Following President Trump’s inauguration, social media and news outlets exploded with reports of what his administration was doing, what they were about to do, and what they were considering doing. Among these stories lurks a terrifying headline for public radio and television fans: Donald Trump set to ‘eliminate arts funding programs’, cutting off NPR and PBS.
The Thursday before the inauguration, The Hill reported that Trump placed the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) on the chopping block, along with the National Endowment For The Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment For The Humanities (NEH). Specifically, Trump’s team indicated that the CPB would be privatized while the two endowments would be cut entirely.
Collectively, these three cultural programs comprise .02% of the federal budget.
CPB is a private, nonprofit corporation created by an official act of Congress in 1967. In 2016, the federal appropriation for the CPB was $445 million. It distributes this money to public media stations across the country. Privatizing CPB would mean that the federal government would no longer fund it. CPB is already autonomous from the government and conducts independent fundraising efforts. However, as the CPB noted in a statement to liberal media watchdog Media Matters last week:
“The federal investment in public media is vital seed money — especially for stations located in rural America, and those serving underserved populations where the appropriation counts for 40-50% of their budget. The loss of this seed money would have a devastating effect. These stations would have to raise approximately 200% more in private donations to replace the federal investment. Moreover, the entire public media service would be severely debilitated.”
Understanding how this move could affect public media all across the country requires a detour into the convoluted structure of public radio and TV. When most think of public media, they think of NPR and PBS. However, these two organizations are not actual radio or TV stations. Rather, they produce content that is then syndicated by local stations.
For example, the New York City local station WYNC pays NPR for the rights to broadcast NPR-produced shows such as All Things Considered and Morning Edition. However, they also pay other producers for the rights to broadcast their shows. WYNC, along with many other local stations, pay American Public Media for Market Place. Local stations also pay each other for the right to broadcast another station’s shows. So, WYNC pays WHYY in Philadelphia to broadcast Fresh Air, and WHYY pays WNYC to broadcast RadioLab. Additionally, stations produce and broadcast their own shows.
Similarly, PBS is paid by local member stations for the rights to broadcast their content, such as PBS Newshour and Dragon Tales. Both local radio and TV stations are often supported by regional educational institutions or non-profit groups. It is key to note that, in order to produce shows or pay for the rights to broadcast other programs, local radio/TV stations need funding. In other words, for a station to have any content, someone needs to pay.
Because of this structure, cutting CPB (and NEA/NEH) funding would cause damage at several levels. First, it would hurt NPR and PBS at the national level, though in different ways. As shown in the graphics below, NPR relies on CPB for about 11% of its revenue. While the organization may eventually be able to make this up through fundraising, it would be a serious blow as they start to invest more heavily in podcasting and on-demand media.
NPR 2013 Revenue Sources
PBS on the other hand, would be hurt primarily in its grant-giving function. PBS gives out significantly more grants to local stations and creators than NPR, and most of this money comes directly from the CPB. This would decrease the amount of content available to PBS member stations and decrease PBS’ influence on the media scene.
PBS 2015 Revenue Streams
But, as CPB indicated in their statement, reduced funding would cause damage far beyond NPR and PBS. If NPR produces less content, local stations will have fewer shows to broadcast. If PBS reduces its available grants, fewer local stations will produce content. This effect is amplified by eliminating the NEH and NEA, who also provide funding to content creators across the country.
It could also potentially decimate local public media stations. According to its website, “CPB is the steward of the federal government’s investment in public broadcasting and the largest single source of funding for public radio, television, and related online and mobile services.” More than 70% of CPB funding goes directly to local public media stations (that is not NPR or PBS). That totals to 1,123 public radio stations and 366 public TV stations.
Large stations like WNYC and WHYY on the radio and PBS stations in major cities may survive CPB privatization. They receive CPB funding but also have other sources of revenue such as syndication fees and donor drives. On the other hand, small radio and TV stations in rural regions lack two key sources of funding available to larger stations: original content and large audiences. Small stations with tiny audiences cannot afford to create non-local original shows, so they cannot generate syndication revenue. Further, their small audiences mean their fundraising drives are unable to generate substantial revenue.
CPB has faced threats like privatization and decreased funding before. So, they have taken preventative measures. In 2012, CPB commissioned a report from Booz & Company to investigate what decreased federal support would mean for public media. The report found that “the loss of federal support would mean the end of public broadcasting.”
The report detailed that “fifty-four public television stations in 19 states are at high risk of no longer being able to sustain operations if federal funding were eliminated. Of the 54 stations, 31 serve predominantly rural areas, and 19 provide the only public television service available to viewers in their service area. If these 54 stations ceased broadcasting, more than 12 million
Americans would lose access to the only public television program service currently available to them over the air.”
This battle has happened before. President Nixon called for cutting CPB funding in 1969 and other conservatives have followed suite in the decades since. These voices have not succeeded so far, given that conservatives are split on the issue and neutral federal offices, such as the Government Accountability Office, have determined that federal funding is vital to the continuance of public media.
But, of course, this administration and Congress are not expected to conduct their business as usual. Simply defunding CPB would only require Congress to refuse to extend the corporation’s two year funding. The next opportunity to reject CBP funding is 2018. Privatizing CPB all together would be more difficult. Congress would have to abolish the 1967 law that created it.
In 1969, Mister Rogers, a PBS children’s TV star, spoke before Congress to defend CPB funding. Let’s hope his message still resonates with lawmakers today.