Public TV, Radio Stations Bracing for Possible Loss of Federal Support
By Kaulie Lewis
Photography By BriShon Mitchell
Viewers of KLRU-TV have been calling the station lately to voice their concerns. But it’s a federal budget issue, not the music on “Austin City Limits,” that’s causing the commotion.
The source of the concern is reports that President Donald Trump plans to cut funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which provides financial support to public television and radio stations across cultural programs such as the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, also are on the list for cuts.
It’s not the first time that politicians have targeted the CPB. But “I think this may be the most real that we’ve faced,” said Bill Stotesbery, the CEO of KLRU for the past 14 years. And it’s a threat that could have consequences for some of KLRU’s signature programming, including the “Austin City Limits” program.
Congress will have a say in the final federal budget. But President Trump has proposed cuts to a wide range of domestic programs. Eliminating both the CPB and the NEA would only cut about .026 percent of total discretionary federal spending, Stotesbery noted.
“It’s not going to balance the budget. It’s not going to cut spending and enable the kind of economic policy that we seem to be heading toward,” he said. “There’s a lot of misunderstanding out there in the world.”
The CPB, which Congress created in 1967, describes itself as a steward of federally supported public broadcasting. The organization distributes the vast majority of its funding in grants to to public radio and television stations across the country.
In Texas, the CPB gave almost $16 million to more than 40 local NPR and PBS stations across the state in 2014, the most recent year for which the organization provided numbers.
More recently, the CPB awarded roughly $1.5 million in grants to KLRU, Austin’s PBS affiliate and the home of “Austin City Limits,” the longest running live music show in broadcast history. That money is nearly as much as the station raises each year from its 18,000 members, Stotesbery said.
The station serves an 18-county swath of Central Texas with 750,000 households. It produces and/or presents more than two dozen local programs on topics including the arts, barbecue, gardening and Texas travel. Both KLRU and KUT-FM, the city’s NPR affiliate, are part of the University of Texas at Austin and operate from its campus.
KUT receives 5 percent of its budget – about $600,000 a year – from the corporation. KMFA-FM, a classical radio station, also gets support from the CPB.
The CPB does more than support individual stations. In 2015, it awarded a $750,000 grant to KUT and three other Texas radio stations to create and support the Texas Standard. The hour-long daily magazine, which is broadcast on 28 stations across the state, is produced from KUT’s Austin studio.
KLRU uses its CPB grants to pay PBS dues and support local productions, Stotesbery said, while KUT uses the money to purchase national programs, according to spokesperson Erin Geisler.
“The things that we can use [CPB grants] for are things that are sometimes tough to raise money for separate from that,” Stotesbery explained. “Often times when you’re raising money, money coming from donors and foundations has specific impact purposes and restrictions, and this is a largely unrestricted fund.”
The unrestricted nature of the CPB grants is just one reason they would be difficult to replace. There’s also the sheer amount of the funding, and while neither KUT or KLRU are at a saturation point in terms of membership support, growing support bases takes time.
For KUT, the money that CPB provides approximately equals what the station raises in a single fund drive. Should federal funds be cut, “I’m not sure how we would bridge that gap,” Geisler said. “We would evaluate other sources of funding, including a third membership drive.”
CPB grants are even more crucial for smaller, rural stations, some of which count on CPB grants for up to 35 percent of their budget. If the corporation were eliminated, some of those stations likely “would have a difficult time” replacing the money, Geisler explained.
At KLRU, losing CPB money would likely mean cuts to programming as well as shortfalls in other necessary but less obvious areas.
Among them, Stotesbery said, are changes to how PBS stations handle music licensing. The CPB pays for blanket licenses with several major music licensing corporations, enabling PBS stations to use the music without paying separate royalties. Were the CPB to be privatized or cut, individual stations would have to purchase music rights on their own, or go without.
“For us, it most particularly affects ‘Austin City Limits,’” Stotesbery said, referencing the program KLRU has produced for 43 years and that is shown on PBS stations across the country. The show has become an “institution,” Stotesbery noted, but CPB funding changes “would very much change how we go about dealing with music rights issues.”
Although funding cuts remain theoretical at this point, some viewers, listeners and community members have already been reaching out to local organizations to voice their support.
While neither KUT or KLRU have plans to increase fundraising efforts as a direct result of the threats to the CPB, both are encouraging their viewers and listeners to speak up.
KUT has recently “decided to post a page on our website with an overview of the CPB and how it supports KUT in an effort to educate our audience in case they decide they want to write their Congress member,” Geisler said in a written statement.
Stotesbery also encouraged viewers to contact their representatives.
“People need to pick up the phone and write letters and contact their members and let them know what they think,” he said. “You may not like us, but pick up the phone.”