PTFP expires in federal budget squeeze

CPB survives, but not the facilities program

By Steve Behrens

To serve Honolulu, PTFP helped Hawaii Public Radio put KHPR’s transmitter at Wiliwilinui and now will help it relocate it to another mountaintop where it can reach more listeners and will be accessible without a helicopter. (Photo copyright by Don Mussell, consulting engineer.)

This year, St. Patrick’s Day was the deadline for pubcasters to ask Uncle Sam for help replacing their ancient, failing transmitters, or for a broadcast starter-set to put a new station on the air.

It was also one of those days when Congress lurched toward its budget compromise — and took back the offer.

Gone is the 49-year-old Public Telecommunications Facilities Program, a $20-million line item in the Department of Commerce, which had been saved year after year by supporters in Congress. This time they were too busy saving PTFP’s younger and bigger sibling, CPB.

When the two parties finally agreed on this year’s final continuing resolution, April 8, Congress had spared CPB’s basic appropriation — $430 million this year and next, plus $445 million for fiscal 2013 — though the only certainty provided by the advance appropriations was that Congress has more time to fight over them. Congress also left CPB with $6 million for digital projects, the remainder of a supplement that had been $36 million a year. Two other appropriations attached to CPB are gone but had not been expected to return anyway: a pubradio satellite outlay that was received last year and a one-time relief payment prompted by the recession.

The late-night negotiations on Capitol Hill also saved NPR from a Republican proposal to ban federal aid to the radio network.

Surviving for now: Ready to Learn, the Department of Education program that may still put $27.2 million into reading readiness programs on PBS Kids. Congress didn’t kill Ready to Learn but punted the decision to the department.

PTFP’s forerunner, the Educational Television Facilities Program in the Office of Education, was authorized by Congress in 1962 [text of law],  five years before CPB. That made sense in a way; stations had to equip themselves before they could receive  operating aid from CPB. With the coming of “public broadcasting,”  the facilities program changed names and took in radio, too.

Advocates for new stations still emphasize the point. In 2008, the FCC gave 38 noncommercial FM construction permits to Native American groups, which could double the number of public stations on reservations. But private fundraising for the tribes has been harder than ever during the recession, and some of the CPs may expire before stations can be built, Loris Taylor of Native Public Media testified April 5 in the Senate Commerce Committee. And now PTFP no longer offers a shot at matching grants that would cover half or sometimes three-fourths of a new public station’s cost — and all of the cost of planning the facility.

Hundreds of public radio and TV stations have gotten started this way. Even with 90 percent of the U.S. population covered by public radio, 30 new radio station projects and one TV station got grants last fall.

“Only PTFP heps communities to establish first-time stations,” says Jennifer Kieley, director of government relations at the Association of Public Television Stations. “Without that, they cannot get startup money.” And if the station is not started, she add, it can’t get CPB funding.

Of the $20.45 million of PTFP money awarded last fall by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the largest categories were:

  • $5.1 million to build new stations and signal-extending repeaters;
  • nearly half, or $9.9 million, to replace unreliable, dying or dead equipment; and
  • $4.3 million to convert stations to digital transmission.

It’s seldom easy to fundraise for new boxes of circuitry to replace old ones, but that’s the job ahead for WERU-FM in Blue Hill, Maine, where the transmitter is dying. “Basically, a 23-year-old transmitter is like a 23-year-old car,” says General Manager Matt Murphy. “It’s needing more and more maintenance. Parts are increasingly hard to come by. We were off half a dozen times last year for various things going wrong.”

Murphy had been hoping to compete for a PTFP matching grant to pay half of the $120,000 cost of a new transmitter. Without that help, WERU will have to expand its listener fundraising 50 percent to cover the cost.

“As bad as I may feel for us,” Murphy says, “I feel way worse for a station just getting started.”

The community station in Waupaca, Wis., has been getting started since 1993, and organizer Mark Gerlach almost made a run for the license this year. He enjoys the Native station WOJB in northern Wisconsin and thinks it does excellent radio. “I just loved that station. Why couldn’t we do that?” he asks. Waupaca’s future station recently pinpointed  an available frequency and figured it would have top priority for PTFP assistance because part of the coverage area could not yet receive any public radio.

Without PTFP, “it will definitely take longer now,” he says. “We think we can make a go of it.”

PTFP came in especially handy during television’s DTV switchover. It helped some 280 stations to buy digital equipment, including 200 transmitters and antennas.

The Office of Management and Budget took note: Nearly all TV stations would soon be switched over to digital operation. A budget officer therefore advised that funding PTFP was no longer justified. “In recent years, most PTFP funds have supported public broadcasters’ transition to digital broadcasts. This transition is largely complete, so funds are no longer necessary.”

It was one of many White House budget proposals, both Republican and Democrat, that have tried to abolish PTFP.
“They look around to cut something,” says Dennis Connors, retired former director of PTFP. “It’s been around for some time. They feel it has met its mission. It was an easy target.”

The Obama White House is the latest to cross out PTFP’s budget line. A recent budget document suggested that CPB should pick up PTFP’s grantmaking since it also began making equipment grants during the DTV transition period.

“It was pretty apparent to everybody when CPB started the fund that the [Office of Management and Budget] would keep only one of them,” says an executive familiar with PTFP. “This time [the budget office] is dead serious about closing it down.” PTFP staffers has been reassigned to other tasks at NTIA.

The idea of PTFP closing down greatly concerns Idaho Public Television General Manager Peter Morrill. Rural broadcasting, like rural electrification, has required subsidy to overcome high costs per viewer. “To put in a repeater system or a full-power transmitter in a rural situation where we have 50,000 viewers is very different per-viewer than one transmitter that serves half a million people.”

This time Congress couldn’t save PTFP. “Now it’s gone,” says Morrill. “Whether it ever comes back, we have no idea.”

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