As public broadcasters face the prospect of losing all federal funding should the Trump administration's proposed budget be adopted, a request from the local National Public Radio outlet has gone out to listeners and viewers: Sign a petition to be presented to Congress next week in advance of hearings to consider proposed cutbacks which would essentially defund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which in turn helps pay for NPR and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).
Paul Westhelle, executive director of Jefferson Public Radio, which is based in Ashland on the Southern Oregon University campus, sent out a letter to its listeners this week warning of massive, impending cuts to public broadcasters and asking for online signatures urging lawmakers to not support the end of their public funding. Listeners have until Friday evening to sign.
“As you may have heard, earlier this month the Trump administration released its FY2018 budget outline which includes a provision to eliminate annual grants to public radio and television stations through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB),” the letter says.
More than 225,000 people have signed on line across the country as of Thursday afternoon, asking that Congress refuse to defund the Corporation for Public Broadcasters. Local signatures are not being tracked.
The proposed cuts amount to $420,000 annually for JPR, which represents roughly 13 percent of its annual budget, according to Westhelle. “Federal funding provides vital seed money," he said, "which is most essential for rural broadcasters.”
JPR operates three separate stations, employs 14 people serving roughly 90,000 listeners weekly through a series of translators and transmitters which provide a signal from Shasta to Roseburg and Klamath Falls to the coast. They have a $3 million annual budget. Much of that funding comes from individual contributors, including $287,000 in individual contributions from Ashland residents which represents, Westhelle said, the largest per capita contributions in the country.
The money JPR gets from the federal government makes it possible to keep up transmitters, translators and electricity operating, which are huge costs in rural, mountainous Southern Oregon. This year brought additional expenses for repairing transmitters damaged in heavy snow and high wind.
“We’re adding value to local listeners in a unique way,” says Westhelle. “We need independent journalism more than ever, local journalism and we provide a service that’s essential and valuable. Just because we live in rural and small communities, there’s no reason not to have that.” He noted that in smaller communities the signal costs more as they bounce it from mountain to mountain and no other broadcasters are present to fill the needed niche of local information the way JPR does, according to Westhelle.
“There’s no specific goal," he said. "We just want to show bi-partisan support for public broadcasters.” He is planning to continue campaigns where listeners share individual stories of how they use and rely on public broadcasting with Congress.
“This is a serious moment for public broadcasting. Elimination of all federal support would have an immediate detrimental impact on JPR and every public radio and television station across the country,” Westhelle wrote in his letter.
Southern Oregon Public Television is also asking its viewers to pledge support for the television station so they can continue to produce local shows as well as pass through Oregon Public Broadcasting shows.
“Since 1970, generous donations from Members have helped PBS produce thought-provoking shows that span the gamut of history. Now more than ever, the future of SPOTV rests in your hands,” said Joyce Laidlaw to her viewers in a recent request for funding to brace for possible cutbacks.
Ashland resident Robert Pierce is skeptical of the support request, citing a statement by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) Wednesday claiming PBS executives rake in high salaries and cutting the CPB would save taxpayers millions. “Cut funding for them," Pierce said. "Their CEO’s make over 600k a year, they need no funding.”
PBS CEO Paula Kerger earned roughly $623,000 last year, according to published reports in the Wall Street Journal.
However, she has said that PBS and NPR would most likely be able to weather the storm of cuts, but the true losses would be felt in rural markets where local broadcasters receive fewer revenue streams and where the signals cost more to maintain.
“In urban areas," Kerger has said, "where there’s a longer-lasting tradition of various forms of patronage for arts and culture, to say nothing of far more people to donate cash — that’s less of a problem. But in rural areas, the CPB is the difference between life and death for many stations.”
Westhelle backs up the statement about the difficulty JPR will face if these cuts are passed . “We’ll be having to make hard decisions," he said. "We’ll have to tighten our belt further. We’ll ask listeners to step up. We have a lot of confidence in our listeners,” while acknowledging that making up nearly half a million dollars is no easy task. “We’ll continue making our case.”
No hearings have been scheduled yet to consider President Trump’s proposed budget for 2018 which is supposed to be voted on by April 15. The president has called for large domestic cuts in most areas with the exception of military spending, which he proposes to increase by $54 billion.
— Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.