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public TV and radio in the United States
Shutdown delayed one year for northern Michigan stations
The public TV and radio stations in Marquette, Mich., won a one-year reprieve in August  from their licensee, Northern Michigan University.
In perhaps the most severe example of the financial crisis facing pubcasting today, the university announced in March that it would shut down WNMU-TV and FM in July 2004.
The stations now have until June 2005 to seek new funding and hope for the Michigan economy to improve, says General Manager Scott Seaman.
The university recommended zeroing out support for the stations when state budget cutbacks and other factors gave it a projected $13 million deficit for fiscal years 2004 and 2005. In the weeks following the announcement, more than 900 complaints flooded a Nort hern Michigan University website created to solicit feedback on the proposal, reports Evelyn Massaro, radio station manager.
Scores of people wrote letters to Marquette newspapers criticizing the university.
“This is a very sad state of affairs,” Karole L. White, executive director of the Michigan Association of Public Broadcasters, told the Marquette Monthly. “It is simply unthinkable to deprive the Upper Peninsula of its own public broadcasting station, which has served as the cultural nexus for the a rea.”
Public opposition persuaded the university’s board of trustees to postpone the vote on the proposal from May until August to give staff and fans time to develop funding alternatives.
Though the board expressed support for the stations at its meeting Aug. 7 and 8, it offered little financial help. In rosier times, the university had provided the stations with $1.1 million in direct aid — nearly 40 percent of the stations’ $2.9 million budget. It slashed support to $861,500 for fiscal 2004 and plans to reduce aid to $250,000 in fiscal 2005, Seaman reports. The stations will make up for the lost funding through staffing cuts and increased fundraising, he adds.
The $250,000 lifesaver comes in part from an unexpected state appropriation of $350,000 this year. University officials decided to use most of that windfall to shore up the stations’ finances for 2005.
In June, Seaman eliminated four of the stations’ 24 positions, two through layoffs and two through retirement. Next summer, Seaman will eliminate eig ht more jobs, including his own, reducing the staff to just 12 employees. As of now, Seaman has no plans to cut local production or scale back membership in PBS and NPR, he says.
The stations will rely on a new fundraising group established by the university president to raise an additional $300,000 for fiscal 2005. The 12-person committee of “movers and shakers” is charged with building a long-term fundraising plan, Seaman says. Committee members will be asked to make large donations to the stations as well as solicit their friends, he adds. Even if the committee succeeds in raising the $300,000, next year’s layoffs will continue as planned, Seaman says. If the fundraising falls short, it’s unclear what additional cuts will be made.
Since the announcement to shutter the stations in the spring, viewers and listeners have rallied to their support by pledging in record amounts, Seaman says. WNMU-FM’s summer pledge drive, which raised $55,000 last year in a market of fewer than 230,000 households, upped its goal to $150,000 in June. The drive pulled in more than $152,000 in 10 days of pledging. “People know what’s going on,” Seaman says. “The support has been startling and very gratifying.”
Station fundraisers retooled pledge messages to reflect the urgency of the funding crisis both on air and in its mail appeals, Seaman says. “We’re telling our audiences that we can still work,” he says. “We just need their support now more than ever.”
Though Seaman hopes the economy improves over the next two years, the possibility remains that it won’t. In that case, he says, WNMU’s TV and radio channels will likely be taken over by other pubcasters. Minnesota Public Radio is interested in taking charge of the radio operation while Detroit Public Television offered to operate the TV station, Seaman says.
So far, the university board has rejected the offers. WNMU just invested $200,000 to upgrade the TV station to digital and it plans to convert the radio station as well, he says.
Station staffers are optimistic about turning the tide by 2005, Seaman says, but they worry about their capacity to raise funds with a staff that’s been cut in half.
Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) has proposed cutting state funding for higher education by 10 percent to help cover a projected $1.7 billion budget deficit. Stations across the country are feeling the effects of the lagging economy on state tax revenues, but few face consequences as severe as WNMU’s.
The sole-service stations are a lifeline to the outside world for residents
of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Seaman says. The radio signal reaches
out through four translators and the TV signal through microwave and fiber
hookups. The stations have about 8,000 members combined. Membership revenue
comprises about 30 percent of the stations’ budget.
Posted Sept. 16, 2003