Relying on federal funding might be a fatal mistake for public media

President Donald Trump unveiled a budget proposal yesterday that would make substantial cuts to the federal government, slashing funding for many domestic programs including agencies that provide funding to the arts and public media.

Although bigger media organizations, including the flagship NPR and PBS, and larger affiliate station operators have diversified revenue streams that could provide a cushion, local news operations are in particular danger. The ongoing battle to defund public media has literally lasted decades—as a pet issue for Republican politicians who argue the programming has a liberal slant.

Public media operations—and loyal listeners—are expected to put up a fierce fight against potential funding cuts. But hanging on to the hope that federal funding will always be around could potentially be a fatal mistake for local stations, former NPR President and CEO Vivian Schiller tells CJR. All public media players, she says, ought to double down on efforts to court listener support and philanthropic giving as a hedge against the continued, and perhaps complete, reduction of government support.

Under Trump’s proposal, all funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which supports PBS, NPR, and public television and radio around the US, would be removed. Although private donors and charitable foundations also help to support these entities, it would still be a major blow to the public-broadcasting ecosystem.

NPR and PBS would see the least impact from the cuts. NPR receives less than 1 percent of its total funding from the CPB, while PBS receives less than 7 percent. Larger television and radio stations will also fare okay because they enjoy support from foundations and donors. For example, New York Public Radio, which supports six stations throughout the state, received just 6 percent of funding from government sources in 2015. That same year, 78 percent of its revenue came from contributors and 13 percent from project grants.

Smaller local television and radio stations would be affected more by the cuts. About $445 million of CPB funds goes to public television and radio annually. More than 70 percent supports local stations. However, one reason Republican critics of public media give when arguing for defunding is that local stations route some of that money back to NPR and PBS in the form of membership fees to air national programming. According to NPR’s 2015 financial reports, station dues and fees accounted for about 40 percent of its $203 million revenue.

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Depending on the station, federal funds can account for a large part of the overall budget. Federal funding supports stations far beyond programming alone. Funds also often help cover basic necessities such as radio tower maintenance and building upkeep.

Schiller notes stations should move aggressively to pursue non-governmental revenue streams.

“It would be irresponsible not to have those contingency plans in place, and even without the threat of federal dollars being pulled, it would be irresponsible to not begin to act on ways to replace that money through other sources,” says Schiller.

States also offer funding to support public media, but there is no guarantee politicians won’t try to pilfer those funds, too. Generating more listener support, applying for grants, and funding from philanthropy are just a few of her suggestions. She also notes it is possible for public media organizations to earn income from other sources—such as selling products or renting out unused building space.

The president’s budget proposal almost certainly will not go into effect as proposed. However, the proposal is still bad news because the White House, Congress, and Senate are all controlled by the same party, giving Republicans a greater ability to pass a final bill that looks like Trump’s proposal. This means public radio and television broadcasters are still in hot water.

Public media doesn’t plan to give up its funding without a fight, and one of the weapons in its lobbying arsenal is strong public support: 70 percent of Trump voters want Congress to cut funding elsewhere, according to a survey for PBS conducted this year by Hart Research-American Viewpoint.

Separately, The Washington Post also notes that, according to 2014 data, $186.1 million went to stations in states that supported Trump in the 2016 election.   

“Millions of Americans depend on their local public radio station for the fact-based, objective, public service journalism they need to stay informed about the world and about the news in their own communities,” NPR Chief Operating Officer Loren Mayor says in a statement. “Public media serves the public interest with essential educational, news, and cultural programming not found anywhere else, as well as vital information during local and regional emergencies. Federal funding is an essential ingredient to making this possible.”

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Justin Ray and Carlett Spike coauthored this story. Justin Ray is CJR's digital media editor. Carlett Spike is a CJR Delacorte fellow.