When Gary Knell officially started work this month as NPR’s president, he probably found no shortage of ideas about what he should do with an organization that has recently survived bad headlines, turmoil at the top and a near-death experience with federal funding cuts. But he would be well advised to ignore some of those recommendations. Some say NPR should simply forgo federal funding, which accounts for 2 percent of its annual budget. Receiving even that small amount, they say, leaves NPR vulnerable to accusations of political bias in its news coverage. How much easier it would be, they argue, if public radio would give up the federal dollars and ignore the occasional outbreaks of criticism from Capitol Hill.
A drop in dues-paying members over the last three years has diminished the resources of the Association of Public Television Stations at an especially critical time for the Washington-based lobbying organization. APTS’ membership has fallen to 75 percent of public TV licensees from a high of 85 percent in 2008. With dues from fewer of the 170-some station licensees, APTS is short about $1 million in annual membership revenue and unable to fill several key positions, including vice presidents for government relations and communication and a regulatory counsel, in a year when the recession, anti-deficit worries and political opposition are bearing down on pubcasting funding. “This is a problem,” APTS President Patrick Butler said in a session at public TV’s National Educational Telecommunications Association Conference last month in Kansas City, Mo. “If we could get to a point where everybody was in this boat and supporting our efforts in Washington, it could have a transformative effect.”
Will Glasscock, an APTS director of government relations, cautioned that “the very challenging environment continues” on Capitol Hill and “the partisan atmosphere has never been quite this bad.” Just last week, GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney said in a USA Today op-ed that if elected, CPB will be one of his targets for “deep reductions in subsidies.”
The situation poses a dilemma: APTS needs resources to fight for federal appropriations on Capitol Hill, which has been one of the most stable sources of revenue during the recession despite the ongoing partisan fights over it.
The draft for the House Appropriations Committee’s fiscal year 2012 Labor, Health and Human Services and Education appropriations bill, introduced Sept. 29 by subcommittee Chair Denny Rehburg (R-Mont.), would prohibit CPB from funding NPR and requests a report from CPB on how to remove NPR totally from federal funding by 2014. Under the bill, CPB would receive the already-appropriated amount of $445 million for that year, including $6 million for digital projects. Other agencies in the draft bill would fare worse for the year that began Oct. 1.
After a nearly two-hour battle pitting fiscal conservatism against the value of publicly funded media, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill forbidding stations to use CPB funds to acquire NPR programming or pay network dues.
Last time, in 2005, the emissary to Congress was Clifford the Big Red Dog. This time, it’s an aardvark named Arthur. Last time, lawmakers showed off boxes of 1 million petitions with signatures; now, the million signatures are digital. Back then, when the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee tried for a 25 percent cut in the CPB appropriation, public support moved the House to save it by a 2-to-1 vote. This year, no such luck.
Bills to defund public broadcasting, or at least any radio network that fired Juan Williams, are beginning to seem like a real threat since the Nov. 2 midterm election gave Republicans a 60-plus majority in the House and a mandate to take huge bites out of federal spending. Last week the co-chairmen of President Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform — assigned to suggest ways to reduce the $13.7 trillion deficit — advised dropping CPB from the budget, along with some vastly bigger federal expenditures that have even sturdier support in Congress (separate story). For conservative talking heads, ending aid to pubcasting would be a high-profile get-tough symbol. And for liberals, giving up CPB could be an attempt to avoid other more widely unpopular cuts.
Public Law 90-129, 90th Congress, November 7, 1967 (as amended to April 26, 1968)
This law was enacted less than 10 months after the report of the Carnegie Commission on Educational Broadcasting. The act initiates federal aid to the operation (as opposed to funding capital facilities) of public broadcasting. Provisions include:
extend authorization of the earlier Educational Television Facilities Act,
forbid educational broadcasting stations to editorialize or support or oppose political candidates,
establish the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and defines its board,
defines its purposes,
authorize reduced telecommunications rates for its interconnection,
authorize appropriations to CPB, and
authorize a federal study of instructional television and radio.
Title I—Construction of Facilities
Extension of duration of construction grants for educational broadcasting
WNET’s accounting problems have cost it $1.96 million out of a series of production grants totaling $13 million, following a two-year federal investigation of the big New York station’s grant accounting. Federal lawyers and the licensee — Educational Broadcasting Corp., now officially known as WNET.org — signed a settlement in which the station gave up 15 percent of the grant money:
$950,000 to be paid back to the feds for inadequately documented or prohibited costs, and
$1,015,046 that the station has spent on the productions but agreed to give up. By the time of the settlement, the growing sum of unreimbursed expenses had cut a $7.8 million hole in the station’s financial fabric. To keep federally backed productions going, the nonprofit continued spending money on them but stopped asking for reimbursements. Robert Feinberg, general counsel, said it was a voluntary decision by the station: “If we have done something wrong, we didn’t want to compound the error.”