The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) celebrates is 50th anniversary this year—making it all the more bewildering that the White House has chosen now to call for its elimination.
When Trump released his first budget proposal on March 16, hidden in plain sight—among the boosts to military spending—was the “zeroing out” of CPB.
But what does Trump’s proposal mean? How might it affect Austin’s public broadcasting outlets KLRU and KUT? And what can you do protect public broadcasting? Here are three things to know before you decide whether to panic:
1. Presidents hate public broadcasting
First, a quick history lesson.
This isn’t the first time a president has suggested ending the CPB. Nixon did it. Reagan did it. George W. Bush’s budgets routinely targeted CPB. And yet, it persisted. In fact, from 2004-2006, Congress ignored Bush’s request and actually increased funding to CPB.
2. The budget is a beast
It’s important to remember that Trump’s budget proposal is just that—a proposal, a wishlist, a negotiating tactic.
Next come the committee hearings, the appropriations process, the calls for public comment. Once a president’s budget winds its way through the congressional machine, it ends up looking quite different—even when his own party control both the House and Senate.
And that’s good news for CPB’s outlook, because public broadcasting enjoys enormous support, both in and out of D.C.
3. America loves public broadcasting
Perhaps anticipating a budget battle ahead, in January, Hart Research and American Viewpoints conducted a bipartisan survey of voters’ attitudes toward public broadcasting.
The survey report opens with an unambiguous statement: “Our survey finds that while the country may be deeply divided on many issues, the importance of federal funding for public television is not one of them.”
Among the survey’s findings is a wide and deep support for notion of public TV and radio:
Three out of four Americans oppose eliminating federal funding for public broadcasting, including 83 percent of Democrats and 59 percent of Trump voters . Seventy-two percent said that public broadcasting offers an “excellent or good” value for taxpayers—on par with support for infrastructure (73 percent), and 76 percent of respondents wanted the CPB’s budget maintained or increased
In other words, public television and radio might be one of the very few things on which the majority of Americans—from every political party, state, and demographic group—agree.
They see CPB’s purpose—”to provide programs and services that inform, educate, enlighten, and enrich the public and help inform civil discourse essential to American society”—as worth the relatively small portion of the federal budget they account for.
What Budget Cuts Could Mean to Austin
Bill Stotesbery, CEO of Austin’s public television station, KLRU, responded immediately to Trump’s budget news with a detailed defense of public media. In a letter penned last week, Stotesbery explains:
CPB funding represents about 12 percent of KLRU’s budget, but the impact of CPB’s funding is also seen in PBS productions and program acquisitions, station services, and especially education services. Loss of federal support is a serious issue for stations all across the country, and absent federal support, the public broadcasting system would be much different.
It’s too soon to know precisely how removal of federal funding would impact KLRU’s programming and projects, but the station’s leadership is already beginning to plan for the possibility.
KLRU broadcasts to 18 Central Texas Counties and reaches about 2 million people on-air and online. It produces several series including Austin City Limits, Arts in Context, Central Texas Gardener, Civic Summit and Overheard with Evan Smith. As a nonprofit educational organization, KLRU also prepares children to succeed in school and creates lifelong learning opportunities for all.
“We wouldn’t have the same programming we have today,” Stotesbery predicts, when considering the possibility of budget cuts. “If some stations went away, PBS dues [of stations that survive cuts] would go up, in addition to the loss of federal funding. At KRLU, in particular, CPB absorbs the cost of music licensing, which allows us to produce Austin City Limits affordably.”
KUT 90.5 would have to make similarly difficult decisions should Trump’s budget come to pass.
KUT is Austin’s National Public Radio station and reaches about 530,000 on-air and online. Stewart Vanderwilt, General Manager at KUT, points out that CPB funding accounts for about 5 percent of the station’s budget—about $600,000. “A very important 5 percent,” Vanderwilt went on to point out, “as we invest it directly into programming and program creation. We find that not only are we losing funding, but we’re losing access to content and we’re losing service in some communities. KUT’s role would change substantially.”
CPB is funded two years in advance—a move meant to protect it from the shifting whims of politics. Cuts made today wouldn’t take effect for more than a year. Yet Stotesbery makes it clear: “I think it’s safe to say the loss of federal funding would be disastrous for public media.”
Vanderwilt agrees: “Not only is the funding being threatened, but so is the fundamental role of journalism and media to hold institutions and leaders accountable. The stakes today are very high.”
How You Can Help
First, don’t panic.
Between the broad bipartisan support for CPB—e.g., a few years ago, the Association of Public Television Stations gave its “Champion of Public Broadcasting” award to one then-governor Mike Pence—and the long, winding road that budgets must travel before taking effect, there’s plenty of reason to believe the CPB will survive.
While Stotesbery and the KLRU board will have a plan in place should Trump’s proposed elimination come to pass, he remains confident they won’t have to cross that bridge: “Funding has stayed stable because there are enough Republicans and Democrats who believe in what we do.”
Second, sign the petition at ProtectMyPublicMedia.org.
And finally, continue to support KLRU, KUT, and public media stations everywhere.