Thursday, March 17, 2011

House votes to deny NPR federal funds; unlikely, but would have disproportionate rural impact

The U.S. House voted 228-192 today to keep federal funds from going to National Public Radio, a move that would have a disproportionate impact on public stations in rural areas.

"All but seven Republicans voted for the measure, and all Democrats present voted against it," reports Felicia Sonmez of The Washington Post. "The measure is unlikely to be taken up by the Democratic-controlled Senate." However, in the current budget-cutting atmosphere, and recent impolitic statements and actions by NPR officials, the issue is unlikely to go away.

"Could NPR survive without public funding? That depends on which NPR you're talking about," writes Clarence Page, Washington columnist for the Chicago Tribune. "There are two NPRs. There's the national news and talk show syndicator formerly known as National Public Radio, and there are about 800 local "member stations" that buy its programming. It is the local stations that serve more rural and less wealthy markets that would suffer the most without the federal grants they receive" from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which House Republicans have voted to de-fund. (Read more)

Former Post editors Len Downie and Bob Kaiser make similar points in an op-ed piece that concludes by urging local stations and their supporters to speak up: "The public broadcasting community has appeared flustered by the ferocity of its critics’ attacks, some of which are ideologically motivated. But most members of Congress are sent to Washington by communities with NPR member stations, which could do a better job of selling their increasingly vital role in news reporting. Consumers of public broadcasting could raise their voices, too. Public broadcasting should be able to accept and manage a fair share of federal budget cuts, but should it be abandoned?"

Alaska is especially dependent on public radio, Erika Bolstad of McClatchy Newspapers reports: "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." She quotes Steve Lindbeck, president and general manager of Alaska Public Telecommunications Inc.: "The more rural and remote you are, the more dependent you are." (Read more)

Rhonda McBride of KTUU-TV in Anchorage reports, "If you tuned in to KYUK, the public radio station in Bethel at noon on Monday, you would have heard Lillian Michael broadcast in Yup’ik, the Eskimo language of Southwest Alaska. On the radio, she goes by her traditional name, Atmak, which means 'backpack' and, true to her name, she shoulders an important responsibility. She helps to keep elders in her region informed about state, local and national news. In so doing, she helps to keep the Yup’ik language alive. Native language broadcasts are just one of the reasons the Alaska public broadcasting system is different from those in the Lower 48. Stations also receive more federal funding, due to their remote location and sparse population, which in most rural communities is not big enough to support commercial radio."

The boss of the public station in Carbondale, Ill., WSIU, Greg Petrowich, discussed the issue with Chicago's WBEZ-FM. To listen, go here. Rural NPR affiliates came under attack when the network fired commentator Juan Williams. For that story, click here.

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