CPB analysis finds steep declines in station underwriting, foundation funding

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Dru Sefton/Current

Revenues of public television and radio stations declined by $147 million, or 5%, in fiscal year 2020, which included the first months of the coronavirus pandemic, according to CPB’s latest “State of the System” analysis.

The steepest losses in fiscal 2020 were in underwriting, foundation funding and investment income. CPB’s year-to-year analysis charted drops of $66 million, or 14%, in underwriting and $60 million, or 32%, in foundation support from fiscal 2019 to 2020. Investment-related losses totaled $39 million, a 13% decline.

Individual giving revenue was the only income source that grew, by $64 million over 2019 for a 5% increase. Beth Walsh, CPB’s VP of system strategies, cited concerns among station leaders that those donors were only “reacting to a moment” and may give less in coming months and years.

The findings, derived from stations’ financial records, were presented Thursday during the Public Media Business Association’s annual conference. Moustapha Abdul, senior financial analyst for CPB, discussed the data with Walsh and Katherine Arno, VP of Community Service Grants and station initiatives.

Of the revenue losses, $112 million were incurred by public television stations and $35 million by radio stations. Stations adjusted to the losses with staff reductions, which CPB recorded as a 6% workforce reduction spread across 249 of its grantees. The job cuts affected about 1,025 public media employees as of January 2021.

Some station leaders told CPB that they do not expect their budgets to return to normal any time soon, Arno said. Some executives did tell Current early this year that they were optimistic about a rebound in underwriting as states lift restrictions on businesses and public gatherings.

“Some of these smaller stations … are expecting a more difficult time recovering from the impact of COVID,” Arno said. “The larger stations are typically more nimble. Their recovery is quicker. In addition, the smallest stations, both radio and TV, have really never recovered from the 2008 recession, remarkable as it may seem.”

CPB’s report offers a preliminary snapshot of how stations weathered the first few months of the pandemic, when the U.S. went into lockdown and businesses and nonprofit organizations that underwrite public media pulled back their sponsorships.

Most stations closed fiscal 2020 June 30, so measuring the full impact of the coronavirus is a work in progress. The $147 million revenue loss recorded in CPB’s study was based on annual reports from 91% of stations.

The 2020 revenue analysis excludes CPB funding to stations and the first batch of $75 million in emergency stabilization grants that were approved by Congress in March 2020. Another $175 million approved last December provided relief to stations in fiscal 2021.

Walsh noted that revenue from productions for hire — deals under which stations produce media for other organizations — dropped significantly during the pandemic. The decline in foundation giving sparked concerns that some philanthropic organizations will permanently stop funding public stations, she said.

Walsh and Arno shared conclusions from CPB’s talks with various station affinity groups, noting different challenges facing the various types of licensees. For example, stations in the University Licensee Association are dealing with university-mandated hiring freezes and loss of student workers. And leaders of the Public Television Major Market Group told CPB they faced additional production challenges as producers and distributors of national programs.

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