Environmental shots of WRKF studio. Credit: Emily Slack
Environmental shots of WRKF studio. Credit: Emily Slack

By Caroline Gerdes | LSU Student

At the beginning of the year, the House of Representatives passed a spending bill slashing federal funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, among other agencies, which PBS officials say places public broadcasting in jeopardy.

What does that mean for Louisiana broadcasting affiliates?

David Spizale, general manager at Lafayette National Public Radio affiliate KRVS, said several cuts have been proposed at the federal level, but called the situation "fluid." Nothing had been finalized, he said.

WRKF president David Gordon said the Baton Rouge NPR station is in "wait and see mode."

"Others have lost funding, but mainly it's been due to state budget cuts rather than federal cuts to [the CPB]. We had a very small pot of state money that we lost a couple of years ago when the legislature cut funding to the Louisiana Educational Television Authority, but it wasn't a large part of our operating revenue."

Ronald Biava, development and marketing manager for University of New Orleans NPR affiliate WWNO, said his station lost all direct financial support from UNO (although the university still provides in kind support) and last year it lost direct aid from the state. He added that in recent years he has seen a decline in assistance from the CPB, which was necessary post Hurricane Katrina.

"Loss of this financial support has slowed our recovery from post-Katrina loss of membership revenue, and has helped to prevent WWNO from rebuilding staff to pre-Katrina levels."

Beth Courtney, Louisiana Public Broadcasting president and CEO, says that, at present, LPB has seen more cuts at the state level.

She said public broadcasting is facing cuts because of challenging budgets at the state and federal level and the perpetual need for new, expensive technologies which have been defunded at the federal level.

Courtney noted an appropriation to the U.S. Commerce Department to fund the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program has been cut and the reduction could harm the future of public broadcasting.

"This money has been eliminated and it formed the basis of funds for construction of transmitters, towers, master control, etc. This equipment is costly and really difficult to replace."

Courtney said LPB is in a constant state of defending itself to politicians as to why public broadcasting is important. She said with a state and federal budget decline and a recession the financial future doesn't look optimistic.

"This is not the first time public radio has faced the prospect of federal funding cuts, and it probably won't be the last," warns Gordon, who says WRKF has been protected from cuts as a community licensee. Unlike several other public radio stations, WRKF is not licensed to a state agency, he says. When state budget cuts come around, WRKF is unaffected.

The same changing technology posing a threat to funds also helps public broadcasters spread their message.

"Technology plays a huge role today in terms of the many platforms available for distribution. We are making an effort to have a presence on most social media outlets and have always focused on local programming and the indigenous culture, language and music of south Louisiana to make KRVS an authentic destination for terrestrial listeners as well as those online," KRVS' Spizale said.

Courtney explained that LPB is positioning itself as public service media, citing gulfwatch.org, a local journalism center where NPR and Public Broadcasting Service affiliates across the Gulf Coast can track the BP oil spill and report on other gulf news such as hurricanes.

According to Gulf Watch's website, "LPB along with others in public media are making it easier for everyone to access content that makes a difference." And Gulf Watch, the site says, is an example of this.

Courtney said Gulf Watch is part of the online initiative to "create meaningful content." She said LPB provides a huge online source for education, a " safe haven for children," as Courtney puts it.

She said there recently was a field trip to the coast that 5,000 students attended via the web. This interactive, online field trip (or webinar) allowed students to ask questions from experts and become part of the conversation.

Lpb.org also provides lessons to accompany popular TV shows and educational games. The site also has information for parents, providing charts to follow child development, nutrition guides and more.

"Just because you have the technology, doesn't mean it's educational … or quality, for that matter," Courtney said.

But, interaction with viewers is not new to public broadcasting. As the old PBS mantra politely states, "This program was made possible by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you." LPB member gifts are holding constant, Courtney says, despite Louisiana being a small and relatively poor state.

Gordon said more than 50 percent of WRKF's funding comes from members, slightly more than 30 percent from corporate sponsors, noting the number is growing, and 11 percent from federal funding through the CPB.

"Our hope is that, if the defunding threat becomes real, we will see listeners who have never become financial supporters of WRKF — and that is the majority of our listeners — begin to contribute. It's very likely that we could make up that 11 percent loss entirely through increased membership support."

Biava said many listeners hear the names of big national foundations mentioned on NPR and assume the local stations are supported by the same foundations — which is false.

"To survive and thrive, local public radio stations need contributions from more members of their listening audience. We would like people who listen to give, even if only a modest amount."

Courtney said there are several ways for community members to help, other than becoming a member. She said one can volunteer at events or on the monthly public affairs program, Louisiana Public Square. LPB needs "time, talent and treasure."

Gordon said the best way to prevent federal funding cuts from having such a potentially devastating effect on the public radio system is for the system to become self-sufficient.

"In other words, we need to work to replace that federal funding with other revenue sources before any cuts actually occur. That way, if the cuts come then we're prepared to absorb them. If they don't, then rather than using our federal grants to cover day-to-day operating expenses, we can use those grants to do things like improve our service, upgrade our studios and expand our service's reach."

He noted that this idea began in the early '90s when the "Contract with America" was put into place under the Newt Gingrich-led Congress, but that it hasn't happened yet.

Funding aside, Courtney says it is the message of public broadcasting that is important.

She said the purposes of LPB are "education, telling Louisiana's story and civil civic dialogue," adding that political distortions have nothing to do with Louisiana.

"We're intelligent broadcasting."