By Kristian Porter

Once again, federal budget proposals take aim at funding for public media, causing deep concern for the future of quality local news and content.

“I don’t understand why we seem to be perennially in this fight”. These were the words spoken by PBS President and CEO, Paula Kerger, to Politico this week.

For three years, the Trump administration’s annual budgets have threatened to cut federal funding for public service media (PSM) – attempts that were allayed by public and congressional action. But now, the FY2020 budget proposes to cut all taxpayer funding for the Corporation for Public broadcasting (CPB) – the independent organisation that allocates federal funds to US public media – over a two-year period.

This would mean a reduction from $445million to just $30million in the first year alone, which would have dire consequences for quality independent content and journalism, especially at a local level.

The FY2020 budget also suggests shutting down the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, two agencies that provide further grants to PSM.

It’s proportional

Public media in the US is split into two principal national television and radio stations – the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR) – with hundreds of regional member stations.

In the case of PBS, federal allocations provide 15% of total funding, with the rest accrued through donations, funding drives, programme-by-programme funding and membership fees. Yet, this is only an aggregate number, as Kerger explained to Politico: “For some of our stations in rural parts of the country – it’s probably about 40%”.

In effect, the proposals could force smaller regional stations off air or to make cuts to local programming, with many communities losing their only source of relevant local content and critical emergency alert services. Low-income families could lose valuable educational and cultural content, a specialism of public media in the US. Moreover, federal funding allows many of these stations to maintain their independence and focus on providing content of public value, rather than struggling to compete for commercial funds.

No viable alternative

In a press release for CPB, President and CEO, Patricia de Stacy Harrison, said there was no viable alternative to federal funding. Without it, she said, “the entire public media system and the unique services and value provided to rural, small town and urban communities would be devastated.”

The proposed cuts have been widely interpreted as being deeply cynical, especially when current funding only accounts for 0.01% of the federal budget – the equivalent of $1.35 per American. Such value for money was reflected in a nationwide survey earlier this year,  where PBS came second when ranked against other vital services for its value in tax dollars. The same survey ranked PBS in first-place in terms of public trust among American institutions.

Yet despite a high level of trust, an overreliance on individual donations is simply not an option. Recent polling by Pew Research Center revealed that despite the reliance on local stations by a majority of American adults, only 14% of the 35,000 polled actually paid for local news. 71% of respondents also believe local news media are doing well financially.

In a country where public media relies on philanthropy and donations, this does not bode well for life after the proposed cuts.

In this third round of Trump administration budgets, public and congressional support for well-funded, independent, quality and universally accessible PSM are needed more than ever.

What can you do?

 The Public Media Alliance is deeply concerned about the proposed cuts and stands with our members CPB and PBS as well as NPR in calling for congressional support to ensure the continuation of federal funding for public media.

We also join local public media stations and organisations such as Protect My Public Media in calling for supporters to make their voices heard. This can be as simple as emailing your local lawmaker, signing a petition or contacting your local station to find out more.

CPB and PBS are valued members of the Public Media Alliance


Header image: National Public Radio Headquarters in Washington DC. Credits: Ted Eytan/Creative Commons