Public broadcasting cuts would not serve WNC well

By Peter Nieckarz • Guest Columnist

The Trump administration in mid-February unveiled its proposed federal budget for 2019. The proposal calls for the total elimination of federal appropriations for public broadcasting. The present level of funding to public broadcasting ($445 million) represents a microscopic portion of federal spending, but the impact this proposed cut will have on public broadcasting will be anything but small, particularly for public radio and the countless communities served by it. Federal budgets may seem abstract and not immediately relevant to us, but as the old saying goes, “All politics is local.” With respect to this, it is important for us in Western North Carolina consider the impact that a defunded public radio could have for our region.      

I have been studying public radio in various ways for 20 years, and I have lived in Western North Carolina for the past 16. In that time, I have followed closely the welfare of public radio in our region, most specifically WCQS-FM, now commonly referred to as Blue Ridge Public Radio. BPR has grown to feature thoughtful, in-depth stories that focus on issues important to our communities here in the far western counties. Additionally, BPR has featured the expert analysis of The Smoky Mountain News’ Cory Vaillancourt, offering insight regarding our local governments and local community affairs. BPR also is in the process of hiring a fulltime reporter to further improve their coverage of the far western counties. In short, Blue Ridge Public Radio has emerged as an invaluable resource to our region.   

 The administration’s stated rationale for eliminating funding for public broadcasting is that federal appropriations make up only a small portion of the revenue flowing into public broadcasting, most of the money coming in the form of private donations. In my assessment, this reveals a profound misunderstanding of the history and intent behind the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1967. Part of the text of that bill reads as follows:

“… (this legislation) furthers the general welfare to encourage public telecommunications services which will be responsive to the interests of people both in particular localities and throughout the United States, which will constitute an expression of diversity and excellence, and which will constitute a source of alternative telecommunications services for all the citizens of the nation; it is in the public interest to encourage the development of programming that involves creative risks and that addresses the needs of unserved and underserved audiences ….”

The question of whether or not public stations could raise enough money on their own to remain on the air was never a concern. Congress was not trying subsidize failing organizations. The intent behind federal support for public broadcasting was to create a segment of the media that was insulated from the pressures of a commercial market. Federal legislation clearly defines the role of broadcasting to be one of community service to all populations, offering a diverse marketplace of ideas. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting was established in reaction to a demonstrable lack of diversity and choice on the existing commercial airwaves. In other words, a radio station that sees mere audience size as means to ensure private funding will be forced to make programming choices focused on garnering large audiences and will lead to a narrowing-down of the content and ideas heard on the airwaves.

NPR and many of its member stations probably would survive without CPB funding. However, studies I have conducted suggest that pushing public radio further toward reliance on “listener sensitive income” (money raised from commercial underwriting and listener donations) would almost surely have an adverse impact on its content, forcing stations to make programming decisions in a way more akin to that of commercial broadcasting. 

Scholars of the media have noted that rural areas are left underserved by commercial media outlets, therefore public radio plays an especially important role in communities like ours. A 2014 report from the Pew Research Center concluded that, given current economic realities, commercial media has a decidedly national and international focus, forsaking media service focusing on local communities. This presents a scenario where public media is the best chance for meaningful local media service in rural areas.

 It has been heartening to see Blue Ridge Public Radio make such a strong commitment to our communities. Federal funding has helped to make that happen. The 2019 budget negotiation process is just starting. We shall see if our congressional representatives (Rep. Mark Meadows, Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis) are equally committed to the far western counties. 

(Peter Nieckarz Jr. is an associate professor of sociology at Western Carolina University. He specializes in social movement and mass media.) 

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