minute local newscast at noon. It's the only daily source of local news in the community, Abbott said.

"I budget to take care of the equipment and the facility so our door is open for the community," he said. "I really have a philosophy that this is the public's asset, and we're just here to take care of it."

But it will be difficult to tap their communities for any additional money, radio executives said. Already, Abbot's station and others across the state have among the highest per-capita giving rates in public radio. The local community is phenomenal with its support, Abbott said, but there's a limit to how much they can ask.

"It's not as if we're KQED in San Francisco or WBUR in Boston," said Abbott, referring to heavyweight public radio stations that produce programming distributed nationwide. "They've got a population that they can go to, to make up the slack. We don't."


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