On Monday, Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy issued an update about the fires raging around Alaska, urging Alaskans to “Stay tuned to the radio so you can get emergency updates.”
Less than two hours later, the governor issued a veto eliminating state funding for public radio and public television in Alaska, a move that’s expected to hit rural Alaska—where radio is the primary source of emergency alerts—particularly hard. The action repeated his earlier vetoes of the same funding made during the first round of vetoes issued in June. The cuts totaled about $2.7 million.
The elimination of funding for public radio and public television didn’t make an appearance during the governor’s 10-minute budget announcement video, which was primarily focused on explaining his thinking behind accepting the $1,600 dividend passed by the Legislature.
The funding had many supporters in the Alaska Legislature, and it was a particularly important issue for rural legislators like Sen. Lyman Hoffman, who at a July 10 hearing said the June 28 vetoes of public broadcasting, were particularly cruel to rural Alaskans.
“To keep people ill-informed on what’s happening in the state of Alaska and have the people, many people of Alaska not to able to hear that voice, not to be able hear that debate—this makes no sense,” he said, later adding, “How can we say we can be open and transparent when we have many people in Alaska not being able to hear that voice, not being able to hear that debate.”
And it wasn’t just about providing the daily news, but about providing emergency communications and updates to rural Alaska. It’s a service that even the administration recognized as important in documents released alongside this week’s vetoes.
“Public broadcasting plays an important role in Alaska, especially in our rural communities that have limited or no access to other forms of media,” explains one document, before delving into why it should be cut, “While current funding levels for public broadcasting from the State can no longer be sustained, rural satellite services will not go away in FY2020.”
The governor’s first round of vetoes delivered in June spared funding for satellite infrastructure. The governor had proposed eliminating that in his Feb. 13 budget, but its elimination would have—without a doubt—left much of rural Alaska’s emergency alert system in an unorganized mess. The satellite system provides Alaska Rural Communications System television programming, including emergency broadcasts to 185 rural and village sites and transmitters. It also provides public radio feeds for several rural radio stations.
Alaska Public Broadcasting Executive Director Mollie Kabler told a House subcommittee in March that the elimination of the satellite system would leave stations without coordinated access to emergency alerts, such as tsunami warnings.
While the budget leaves access to the satellite alerts intact, it’s unclear what exactly will happen to the stations that receive state funding to relay those alerts to the radios and televisions of rural Alaskans. And that’s not to mention the emergency alerts that public radio stations generate and broadcast themselves about everything from flooding to wildfires.
Kabler told the committee that there are 27 public radio and public television stations that receive funds through the state grant everywhere from Anchorage and Fairbanks to Chevak, McGrath and the Pribilof Islands.
The radio grants range from an $80,286 grant to KOTZ in Kotzebue to $29,785 to KZPA in Fort Yukon.
She described the satellite system and the public radio station as interconnected when it comes to public safety.
“The stations who receive grants are often the local primary in their community, which means they’re identified as the media entity in the community that leads the emergency alert in that area,” she said. “The grants under the Alaska Public Broadcasting Commission also support entities that have a strong local emergency alert function in their communities.”
The administration justifies the cuts by saying that multiple funding sources could fill in for the lost funding for radio stations.
“With access to grants, Federal funding, or other innovative sources of funding, we believe the Alaska Public Broadcasting, Inc., will continue to provide services to Alaskans and will prioritize its services so it reaches Alaskan communities that need news and information the most,” explains a list highlighting the vetoes.
The only problem is that the cuts would likely put a hole so big into many budgets that, like many other vetoes made by Dunleavy, it would make it difficult or impossible to access those other funds.
Kabler told the House subcommittee that the elimination of the $2.7 million in state funding could put $1.7 million in federal funding in jeopardy. The federal government requires some stations pony up at least $300,000 in non-federal funding to become eligible to receive federal dollars.
According to documents provided to the subcommittee, 20 percent of public radio stations will lose between 45 percent and 91 percent of their operating revenue due to the cut. Another 39 percent of the public radio stations will lose between 20 percent and 40 percent of their operating revenue.
It’s unclear exactly how radio stations will be affected by the latest round of vetoes. Back in March, legislators noted that there was no analysis by the administration about how rural radio stations would be affected.
We’ve reached out to the Alaska Public Broadcasting Commission and will continue to follow this story.