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Four rows of staffers on WNMU's pledge-drive set
The staff in Marquette, posting for a recent family picture, may start losing members this summer and disperse entirely by July 2004. General Manager Scott Seaman stands at right.

Awaiting death verdict on the Upper Peninsula

Originally published in Current, April 7, 2003
By Dan Odenwald

In perhaps the most severe example of the financial crisis facing pubcasters today, WNMU-TV and radio, the only public TV and radio outlets in Marquette, Mich., are slated for elimination by their license-holder, Northern Michigan University.

University administrators are proposing to save nearly $1.1 million over the next two years by zeroing out the PBS and NPR member stations. If the university’s board adopts the cuts at its May 2 [2003] meeting, the stations could go dark by July 2004, says General Manager Scott Seaman.

Located in the sparsely populated Upper Peninsula, WNMU relies heavily on university support, Seaman says. The TV station receives 44 percent of its funding from the school, and radio gets 57 percent.

The first wave of cuts could hit this summer, and WNMU is preparing by eliminating four jobs this spring and consolidating underwriting duties under fewer staffers.

Twelve months later, the remaining 32 employees are slated to lose their jobs.

Though reluctant to shut down the stations, university administrators anticipate local audiences could receive PBS programs via cable and satellite providers if WNMU-TV goes dark. Public radio fans could tune into a Minnesota Public Radio affiliate some 70 miles away, but reception is spotty, says Bruce Turner, WNMU station manager.

But relying on out-of-town pubcasting services would deny viewers and listeners local programming, including Public Eye News, a 15-minute TV news program produced and hosted by an all-student crew, and High School Bowl, a student quiz show. Radio listeners would no longer get local newscasts inserted into NPR’s newsmagazines.

The $1.1 million cutbacks are part of the $13 million that the university must cut to help make up the state government’s budget deficit of nearly $1.7 billion. Newly elected Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) has proposed cutting higher education by 10 percent to help balance the books.

The state’s other public TV stations—and most others around the country—are facing similar cutbacks, though none quite as severe as WNMU’s. WCMU in Mt. Pleasant is contemplating layoffs in light of a $170,000 cut from Central Michigan University. WKAR in East Lansing is facing an 18.5 percent cut, totaling more than $250,000.

The station is eliminating six positions and dropping Nightly Business Report, says General Manager Steve Meuche.
Some Michigan stations are faring better. In far northeast Michigan, Delta College did not require cuts at WDCQ. Similarly, WGVU in Grand Rapids expects little in the way of cuts. Only 9 percent of the station’s budget comes from the university, says General Manager Mike Walenta. Even a significant cut wouldn’t hurt that much, he adds.

As for WFUM in Flint, Director of Broadcasting Donovan Reynolds is still uncertain what his station will lose. The University of Michigan provides the Flint station with $1 million of its $3.5 million budget. University administrators are working with state lawmakers to determine the final cutback. “Fortunately for us, we’ve been bucking the trends,” Reynolds says. The station has posted strong membership and underwriting growth—up 14 percent—over the past several months.

A plumber has his say

In addition to state cutbacks, Northern Michigan University — home to WNMU — faces an $8 million revenue shortfall of its own, plus rising health care costs and salary increases.

Anticipating the fiscal crisis, NMU President Judith Bailey established a budget review committee this winter to find nearly $13 million in savings. The committee’s largest cuts came out of WNMU-TV and radio but also included 58 university-wide layoffs and a $600,000 cut to the U.S Olympic Education Center, where American athletes train for the Winter Games.

For the size of its audience, WNMU is one of the most successful fundraisers among Michigan pubcasters, says Fred Joyal, university provost, who co-chaired the budget review committee.

Joyal, a longtime supporter of the stations, would hate to see them go dark. But WNMU management hasn’t yet put forth a compromise budget to keep the stations going at a bare-bones level, he adds.

Seaman is refusing to cut local productions, however. “If we don’t have local programming, we’re not worth saving,” he says.

The university has provided excellent support for public TV and radio for the past 30 years, Seaman says. Local people were “flabbergasted” to learn the university was abandoning the stations.

The sole-service stations are a lifeline to the outside world for residents of the Upper Peninsula, Seaman says. The radio signal extends through four translators while the TV signal reaches hundreds of miles east and west through microwave and fiber. Together the stations have about 8,000 members, who contribute about 30 percent of the station’s $1.8 million annual budget.

WNMU has raised the money it needs for digital conversion of its TV station, Seaman says. CPB has agreed to pay $270,000 for a low-power digital transmission facility, and the university offered $180,000 to help. But neither CPB nor the university has delivered the funding. Now Seaman fears the aid might be rescinded if the station appears headed for the chopping block. “The university would be foolish to invest $180,000 additional this year so they can pull the plug next July,” he says.

Seaman plans to remain steadfast, buoyed by vocal support from viewers and listeners. “When someone’s painted a bull’s eye on your chest, you need to stand there and not flinch,” he says.

A frequent underwriter for the stations has given moral and political support. Jon Gooding, owner of Feltner Plumbing & Heating, started buying ads in Marquette newspapers March 30 urging readers to press the university to reject the proposed cuts. Since placing the fisrt ad, Gooding has gotten thanks from customers and new business from like-minded patrons, he says.

“The only news I listen to is NPR,” declared former NMU student and Feltner employee Steve Unger in an open letter to the university president. Unger is shocked that NMU would target the market’s only station worth listening to. “This is entirely unacceptable,” he says.

No magic wand

The university is unlikely to get a reprieve from the governor or state legislature, however, and administrators doubt they can stave off cuts to the stations, Joyal says.

Help from the feds is unlikely as well, says Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), who represents the Upper Peninsula. Virtually every state faces crippling budget deficits, and Congress canít possibly rescue every university targeted for state cutbacks, he adds. Faced with tough choices, administrators chose cutting services that don’t directly diminish student instruction, he says.

State Rep. Stephen Adamini (D-Marquette) is similarly pessimistic. Every state-funded university in Michigan faces cuts this year, he says. “I’m going to do everything I can to keep these signals on the air, but in the absence of a magic wand, that’s going to be difficult to do,” he says.

Advocates for the stations are hoping to persuade the school not to sell the channels. Both the TV and FM frequencies are reserved for noncommercial use, and APTS President John Lawson sent Seaman a letter detailing reasons why selling the stations could cost more than it’s worth. Northern Michigan could incur large legal fees and a potential court battle if it decided to transfer its licenses, just as Pittsburgh’s WQED did when it sold its second channel.

In addition, the university would have to reimburse the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program for any equipment it provided the station in the past 10 years, according to APTS. If the university solicited commercial buyers, CPB would consider seeking reimbursement for its Community Service Grants, according to Doug Weiss, v.p. of system and station development.

Seaman has also alerted CPB to the proposed budget cuts, but is waiting to ask for formal assistance until the university’s board votes on the matter next month.

WNMU may be eligible for assistance from CPB’s Small Station Fund, which helps stations on the brink of financial ruin. Every year, a handful of stations with nonfederal financial support hovering around $1 million or less seek rescue from the fund, Weiss says.

These grants pay for highly individualized consulting services designed to get stations back to financial viability, Weiss says. The Small Station Fund is not a bail-out; grants are designed to excise financial problems at the root, not simply patch them up for another day, Weiss says.

Overall, CPB’s chief aim is to preserve universal access to pubcasting signals with as much local editorial control as possible, he says. Several years ago, for example, CPB helped transfer the license of KWBU in Waco, Texas, to Baylor University after the original license-holder decided it wanted out.

The Michigan Association of Public Broadcasters will help find a way to cover the Upper Peninsula, says Ed Grant, g.m. of WCMU in Mt. Pleasant. WTVS could be piped into cable homes from Detroit, and DirecTV and Dish Network subscribers could request the PBS national feed, he says.
“There are alternatives, but none nearly as desirable as having the local public TV and radio stations,” Grant says.

Web page posted May 1, 2004
Current: the newspaper about public TV and radio in the United States
Current Publishing Committee, Washington, D.C.
(202) 463-7055

EARLIER ARTICLES

In Colorado, another state university spins off its radio station.

LATER ARTICLES

WNMU stations get a one-year reprieve in August 2003.

Two Minnesota stations are the latest to be sold or transferred by schools or universities, 2004.

OUTSIDE LINKS

WNMU website.