Public radio veto not likely to force stations off the air, could mean fewer local reporters

Public radio station KTNA played a critical role in helping keep the public informed on the McKinley Fire, pictured. (Photo by Maureen Clark/Alaska Division of Forestry)

The complete veto of state funding for public radio stations by Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy isn’t likely to force any stations immediately off the air, said Alaska Public Broadcasting, Inc. Executive Director Mollie Kabler, but they will force many stations to cut back amid an uncertain future.

Dunleavy vetoed all state funding for public radio and public television stations on Monday, eliminating some $2.7 million in state support for public media everywhere from Anchorage and Fairbanks to Fort Yukon and the Pribilof Islands. The cuts are expected to punch sizable holes into stations’ budgets and potentially put some stations’ federal funding in jeopardy.

Kabler said she doesn’t think the cuts are likely to force stations to close altogether, but it will mean yet another round of difficult cutbacks for stations. The 27 public broadcasting entities that receive state funding are independent and will make their own decisions, Kabler said, but she said the vetoes will likely hit everything from the kinds of programming stations play to staff cuts, including either eliminating or scaling back radio reporters.

“What I heard from station managers is that they were looking to cut programming that they purchase and potentially making cuts in staffing,” she said. “Stations are going to have to raise more money now so they’re going to have to devote human resources to raising money so they could potentially be reducing content providers, which are the reporters. I know no managers want to do that, but if they have a reporter and a half or a reporter and a host, they’re probably looking at how they can absorb that loss.”

The vetoes could also put stations’ federal funding in question in future years.

The federal government requires most radio stations to raise a flat $300,000 in non-federal funding regardless of their size. It’s not expected to be a significant problem for larger public media stations and many small radio stations in rural Alaska are exempted from the requirement, but it could spell trouble for mid-sized stations with smaller, potentially financially strained communities.

While Dunleavy’s veto eliminates state funding overnight, Kabler said the federal government has a glide path system set up that means stations won’t immediately lose their funding if they can’t hit that $300,000 in a year. Multiple years of missing that mark would trigger the federal government pulling back.

Still, many stations will see a cut in the range of about $70,000 thanks to the vetoes. That size of cut, Kabler said, is about enough to cover one employee’s pay and benefits.

“Just in terms of simple math if a station doesn’t have $70,000-worth of other expenses to cut, then they’re looking at either eliminating programming expenses and reducing from full-time to part-time or eliminating part-time employees they have on staff,” she said. “It’s a big loss.”

And that’ll have an impact not only on regular news reporting out of the communities—many of which only have public radio present—but will be a hit to public safety when it comes to keeping Alaskans informed about floods, wildfires, earthquakes and anything else that the state has in store. She pointed to Talkeetna’s KTNA, where reporter Phillip Manning has been actively covering the wildfires.

“KTNA in Talkeetna has one reporter working tirelessly tracking on all of this and giving live updates to help keep people safe,” she said.

Manning told KTUU that the vetoes will take about $70,000 out of KTNA’s budget this year.

When the fires exploded over the weekend, Manning kept the station running with a power generator while making regular calls to get up-to-date information to send out to the community.

“No one had cell coverage, the only way people were hearing about it was from us,” Manning told KTUU.

The governor has pointed to the funding of the Alaska Rural Communications Service, a state-owned satellite-fed relay system that delivers a mixture of commercial and public television throughout rural Alaska. The system would be capable of carrying news alerts, but it doesn’t generate its own locally produced content.

Kabler said plenty of stations are thankful that the satellite service is still in place because currently provides some connectivity to public radio stations in rural Alaska as well as a coordinated way to disburse emergency alerts throughout the state. Still, she said the best way to ensure people are reached by emergency alerts is to be where they’ll already be listening or watching.

“When something big is happening, you start with the alert—and I don’t want to minimize them, they are important—but once you’ve got the alert, what’s next?” she said. “What we find is that infrastructure is vulnerable, so having redundant systems in place so that if infrastructure at some point in an emergency-alerting chain is destroyed, then other sources of the alerting might still get to people in a community.”

She said that emergency alerts are only part of the service that public radio serves in keeping Alaska safe. It’s also about having locally based reporters like Manning at KTNA—or the many other reporters covering fires and other disasters in their communities—is critical for keeping communities informed and safe.

“Alerting will give you a heads-up that there’s an emergency going on, but alerting doesn’t report to you any specifics of what to do, what to anticipate or how to follow-up from an alert,” she said. “Alerting is very important, but the reporting and having the local people on the ground around an emergency are really going to help make a big difference in terms of saving lives or property.”

Even Dunleavy seemed to recognize that, telling people in the paths of fires to “Stay tuned to the radio so you can get emergency updates” in a social media update on Monday.

He delivered his complete veto of public broadcasting less than two hours later.

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