Blog about KUSP

Congressional Budget Theater

By a narrow margin the House of Representatives passed a budget resolution this week that, among countless other provisions, called for elimination of federal funding for public broadcasting. All but twelve Republican House members voting on the resolution voted “yes”; all Democratic members who cast a vote voted “no.”

Is this a significant development for listeners and viewers of public radio and TV stations? I kind of doubt it.

As this post from NPR’s “It’s All Politics” blog explains, the House resolution has even less effect on the appropriations process than usual, since an earlier resolution approved by both the House and Senate set overall spending levels for the upcoming fiscal year.

The national advocacy organization for public broadcasting listeners and viewers, Protect My Public Media, asked its advocates to reach out to Congress and oppose funding cuts; by their account, over 25,000 people e-mailed their representatives in response. You can see more about the Protect My Public Media effort at this link.

The decisions that actually matter will come up later this spring, as the House and Senate Appropriations Committees work through the bills that actually determine what money goes where, within the overall spending limits I mentioned earlier. Last year, for the first time in my recent memory, public broadcasting funding was not front-and-center in the federal budget debate. With 2014 being an election year and control of the Senate very much open to question, the one one-hundredth of one percent of the federal budget that goes to public radio and TV may yet again turn into a political football.

“Compromise” budget bill largely protects public broadcasting funds

This morning the details were released of last week’s agreement between Republicans and Democrats in Washington about how to fund the federal government through the end of this fiscal year, on September 30.

In the final analysis, most federal support for public radio and television stations, and our on-line services, survives — a remarkable accomplishment in the face of the all-out insistence of many Congressional Republicans to terminate these programs.

The main program for supporting public radio and TV, which is the general appropriation for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, is set at the same level as it was in the previous fiscal year — $445 million. Targeted funding for CPB that assists stations in making the transition from analog to digital production and transmission was cut, from $36 million to $6 million. As I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program (which is also targeted to specific technical projects in public broadcasting and distance learning for schools) was eliminated completely. Finally, all continuing programs will be subject to a reduction in funding of 0.2 percent.

The bill doesn’t contain any provisions that put new restrictions how stations use their CPB support. You’ll recall that the U.S. House of Representatives did pass a bill requiring that public radio stations not use any federal support for producing or acquiring programming (a roundabout way of punishing NPR); that “rider” did not make it into this continuing resolution, and the stand-alone bill is not going to go anywhere in the U.S. Senate.

Some other “non-defense discretionary” programs took a proportionately bigger hit than did public broadcasting. One would have to conclude that Congress and the White House did, ultimately, respond to the objections of tens of thousands of public radio listeners and public TV viewers to the idea of cutting off our federal support. If yours was one of those voices, thank you!

The debate will heat back up again as the Congress begins consideration of the budget for the fiscal year that begins on October 1, later this spring.

New amendments to defund public broadcasting to be debated in U.S. Senate

S. 493 is a bill to reauthorize two fairly small programs in the U.S. Small Business Administration. Three Republican Senators whose politics are towards the far edge of their party’s spectrum of views — Rand Paul, Jim DeMint, and Tom Coburn — are planning to introduce amendments to this bill that would stop funding for public broadcasting.

The exact language of these amendments is not publicly available as I write this post, but one Congressional source indicates that Senator DeMint’s amendment would go even further than the bill already passed by the House by requiring the return of federal funds that had already been appropriated by past Congresses (but not yet made available to public stations).

When the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was first set up in the 1960′s, one of the ways in which the founders and political leaders of the day sought to reduce political influence on public TV and radio programming was to “forward fund” some of public broadcasting’s activities. That is, a year or two would go by between the time Congress acted and the time the funds could be available to stations. This helped with planning (from the local station’s perspective) and — people thought — would make it less likely that Congress would retaliate against specific programming that might be politically problematic for whoever was in power at the time.

While previous Congressional action this year was aimed at stopping future appropriations to public broadcasting, the DeMint amendment, as described by these sources, would go even further by taking previously-appropriated money back.

Senator DeMint’s Wall Street Journal op-ed, “Public Broadcasting Should Go Private,” is at the moment front and center on his Senate web page, so he leaves very little doubt as to his feelings about what we do at stations like KUSP.

You can, of course, let your Senators know how you feel; 170 Million Americans for Public Broadcasting has tools to help you communicate with them…

House bill restricting public radio programming funds moving to floor

H.R. 1076, which prevents any federal support from flowing (directly or indirectly) to NPR and in the process significantly disrupts the entire funding and budgeting process for local public radio stations, is moving to a House vote tomorrow.

The bill is on an extraordinarily fast track, having been introduced only on Tuesday. This is all the more remarkable because the bill does not have any budget implications for the Federal government — presumably the supreme priority for the House Republican leadership. The bill doesn’t say anything about how much money the government should provide to public radio, only that local stations can’t use any of their federal support for programming.

Anna Eshoo represents part of KUSP’s service area (primarily in the Santa Cruz Mountains) and is the highest-ranking Democrat on the House subcommittee that has jurisdiction over this bill. As the Democrats are now the minority party in the House, her influence is vastly less than if she was the chair of the subcommittee, but she did have the chance to share her dim view of the bill in testimony before the House Rules Committee today. In part, she said:

“Public broadcasting enriches our sense of the world and educates us. From arts and music, from science and breaking news, to thoughtful public discourse, NPR has set a world standard. These are tough economic times, but what feeds the soul and informs our national intellect should be considered a critical national resource. I will oppose all efforts to remove NPR’s funding.”

There is some more information about the bill and the objections being raised to it at 170 Million Americans for Public Broadcasting, and my blog post on the topic from yesterday.

We will hear more from all sides of this issue tomorrow, I’m sure.

House to vote on bill that would unravel public radio’s economic system

On Thursday the U.S. House of Representatives is scheduled to debate and vote on a bill that has no budget-reducing provisions, but instead is aimed directly at disrupting the relationship between the producers of public radio programs and the stations that carry the programs.

H.R. 1076 was only introduced this afternoon, so to have it come to a vote only two days later is remarkable and reflects how important breaking down the present system of public broadcasting is to the Republican leadership in the House.

The bill has two main provisions. First, it prohibits NPR from directly receiving any federal financial support. But far more importantly, it prohibits all local public radio stations from using any support they receive from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) to acquire and broadcast radio programs from any producer, whether it’s NPR or some other entity.

The bill’s author, Representative Doug Lamborn of Colorado, had introduced previous bills that specifically targeted NPR, but the new bill would go much further by preventing any federal money from being used by stations to acquire programs from anybody. This would be disastrous for all but the wealthiest public radio stations in the U.S. (the ones least dependent on federal support). Up to now CPB support has been able to be used flexibly to meet the many different kinds of expenses stations have to pay. In contrast, many other kinds of income stations receive have some kind of restriction on how the funds are used; this is especially true at stations belonging to colleges and universities.

The acquisition, distribution and creation of programming is, of course, the biggest expense at local stations — it’s our reason for existence, after all. Prohibiting the use of federal support for program acquisition or distribution can be seen, perhaps, as a way for Congress to show how upset it is with NPR without directly (and perhaps unconstitutionally) singling the network out. But it would create an administrative nightmare for local stations and do great damage to how we go about serving our radio listeners and the people who use our Internet services.

The bill can also be seen as a means to chip away at public broadcasting’s capacity to communicate with you and with elected officials. Current law prevents federal funds from being used to pay for political advocacy or lobbying (this is true across the board with federal funds that go to non-profits or for-profits; it’s not something peculiar to public broadcasting). We are careful about not using any CPB support in a way that touches the very small annual expense KUSP incurs in, for example, writing this blog post. My salary, payroll taxes, and benefits are paid exclusively out of community support, with no CPB money involved. The ISP services that run this software and let you see this on your computer are donated; again, no CPB money is involved.

However, if a station can’t pay for any of its programs with CPB support, that programming would have to be paid for some other way. If the revenue we receive that is free of political restrictions was all needed to bring you programming, that would force the CPB support to go to other necessary things, like administrative salaries… well, you can see where this is heading.

I think it’s significant that this bill only affects public radio; it has no impact on public television stations.

170 Million Americans for Public Broadcasting has more information about this legislation.

Bipartisan House vote cuts public broadcasting technology funding; Senate, White House approval expected

Today, on a 271-158 vote, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the three-week continuing resolution I wrote about last Friday in this blog. The resolution avoids a government shutdown in the short term, but strips all funding from the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program, an important funding program for infrastructure projects at local public radio and TV stations, as well as school districts, universities and colleges involved in distance learning.

The Republican majority split on this House vote, with many conservatives opposing passage. 85 Democrats voted in favor of the bill, though, enabling the bill to move to the Senate. The division in the Republican rank-and-file may complicate further budget negotiations in the coming weeks, as this story at Politico discusses.

The Senate is expected to pass the short-term spending bill, and President Obama is expected to sign it. In doing so they will terminate a federal program that has been immensely important to KUSP throughout our history. The end of this program (and a number of other “non-Defense discretionary” programs) will probably be overlooked by most observers of the ongoing struggle over federal spending, but I feel great regret.

NPR CEO Vivian Schiller exits

I would be completely remiss in not saying something about the situation that has unfolded this week at NPR.

On Monday night (3/7) I learned that the network’s top fundraising executive, Ron Schiller, was leaving to take a job at the Aspen Institute. Too bad, I thought; I had met Ron a number of times since NPR hired him away from the University of Chicago in 2009 and thought he was getting a pretty good handle on the complex business of public radio. Ron seemed to understand that NPR (the news producer and program distributor) could succeed in fulfilling its aspirations only to the degree that it could stay in alignment with, and collaborate with, its independent, locally-controlled member stations (like KUSP)… and getting major philanthropic support for NPR would be far easier if he worked closely with strong local stations, which themselves were becoming more philanthropically oriented.

Boy, was I wrong.

On Tuesday Ron Schiller’s departure was expedited by about two months after he conceded he had said “stupid things” in a February meeting with people posing as possible NPR donors that was clandestinely recorded on video and then (in heavily edited form) presented to a breathless world by Tucker Carlson’s Internet news project, The Daily Caller. James O’Keefe, whose videos of a phony pimp and prostitute fatally damaged ACORN, apparently masterminded this so-called “sting” operation directed at NPR.

How Ron Schiller and his NPR colleague, Betsy Liley, let themselves get pulled into this I will never understand. In any event, the trap was sprung and a new wave of anti-NPR rhetoric poured forth, most significantly from Republican office-holders and pundits who are making every effort to shut off all tax-supported funding for public broadcasting.

On Tuesday night the NPR Board of Directors (the majority of whom are managers of local NPR stations, just as I am) convened and obtained the resignation of Vivian Schiller, NPR’s President and CEO. Vivian Schiller’s removal was duly reported the morning after, and my best sense of my manager colleagues today is that many of them are pleased and relieved. Me, not so much.

I strongly believe that Ron Schiller had no business representing NPR in any capacity if he was given to saying the things he apparently said to O’Keefe’s performance artists about members of the conservative or Tea Party movements, no matter what he personally thinks. He was on the clock, he was representing NPR (and therefore, indirectly, much of public radio, KUSP included), and there are standards of professional conduct that apply to him in that situation. He conceded that he blew it, NPR and public broadcasting sustained damage to our reputations as a consequence, so that’s it. Bye. Have a nice life.

I am much more troubled by Vivian Schiller’s exit. I concede that there’s an argument to be made that if too many things go wrong with any outfit, you get rid of the boss. But as far as I can tell there is no reason to believe that Vivian Schiller had any more tolerance for Ron Schiller’s apparent misconduct, once it was revealed, than I would have had were I to have been his boss. I don’t think she did anything to foster an anti-conservative environment at NPR — as a long-time worker in mainstream journalism, I know she accepted the principle that doing the work NPR does requires fair treatment and respect for almost all viewpoints, including ones that you personally disagree with.

The effectiveness of the current attack on public broadcasting’s federal support, and the probable consequences for our public service on a national scale if that support vanished, are creating immense anxiety for many public radio managers. I understand that. But I don’t think sending Vivian Schiller packing will deflect the attack. I think there is a good chance it will, if anything, make public broadcasting’s adversaries even more determined. That’s certainly the view of Rob Paterson, an observer of our medium whom I like and respect; his views are tartly expressed by his blog post today.

One thing is guaranteed: the absence of an effective CEO during this critical time will prevent NPR and its member stations from coming to grips with many urgent issues. The federal funding question is just one of them. No less crucial is reaching agreement on how to organize and fund our ongoing collective transition from a radio-only system to a constellation of local, state/regional, and national/global entities that serve audiences on the radio, on desktops, and on mobile Internet-connected thingamajigs. Vivian urgently wanted to see this transition executed successfully, while building NPR’s preeminence as a national news organization. Failure to reach a good outcome on this front would be, I submit, a national tragedy. Delay seems certain. And we all know how helpful delay is when managing Internet-driven change.

NPR’s Ombudsman, Alicia Shepard, has some helpful words about the Schiller fiasco (parts I and II) on her blog, here.

[Updated 11:30 AM 3/10/11 to add] And Dennis Haarsager, who preceded Vivian Schiller as NPR’s CEO (although on an interim basis), adds very useful perspective and a number of informative links via a post on his “Technology 360″ blog.

Joyce Slocum, the network’s top lawyer, is now in charge of NPR pending a search for a new permanent CEO. Seriously. If you can point me to a time when good things happened to a news organization while it was led by an attorney, I’d appreciate it…