The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Calling Big Bird: Public TV and Radio fight for taxpayer support

March 9, 2011 |  5:30 pm

VivianSchiller It’s hard these days to persuade Republican deficit hawks in Congress to preserve taxpayer funding for just about any discretionary program. But try saving public money for your organization when one of your key executives has just popped off against those same congressional Republicans.

That’s the nasty bind public TV and radio leaders find themselves in these days—fighting on Capitol Hill  for their $430 million in annual funding just as National Public Radio’s top fundraiser, Ron Schiller, was caught in a video sting trashing…conservative Republicans. Schiller also said in the video (filmed surreptiously by faux potential donors) that NPR would be “better off in the long run” without federal support.

Schiller soon resigned, followed shortly by NPR’s chief executive, Vivian Schiller. (The two are not related.) Insiders hoped the resignations would tamp down calls for defunding, but congressional Republicans said they would not back down until all taxpayer support has been stripped away.

Many public radio employees expressed alarm at the prospective loss of funding. But a chief lobbyist for public television stations sounded a much more confident note—saying there is a quiet but significant group of Republicans who would come to the support of public broadcasting.

Jennifer Ferro, general manager of Santa Monica-based KCRW 89.9 FM, was on The Hill pushing for continued public funding Wednesday. While members of the California Democratic delegation remain supportive, she said, Republicans “don’t even want to talk about the issue and what we do. They are competing with each other to cut more and more.”

Ferro argues that the $1 million to $1.2 million KCRW receives each year is a modest investment that helps the station leverage a total budget of more than $13 million, most of it from listeners, corporate sponsors and foundations. “It’s seed money that we make go a long way,” she said.

If the station loses that government support and can’t raise the money elsewhere, it would likely have to cut its most costly operations—local news and information gathering, Ferro said. A couple of producers hired in November to create more local news stories would have to go, she said, as might some staffers who help create talk shows like “To the Point” and “Which Way, L.A.?” both popular mainstays, hosted by veteran newsman Warren Olney.

Ferro would like to see other public radio stations pushing harder to defend their work, which even many conservatives have conceded is more even-handed than critics contend. I wrote recently how San Gabriel Valley Rep. David Dreier shared his love of NPR and and said he considered public radio mostly fair-minded. Dreier, however, is for eventually pushing NPR off the public dole.

While Ferro expressed alarm, the man who represents public television affiliates before Congress told “The Hill” newspaper this week that he is confident.  “I do think if there ever comes an up-or-down vote on public broadcasting itself, we'll wind up with a bipartisan majority in favor of continuing our funding," said Patrick Butler, chief executive of the Association of Public Television Stations.

While Butler’s organization insists supportive Republicans are out there, they sure aren't making a lot of noise about it. In most of heir recent mid-term election triumphs, conservatives promised to slash federal spending of all kinds.  House Republicans unanimously approved a measure that would “zero out” broadcasting dollars, though most Democrats and President Obama have left the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (which supports both TV and radio) in their budget plans.

Perhaps it’s time for public broadcasting advocates—and I’m one of them—to consider alternatives. While the corporate bosses have taken on considerable baggage after the Schiller video (and the earlier controversial ousting of commentator Juan Williams from NPR) local public stations maintain tremendous followings.

If it comes to a final vote on funding, supporters should at least move to bifurcate the question and have lawmakers vote separately on public support of the troubled mother ship and on public support for local affiliates. I suspect it would be much harder for even budget hard-liners to vote against their local public radio and TV stations.

Members of Congress shoule recall a lesson from their own political careers: Polls constantly show the public loathes Congress in general, but the same voters keep sending their local lawmakers back to Washington, time after time.

Most voters might not love sending their tax dollars to the East Coast powers that run public broadcasting, but they’d hate to lose the local outlet that’s often their best hope of receiving quality news.


Vivian Schiller, NPR chief, resigns amid 'tea party' video fallout

NPR 'appalled' by its executive's 'tea party' remarks in video


--James Rainey

Twitter: latimesrainey

Photo: National Public Radio CEO and president Vivian Schiller resigned March 9 after a furor set off by a sting against another NPR executive, who was shown on video disparaging conservatives. Schiller had previously worked at CNN and the New York Times. Credit: NPR