WUSF gained but still lost on Thursday when the U.S. House of Representatives voted in favor of reinstating $100 million of the nearly $200 million in proposed public broadcasting cuts, leaving the station relieved but still concerned.
The House voted 284-140 on Thursday in favor of an amendment that will restore $100 million to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that was originally cut in a budget proposed by an appropriations subcommittee. The amendment restores the total funds for the CPB to last year’s level of $400 million. Funding for digital conversion and other necessary technological upgrades remain cut, along with funds for PBS-related education initiatives such as the ready-to-learn program.
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which doles out government funds to public media outlets across the country, supplies nearly $300,000 of WUSF’s $8-million annual budget for running both the local NPR station 89.7 FM and USF’s public television station.
“I’m thrilled,” said WUSF General Manager JoAnn Urofsky. “I would love to know that it is all going to be there for us. That would make it easier for me to sleep at night, but at least this portion of the money was restored. This is money that we can count on.”
Urofsky said that new programs planned for the upcoming year like additional legislative reporting, a women’s cardiac health program and Florida Matters face the axe if the rest of the funding remains unreturned. She said she did not yet know what other programs might be cut but hopes that the Senate will restore the rest of the money before the budget receives final approval.
Other local independent radio and television stations like WMNF 88.5 and WEDU television also feel the impending crunch of the proposed cuts. Rob Lorie, news director for WMNF 88.5, which receives nearly $100,000 of its $1.2 million budget from the CPB, said the proposed cuts would require more on-air fund raising, an activity that takes away from more meaningful programming and makes listeners change the station.
“BBC never has to fund raise,” said Lorei. “It’s kind of an imposition to interrupt your regular programming every few months to get money from listeners, but that’s actually what our government has said you’ve got to do.”
Sparked by media coverage and NPR and PBS messages soliciting support, advocates of public radio flooded their representatives’ offices with pleas for public broadcasting fund restoration.
“Public radio and TV have a lot to offer society and students in general,” said Jody Kent, a USF professor of mass communications and a former PBS employee. “They present a diversity of viewpoints and cover issues in depth like no other media outlet. It’s great for society and democracy.”
Lorei points to sensationalism in mainstream commercial media as evidence that public broadcasting still performs a vital role.
“I think that NPR and PBS approach the issues seriously and try to weigh them based on their overall importance and future importance,” said Lorei. “The runaway bride and Michael Jackson just don’t cut it.”
But those in favor of cutting public broadcasting say the rise of cable and satellite programming provides viewers with the type of programs that were traditionally the domain of public broadcasting. The role of non-commercial media is less important than it was 30 years ago, said Rep. Ralph Regula, chair of the appropriations subcommittee that constructed the aforementioned bill.
Supporters of the cuts also point out that public broadcasting only receives about 15 percent of its money from the government, citing that as evidence that public broadcasting no longer needs government funding for survival.
“When they talk about the big wealthy stations, they’re not talking about us,” said Urofsky. “They’re talking about the big production stations with $60- and $70-million budgets. Our budget doesn’t compare to running a commercial station like that and what they are able to put into it. We are doing meaningful and significant things in this market on a shoestring.”
Opponents of government funding for public broadcasting also point to licensing and royalty money made by successful programs like Sesame Street.
“Big Bird is a billionaire,” said Rep. Ginny Waite-Brown (R.-Fla.), while pulling out a poster of Big Bird standing before a pile of cash.
An aide to Regula said that choices needed to be made and giving more money to public broadcasting means taking money away from more needy areas like worker’s training programs and government health programs.
After the cuts were announced, WUSF repeatedly aired a message from Urofsky urging action from concerned listeners. The message was also aired during the station’s flagship evening news program, All Things Considered.
“Our representatives in Washington want to know what their constituents are thinking and the best and most effective way to do it is with telephone calls,” said Urofsky. “I’m still getting calls from people who don’t realize that the vote already happened.”
Jeffrey Chester, who heads the Washington- based Center for Digital Democracy, questioned the ethics of using government money to solicit political support in a Washington Post article.
“They should be wary about crossing the lobbying line. I would say the stations are making a political mistake using their airwaves to lobby.”
Kent sees it differently.
“You could imagine if someone like a station manager didn’t say anything,” said Kent. “By their silence would they be saying that this is all OK?”
Public broadcasting also came under fire in 1995 when then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich attempted to end government funding for public broadcasting. That time the crisis for public broadcasting was different, said Urofsky.
“The difference is that when Newt Gingrich tried to zero out public broadcasting, it was a stated goal of his and we had a long time to prepare,” she said. “This was sudden. It completely surprised us.”
WUSF expected some cuts since President George W. Bush recommended a $10-million revision, but the $100-million cut shocked them, Urofsky said.
Lorei feels that the proposed cuts represent an attempt by a Republican administration to silence public broadcasting because of its supposed liberal bias, a slant the conservative Media Research Council lambasts in a message on its Web site.
“(PBS) has spent some $7 billion in ‘seed money’ — provided by taxpayers — and produced a litany of liberal, left programs sprinkled with some decent kids’ shows to give it a respectable veneer,” stated MRC President Brent Bozell in a statement.
Lorei defended the political neutrality of PBS and National Public Radio, citing conservative programs such as the McLaughlin Group and a Journal Editorial Report, produced with editors from the Wall Street Journal.
“I think if PBS and NPR were to turn into the Fox Radio Network, the funds would be unlimited,” said Lorei. “And I think that’s frightening.”