If you've listened to Wyoming Public Radio recently, you've heard pleas for support as part of the organization's regular on-air spring membership fund drive. You also heard that listener support is more important than ever due to a mostly GOP-led movement to cut federal funding for National Public Radio through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Proponents of the cut say it's part of fiscal belt-tightening to address the nation's staggering debt. But much of the dialogue is also centered on whether National Public Radio is guided by a left-wing bias. Recent dust-ups over the firing of NPR correspondent Juan Williams and an undercover video by right-wing activist James O'Keefe have highlighted criticism of NPR as too left-leaning.
Public radio proponents say those concerns were apparent in the partisan split on a House vote in March to defund NPR. Wyoming Public Media general manager Jon Schwartz said he believes the real motive to defund is driven more by ideology than economics.
"This House bill that passed is, in an ironic way, is helpful in that it made clear this is a partisan attack on public radio alone," Schwartz told WyoFile in a recent interview.
Indeed, there is a rally to support public radio in Wyoming. WPR wrapped up its spring membership drive Friday morning after 61 hours on air, and raised $295,000.
"It was our strongest pledge drive ever," said Peg Arnold, WPR development director.
The fund drive exceeded every goal set, including the number of new members, returning members and additional gifts from existing members. The drive resulted in gifts from 3,258 donors, a 10 percent increase from WPR's fall fund drive.
"People, in their comments, said that they support public radio regardless of where they were politically," Arnold said. "It was fantastic."
Staff members said response had been slow to mailings sent out ahead of the on-air portion of the spring membership fund drive. Then the staff noticed a definite boost in support after the story broke about James O'Keefe's undercover video of NPR fundraising chief Ron Schiller, in which Schiller allegedly spoke derogatorily about conservatives.
"Our phone volunteers reported that many of the people calling in donations mentioned the controversy or the fear of CPB cuts," said Roger Adams, WPR programming director. "We are also receiving many second, and even some third, gifts this spring. And from my vantage point in the studio, it seems we are thanking more new members than usual."
How funding works
Since the late 1960s, the federal government has funded the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. CPB's current annual take is about $445 million. The CPB distributes, through competitive grants, about 72 percent of its funds to hundreds of public radio and television stations across the country, including Wyoming Public Radio and Wyoming PBS. These stations then use those CPB funds to buy such programs as:
-- "Morning Edition," "All Things Considered," "Talk of the Nation," "Car Talk," "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me," "Fresh Air," "World Café," "On Point," all from National Public Radio;
-- BBC World Service U.S. distributor, "Classical 24" (which is Wyoming Public Radio's source of classical music), "Bob Edwards Weekend" — from Public Radio International.
-- "A Prairie Home Companion," "The Writer's Almanac," "American Radio Works" documentaries, all from American Public Media.
-- "Antique Road Show," "NOVA," "Masterpiece," "Lawrence Welk Show," "News Hour," "Need to Know," and dozens of children's programs, from Public Broadcasting Service.
If federal funding of CPB is cut entirely, it would trim some $288,000 from Wyoming Public Radio's annual budget. That's about 15 percent of the organization's budget, and it would force immediate cuts, possibly of nationally-produced programs, according to WPR officials.
"If we get cut we might drop a show which results in less money for NPR, PRI or APM which in turn hurts their ability to produce programs," said Adams.
WPR and Wyoming Public Broadcasting Service officials expect some cut in federal funding, whether it's the 100 percent proposed in the recent House measure or something less drastic. For now, public radio and television professionals in Wyoming are considering the ramifications of the worst-case scenario.
Wyoming PBS is particularly vulnerable. CPB accounts for $700,000, or 30 percent, of the organization's annual budget, and those funds are primarily used to pay for PBS dues and programming.
"We'd have to look at a number of cost-savings measures that run the whole gamut, from reducing the amount of programming we purchase to reducing the amount of staff we use to produce local programming," said Bob Connelly of Wyoming PBS.
When former Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal trimmed the state budget in 2009, it resulted in a 10 percent cut to Wyoming PBS' budget. The station responded by cutting two staff positions. "And we had to pull back on the (local) projects we were involved in," Connelly said.
Wyoming PBS General Manager Ruby Calvert said there's little chance the organization could make up a $700,000 shortfall with extra support from Wyoming viewers. The annual membership dues for PBS is $430,000.
"I just don't have that money in my state budget to pay for it and maintain staff and services we have. There'd be some very difficult choices," Calvert said on Friday while in Washington, D.C., lobbying against cuts to CPB.
Cuts at Wyoming PBS could include local programming, and those are programs Wyoming PBS staff believe that viewers value, such as "Capitol Outlook," "Main Street Wyoming," "Wyoming Voices," as well as documentary profiles of Wyoming personalities such as Alan Simpson and Chief Washakie.
"Nobody else is going to do (televised Wyoming) election debates or a two-hour biography on Al Simpson," Calvert said. "I think it's important to capture the history and culture of Wyoming."
Support v. concerns
In March, Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., voted for a measure to cut off all federal funds to NPR. Explaining her vote, Lummis issued this statement:
"Washington's spending addiction has led our nation to the brink of bankruptcy. It's time to cut up the credit cards. Nonessential government programs of all sizes must be carefully scrutinized and difficult decisions must be made. Although I prefer a glide path to self-sufficiency for Wyoming Public Radio, I voted for this legislation because I believe NPR must stand on its own."
House Resolution 1076 passed 228 to 192, but it isn't likely to make it past the Senate. WyoFile requests for comment to Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., and Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., were not returned.
Despite HR1076 not becoming law, many in the GOP promise to keep pushing for the measure. Wyoming Public Radio and Wyoming PBS officials say they enjoy wide support in conservative Wyoming, but can't help but feel their budgets are under political attack in Washington D.C.
"Is it punitive? Unfortunately, I think it is," said Wyoming PBS general manager Ruby Calvert. "All of us recognize the need to cut spending. If we're part of the problem we should be part of the solution ... On the other side, I don't think they're looking at the right places."
Supporters of public radio and television note that CPB's $445 million in federal funds accounts for less than .0003 percent of the $1.5 trillion federal budget deficit.
Approximately one out of every three adults in Wyoming listens to Wyoming Public Radio, Schwartz said, and the organization enjoys greater listener support than pubic radio stations in more populous states. Given the fact that listeners already contribute a lot for a small population, it's uncertain whether Wyoming Public Radio listeners would fill a $288,000 to $300,000 per year gap if CPB is completely defunded.
"We're not going to be able to increase (that listener support) much more," said Schwartz.
Rural services, bias
Public radio is particularly important in a rural state where people spend hours driving across wide spaces with only radio available for entertainment and news. Similarly, public television provides essential services in Wyoming where local television and children's programming is limited.
Yet, public radio and television face the same criticism here as they do on the national scene.
In response to a WyoFile blog query, Wyoming resident Patricia Ullery-Whitaker wrote:
"I have enjoyed public television and radio dating back to the 1980s — and have made financial contributions to local stations. I am not convinced public radio or television need federal handouts to stay afloat. Each program these days has a laundry list of the nation's most prestigious corporations and foundations "advertising" their support. As for news coverage, the criticism leveled at NPR for a "liberal bias" is well-founded and documented. Unfortunately, when politicians are asked to provide financial support to media outlets, the administration that writes the biggest check becomes the master of the message."
Adams said both Wyoming Public Radio and NPR proudly claim an unbiased approach toward journalism, and managers felt the best thing to do was to address current skepticism head-on. WPR staff repeated this statement during the fund drive, written by Adams: "As the debate over federal funding for NPR plays out in Washington and on the air in broadcasts from our rivals, we want you to know that our commitment to journalism remains unchanged. We promise to produce the most ethical, comprehensive, intelligent, thoughtful ... and unbiased journalism you will get on radio."
Geoff O'Gara, a producer and writer for Wyoming PBS, and occasional WyoFile contributor, said that as a journalist it can feel awkward knowing that your paycheck comes from public funding. But just like public school teachers are trusted to speak about political topics in an unbiased manner, so can reporters for public television and radio.
"I try to separate myself from any sense that the government is my employer," said O'Gara, who hosts "Capitol Outlook" for Wyoming PBS.
As for Wyoming's congressional delegates, Wyoming PBS general manager Ruby Calvert said she hasn't heard any concerns from them about bias.
"That is not what I'm hearing from Wyoming constituents and, frankly, I'm not hearing from our congressional delegation," said Calvert.
WyoFile is a Wyoming-based, nonprofit news service.