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PBS Chief Paula Kerger: Trump Budget Cuts Threaten Public TV Stations in Rural America

Variety logo Variety 3/16/2017 Cynthia Littleton
© Provided by Variety

The effort by the Trump administration to defund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting had been expected, but that didn’t make it any less disturbing when it finally arrived in the budget submitted to Congress early Thursday.

PBS president Paula Kerger spent the morning reaching out to managers of PBS’ 350 affiliated stations to discuss strategies for mounting a vigorous lobbying campaign to preserve federal funding for public TV stations. She noted the irony that the latest effort to zero-out CPB funding comes a few months before the TV biz marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Public Broadcasting Act that created PBS.

The CPB has had a budget of about $445 million during the past eight years under President Obama. About two-thirds of that is distributed to public TV and radio stations.

“Our stations around the country really began to light up after the budget landed,” Kerger told Variety. “There’s already a lot of work being done on social media. Viewers are reaching out to their members of Congress to convey the value of public media.”

The managers of PBS-affiliated stations will do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to lobbying Congress against the defunding plan, because it is the stations that receive CPB funding. PBS has 179 licensed affiliate entities that run about 350 stations.

On average, those stations rely on CPB funding for about 15% of their budgets. Some stations are as low as 7%-9%, but among stations in rural areas, the percentage climbs as high as 30% to 50%, Kerger said.

WCTE-TV in Cookeville, Tennessee, is a prime example, Kerger said. Station manager Becky Magura told Kerger that the station would shut down if it loses CPB funding, which amounts to about half of its operating budget. WCTE is the only TV station that directly serves the town and surrounding areas in Putnam County, population 73,245 as of 2013. Putnam County voted for Donald Trump in the presidential election by a 45% margin.

“For stations like WCTE a cut like this would truly be an existential crisis,” Kerger said.

In discussing the rationale for zero-ing out the CPB, Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney questioned why the government should require taxpayers to support the CPB. Mulvaney cited coal miners in West Virginia, steelworkers in Ohio and mothers in Detroit as examples.

“We’ve heard from coal miners in West Virginia and a lot of moms in Detroit today,” Kerger said. Charleston-based West Virginia Public Broadcasting is another group that would be hit hard by loss of CPB funds, she added.

Berger has been through tough CPB budget fights during her decades in public TV, most recently 10 years ago during the Bush administration. In her view, the only thing that really turns the tide is a public outcry — when viewers let their local legislators know that they appreciate PBS and its ilk.

Even if the latest CPB defunding effort is beaten back, the battle ahead will take a toll, Kerger added. She predicted that the enormity of the cuts and changes in the budget proposal will drag out the wrangling well into the summer, making it harder for stations to manage their own spending plans for the coming year.

“The work we have to do to mobilize people to respond to the cuts takes away from the work we should be doing in our communities,” she said.

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