Public stations turn to patrons

Times Staff Writer

If you’re a fan of public radio or television, there’s a good chance your local station will hit you up with another appeal this week. Only this time, broadcast executives aren’t asking for money -- they want you to lobby Congress.

Faced with their biggest budget battle in a decade, public broadcasters are waging local campaigns through the Internet and on-air advertising to oppose legislation that, some claim, would weaken their ability to produce local programming and cripple their sister stations in rural areas of the country.

National Public Radio stations KCRW-FM (89.9) in Santa Monica and KPCC-FM (89.3) in Pasadena are airing spots, sometimes twice an hour, encouraging people to write their representatives and senators. KCET, the PBS station in Los Angeles, is sending an e-mail to its members, and today its president and chief executive, Al Jerome, will record a television ad.


KOCE, Orange County’s PBS station, posted a message on its website last week.

“It comes down to the question of the kind of country we want to live in,” KOCE President Mel Rogers says in the message. “Do we want there to be at least one channel that ignores the profit motive to provide civilizing, cultural and informational shows that fairly inform citizens of our democracy or not?”

Some Democratic lawmakers in Washington say they think the budget cuts are politically motivated by Republicans who perceive public programming as biased. But locally, station managers are trying to stay above the fray, making the argument that public broadcasting should be protected as a noncommercial voice on the airwaves.

Some of their most active support seems to be coming from national groups with a liberal philosophy., the grass-roots organization that campaigned against President Bush last year, is joining the effort with an online petition. People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group founded by television producer Norman Lear in 1980 to counter the Moral Majority organization, has a formatted e-mail message that supporters can send to their local representatives.

And Media Matters, a Web-based nonprofit, announced in May that it had launched a campaign “to monitor, analyze and fight back against efforts to turn PBS, NPR, and other public broadcasting outlets into yet another outlet for conservative misinformation.” The group’s staff includes academics, former journalists and individuals with experience in Democratic politics.

“This is simply the latest attempt by politicians to eliminate public broadcasting as an independent voice; one not controlled by far-right pundits or corporate owners,” People for the American Way states on its website.

“The American people have defeated such attacks before, but the right wing’s grip on power in Washington, D.C., is stronger now -- it will take a powerful outcry from the American public to save the independent voice of public broadcasting.”

The campaigns are being provoked by a move from House Republicans to trim federal support of public broadcasting by 46% next year to reduce a ballooning deficit. The House Appropriations Committee on Thursday approved the bill, which is expected to come up for a vote by the full House this week.

The bill would cut $100 million from next year’s budget of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the private nonprofit organization that distributes federal funds to local stations. Money set aside to help local stations convert to digital technology and to upgrade PBS’ satellite system would be trimmed. And there would be $23 million less for “Ready to Learn” programs aimed for children, such as “Sesame Street” and “Postcards from Buster.”

“We had to make tough choices by reconciling competing priorities with the resources available,” Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio) said in a statement last week, adding that the bill did “a good job in serving the American people.”

Station managers say that for Los Angeles-area stations and other large-market area stations, the loss in funds would put a noticeable dent in their budgets. KCET and KPCC each rely on 6% of their budgets coming from funding through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

KOCE says it relies on 17.5% -- $1.4 million out of a $8 million budget -- from the federal government. Losing that money probably would not shut the station down, but it would affect its ability to provide quality local programming, Rogers said.

“There’s a sense of grave concern,” he said.

“We would have fewer shows. We would have fewer quality shows. We would have to start worrying about getting more viewers instead of the quality of content. We might as well bring in ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ reruns instead of ‘American Experience’ so we can get viewers.”

On Tuesday, posted a petition addressed to Congress to “save NPR and PBS.” As of Sunday morning, more than 801,000 people had signed it.

Eli Pariser, the executive director of, said more than half of those who signed also wrote individual messages to Congress through the site.

“In terms of the speed of the response, it’s pretty unprecedented with us,” Pariser said.

Public broadcasters say they’re most concerned about the potential effect on smaller stations, many of which are located in rural communities. Unlike large stations, such as KCET and KPCC, which tend to draw strong support from more affluent viewers and listeners for local fundraising campaigns, many small stations rely on the federal government for more than half of their budgets.

There are 189 public radio stations in 43 states labeled as rural or minority stations, most of which would most likely be unable to make up the loss in federal funding with donations.

“For some of these other stations, it really comes down to ‘Are you going to live or die?,’ ” said Andi Sporkin, NPR’s vice president of communications.

Although the campaigns are being driven by the hope that the public will help pressure Congress to oppose the Republican budget cuts, broadcasters say they’re careful not to specifically ask people to take one side or the other. Instead, they are asking people to decide whether they value public broadcasting, and then take action.

“We haven’t told them how to express their opinion,” Rogers said of KOCE’s 10,000 members.

“We’re all that’s left that’s independent. It ought to exist. I’m glad that people are responding the way they are.”