APTS operating without dues from 1/4 of stations

By Dru Sefton

A drop in dues-paying members over the last three years has diminished the resources of the Association of Public Television Stations at an especially critical time for the Washington-based lobbying organization.

Patrick ButlerAPTS’ membership has fallen to 75 percent of public TV licensees from a high of 85 percent in 2008. With dues from fewer of the 170-some station licensees, APTS is short about $1 million in annual membership revenue and unable to fill several key positions, including vice presidents for government relations and communication and a regulatory counsel, in a year when the recession, anti-deficit worries and political opposition are bearing down on pubcasting funding.

“This is a problem,” APTS President Patrick Butler said in a session at public TV’s National Educational Telecommunications Association Conference last month in Kansas City, Mo. “If we could get to a point where everybody was in this boat and supporting our efforts in Washington, it could have a transformative effect.”

Will Glasscock, an APTS director of government relations, cautioned that “the very challenging environment continues” on Capitol Hill and “the partisan atmosphere has never been quite this bad.” Just last week, GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney said in a USA Today op-ed that if elected, CPB will be one of his targets for “deep reductions in subsidies.”

The situation poses a dilemma: APTS needs resources to fight for federal appropriations on Capitol Hill, which has been one of the most stable sources of revenue during the recession despite the ongoing partisan fights over it.

In two years, public TV’s nonfederal income plunged nearly one-quarter, dropping by $348 million between fiscal years 2008 and 2010, said Mark Erstling, CPB’s senior v.p. of system development, in another session during the NETA Conference. Even after years of downsizing, according to Erstling’s figure, 67 percent of public TV stations didn’t break even in fiscal 2010.

Butler knows this about his constituents and feels their pain, but he noted that APTS held dues stable for four years before increasing the rate 3 percent this fiscal year. “If stations can show they’re in economic distress, we’re prepared to work with them,” he said. APTS will soon announce a new, simplified dues formula that will clarify criteria for hardship exceptions, he said.

One notable change will make dues more consistent: Groups of stations will not be allowed to save money by negotiating to join as a group, as California stations did in 2009 and Pennsylvania stations in 2010.  “We are not going to encourage that kind of grouping any longer,” Butler said. “We want every station to feel that they are here for their own sake, and with their own stake. So that will be phased out.”

Butler wants to move the organization beyond survival mode to pursue a more robust role, which includes expanding into advocacy for public radio — a touchy proposal on the FM side.

Indeed, adopting an ambitious attitude is a key to attracting support, said John Lawson, who headed APTS from 2001 to 2008. Member stations “have to feel connected to something that is more vision-oriented than the annual appropriation — as important as that is,” Lawson said.

At the same time, station leaders and APTS need to be realistic about a possible future without that money. “I think station managers and governing boards are prudently planning for scenarios with no federal funding,” Lawson said. “The system also needs to explore ways to insulate news and public affairs production from any direct federal funding. But it is clear that losing half a billion dollars in federal funding, which has few strings attached and costs very little to raise, relatively speaking, would be a disaster for public media.”

When Lawson left APTS in March 2008, he said, the organization had a budget of around $5 million. Later that year the recession hit. Now the APTS budget has fallen to $4.3 million — the same as it was in 2002.

Full load of work

Even with diminished staffing, APTS has been tackling complex issues and initiatives:

  • The FCC has opened a new and fundamental battlefield for pubTV and other TV broadcasters — downsizing and rearranging their channels — and is asking Congress to implement it. A bill to authorize auctions of spectrum (S. 911) — including channels that many broadcasters would voluntarily sell to the government —has made it out of the Senate Commerce Committee, and three House bills have been drafted but not yet introduced. Even if public stations choose to keep their spectrum rather than being bought out, they still face the cost of altering their transmitters to pack their channels into less spectrum, as the FCC proposes. Kate Riley, an APTS director of government relations, said at NETA that estimates for public TV stations’ spending on repacking run from $1 million to $3 million per station, depending on the number of translators that must be moved to new channels. APTS is fighting to keep the spectrum giveback voluntary and to get stations reimbursed for repacking costs.
  • APTS is also watching for signs of what the deficit supercommittee will do. As part of the Budget Control Act of 2011, Congress ordered the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction to propose, a month from now, a reduced budget that would decrease the federal deficit by some $2 trillion over the next 10 years. The so-called supercommittee has had three public hearings, and APTS weighed in on pubcasting funding plus education initiatives, including Ready to Learn, and spectrum issues. Otherwise, the supercommittee’s work has been secretive: After its closed meetings, Glasscock said, congressional staffers “run into rooms to clear out every scrap of paper.” APTS is hearing that the size of the targeted cutbacks will force panel members “to go after the big fish” for major reductions, meaning mandatory spending such as defense, Social Security and Medicare, as opposed to smaller, discretionary costs such as CPB, Glasscock said. The 12-member bipartisan panel has been ordered to vote on its proposal Nov. 23 and pass it by a simple majority, meaning at least one member has to cross party lines, Glasscock noted. On Dec. 2 the supercommittee must issue its recommendations as a bill, and Congress will not be able to amend, slow or table it. Both the House and Senate must vote on it by Dec. 23 and enact it by Jan. 15 or face “auto-sequestration” in January 2013 — an automatic budget-cutting rampage whacking 10 percent from defense spending and 7.8 percent from nondefense spending.
  • APTS needs funds to handle the influx of support from the ongoing online campaign 170 Million Americans. The website, launched last year with public radio’s American Public Media (Current, Dec. 13, 2010), attracted more than 400,000 advocates and 136,000 Facebook “likes.” Visitors to the site can sign up to become advocates, receive monthly updates and send emails to members of Congress. APTS recently had to pony up around $50,000 beyond the project’s original budget just to expand the website’s capacity.

APTS also plans to revamp its traditional February Capitol Hill Day lobbying effort into a broader Public Media Summit, Feb. 26–28 in Arlington, Va., encompassing TV, radio and new media, such as educational game producers. Sessions about strategic issues relating to the future of public media will expand the event beyond its traditional legislative emphasis.

“All in this together”

Butler said he’s asking Gary Knell, NPR’s new president, to speak at the summit.  “We’ll be inviting a lot of people from the radio side of the industry for that conference,” he added. APTS wants to “create a visibly united front for radio and TV,” as both pubcasting fields increasingly offer content in various forms on the Web and mobile platforms.

APTS wants to continue some joint advocacy with public radio, which it performed early this year by arrangement with former NPR President Vivian Schiller. When right-wing critics had NPR on the defensive after it fired Juan Williams, Schiller temporarily put NPR’s lobbying role in Butler’s hands. NPR and APTS jointly created a group for that purpose called the Public Media Association (Current, Feb. 22).

“The NPR Board is very much in favor of joint advocacy, and the APTS Board certainly is in favor,” Butler said. “It’s a decision the NPR folks and station leaders have to make for themselves. If we can help them, we’re happy to. If not and they go on their own, that’s okay, too.”

NPR approaches the subject of joint advocacy with more caution. A statement to Current from NPR, attributed to Mike Riksen, its v.p. for policy and representation, said that “member stations, and the system as a whole, expect all the national organizations to work together to represent and support their interests.”

“NPR has a long history of working with APTS, and others, to achieve shared goals,” the statement said. “Over the years there have been many examples that demonstrate the value of close cooperation between our organizations. We were pleased to collaborate even more closely over the course of this past very difficult year to good effect. We are particularly grateful to the many member stations that worked tirelessly and activated their supporters to make the case for the preservation of federal funding.”

But some radio leaders are reluctant to embrace the notion of arm-in-arm advocacy with pubTV, pointing out that their Washington issues and priorities often differ from TV’s. PRIMA (Public Radio in Mid-America) is developing a white paper on the issue.

Some radio leaders also distrust public TV, a larger field with higher costs and shrinking audiences.

The financial struggles APTS is having “in some fashion strike me as a microcosm of the world of what’s happening in public TV in general,” said Ron Kramer, executive director of Jefferson Public Radio at Southern Oregon University. “Public radio doesn’t have those problems, which reinforces my concern that APTS is moving into the radio orbit as an economic matter.”

Kramer said he feels public radio and TV are “fundamentally different businesses,” with radio specializing in local programming, especially news. “Essentially they are two circles with some overlap,” Kramer said. With the growth of multiplatform content on each side, “those circles may be touching a little bit more. But they are not ever going to wind up concentric circles.”

Lawson said he feels it’s “very shortsighted to not recognize the symbiotic relationship” between pubTV and radio. “Radio and TV need each other, and it’s very important for the national leadership to make that clear,” he said. “Whether there’s a formal structure or a merger of efforts, the two organizations have to work well together. They don’t have to walk in lockstep, but there has to be mutual support for each other’s goals and a very public display of mutual respect.”

Butler remains optimistic and said APTS is working on radio outreach through its 80 dual-licensee members. “We want to make sure that we can be as useful to them on both the TV and radio side as we can be,” he said. “We hope that our success with them will give confidence to radio-only stations that we’re all in this together, and we have everybody’s best interests at heart.”

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