What will happen to WVXU if Trump cuts public broadcasting funds?

Posted at 8:28 AM, Mar 29, 2017
and last updated 2017-03-29 08:49:33-04

CINCINNATI -- The slogan for Cincinnati public radio station WVXU-FM is “Connecting you to a world of ideas.”

However, if funds get cut for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting later this year, there’s a chance the station might have to tweak things slightly. 

President Donald Trump’s preliminary budget proposal for next year includes increased defense spending of $54 billion and about $2.6 billion for the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico.

“Sesame Street,” “Masterpiece Mystery,” “All Things Considered” and Chopin’s “Waltz in D-Flat Major -- No. 1” aren’t quite as fortunate.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which provides $445 million for funding to public radio and TV stations throughout the country, doesn’t get a penny in a budget proposal that eliminates all federal funding – a little less than $1 billion -- for arts and cultural agencies, according to an analysis by The Washington Post.

National Public Radio affiliates WVXU-FM and WGUC-FM in Cincinnati -- as well as WMUB-FM in Oxford and public TV stations in Cincinnati, Dayton and throughout Kentucky -- all appear to be bracing for a battle that could eliminate millions of dollars in funding. Those cuts could impact programming on some stations and threaten the existence of others, according to public broadcasting supporters.

“This is the beginning of what we think will be a long struggle,” said Richard Eiswerth, general manager of Cincinnati Public Radio, the nonprofit that runs classical music WGUC (90.9), news and talk WVXU (91.7) and WMUB (88.5), the Oxford station that repeats the WVXU signal.

The radio stations, which will operate this year on a budget of about $6.4 million, received $509,000 from the CPB last year and had expected to receive about the same amount for the federal budget year that begins Oct. 1, Eiswerth said.

“Without a doubt we would have to curtail some local programming and make some staff reductions,” Eiswerth said when asked what would happen if the stations don’t get upwards of $500,000 from the CPB.

Nine people work in the Cincinnati Public Radio news department. In addition to news coverage, the staff produces the hour-long “Cincinnati Edition” news talk show five days a week. That show focuses on issues throughout the region.

Eiswerth said the $445 million allocation for the CPB is equivalent to about $1.35 per year for every U.S. resident. He also said the five branches of the U.S. military spend about that much every year on their five military bands.

WNKU-FM, the fourth public radio station in Greater Cincinnati, was sold in mid-February to a religious broadcasting company by its owners, Northern Kentucky University. The university said that it could no longer support the station, which was losing $1.1 million a year.

The station still broadcasts its “adult album alternative” format. NKU’s Board of Regents approved a measure March 15 that directs university president Geoffrey Mearns to close on the sale with Bible Broadcasting Corp., which is paying $1.9 million for the station, according to Chris Cole, director of marketing and communications for NKU. 

No date was available on when the new owners would begin broadcasting. 

Public TV stations in the region also are alarmed about the prospect of having their funding reduced substantially.

“We’re very concerned that President Trump’s budgets include these proposed cuts,” said David Fogarty, president and CEO of Public Media Connect, the nonprofit that operates three public TV stations in Cincinnati and Dayton.

For the most recent budget year, WCET (Channel 48 in Cincinnati) and what are now referred to as Think-TV 14 and Think-TV 16 out of Dayton operate on an annual budget of about $12 million, Fogarty said. Of that, nearly $2 million (about 17 percent) comes from the CPB, he said.

One immediate impact of a funding cut is that the local stations would have a difficult time paying PBS for the programming that it provides to local stations, Fogarty said. Local programming – documentaries, arts specials and educational productions – also would be affected by the cuts, he said.

One of Public Media Connect’s more obscure roles is the production of educational materials that are used in schools. A reduction in CPB funding also would impact that work, Fogarty said.

Fogarty also made it clear that the TV stations are aggressive with local fundraising. 

“We raise five or six dollars for every dollar we receive from the federal government,” he said. The stations’ biggest public funds drives – the “Action Auctions” -- will be held April 4 to 8 for the Dayton stations and April 25 to 29 for WCET.

Cincinnati’s WCET is one of the country’s first public TV stations and received non-commercial license No. 1 from the Federal Communications Commission in 1955.

Just south of the Ohio River, a spokesman for Kentucky Educational Television voiced sentiments similar to Fogarty’s.

“We are deeply concerned that funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is eliminated in the proposed federal budget," wrote Tim Bischoff, senior director for communications, marketing and online content, in an email. "Federal funding is essential to KET and all public broadcasting stations,” 

An independent study by Booz and Company concluded that federal funding is essential to maintaining public broadcasting service in the United States. It also determined that ending federal funding would severely diminish, and ultimately destroy, public broadcasting.

KET receives approximately $3.4 million in annual funding from the CPB, which is approximately 78 cents per Kentuckian, according to Bischoff.

“These funds help make possible a majority of KET’s local productions, including Kentucky Tonight, Comment on Kentucky, Kentucky Life and more; as well as the development and delivery of digital educational resources,” Bischoff said.

“KET is one of the nation’s largest public broadcasting networks and the largest nonprofit GED (General Education Development) publisher in the country. As one of the most-trusted sources for educational programs and services, KET is used in every Kentucky public school and by more than 1 million people each week,” he said.

KET is headquartered in Lexington and operates a network that transmits signals from 16 broadcast towers throughout the state, including WCVN in Covington.

The network is urging Kentuckians to contact members of Congress to express their opinions about CPB funding.

The websites of the Cincinnati radio and TV stations provide a link to an online petition created by an organization called Protect My Public Media.

“Without this critical seed money, local stations may be forced to go off-air or to drastically cut the content and services our communities rely on,” the petition says. “The lifesaving emergency communications, local programming, proven-effective educational content for children, trusted news and other services our stations provide could disappear. It could even leave many rural communities without access to any local media at all.”

Eiswerth acknowledged that President Trump isn’t the first high-profile politician to threaten funding for public broadcasting.

On the day he became Speaker of the House in 1995, Newt Gingrich offered an assessment of public broadcasting that has managed to cling to the service for decades: "They are simply enclaves of the left using your money to propagandize your children against your values," Gingrich said in a Washington Times interview. Gingrich went on to decry public broadcasting as a "sandbox for the rich," according to a column several years later.

Eiswerth said funding was cut when Gingrich and the Republican majority implemented their “Contract with America,” which called for spending cuts for a variety of agencies. Much of the CPB funding eventually was restored, he said.

Both Eiswerth and Fogarty said the battle over funding is far from over and that public broadcasting has friends on “both sides of the aisle” in Washington.

Patricia Harrison, president and CEO of the CPB, made her position clear in a statement released after the budget proposal was revealed.

“There is no viable substitute for federal funding that ensures Americans have universal access to public media’s educational and informational programming and services," Harrison said. "The elimination of federal funding to CPB would initially devastate and ultimately destroy public media’s role in early childhood education, public safety, connecting citizens to our history, and promoting civil discussions – for Americans in both rural and urban communities."