Pubcasters keep funds
in some state budgets
State funding for public stations has dropped in state after state as the recession gnaws away their tax bases, but a number of stations have used creative advocacy to argue, with some success, for a higher place in legislators’ priorities.
In Idaho, citizen lobbyists wearing feathers in Big Bird yellow on their nametags helped stave off a four-year funding phaseout.
WLJT in Martin, Tenn., invited state pols to appear in on-air holiday greetings, and while they awaited their shoot, the g.m. lobbied to save the 45 percent of its budget that was to be zeroed out.
In Virginia, WHRO’s general manager de-emphasized television and radio programming and focused solely on the school-oriented station’s educational value to the state.
And Minnesota pubcasting’s longtime lobbyist actually volunteered that the stations take a 3.5 percent cut, the same imposed on other state entities but less than the governor had proposed for the broadcasters.
Despite their different approaches, all agreed that a station’s single most powerful weapon is what their audiences and grassroots supporters communicate directly to lawmakers.
That wasn’t the first strategy that came to mind for Bert Schmidt, president of WHRO in the Norfolk area. He was thinking the most effective way to proceed would be one-on-one meetings to educate legislators.
Then he got a call from a supporter in the statehouse. “The senator said I was crazy,” Schmidt said. He suggested going for an impressive turnout of Virginians defending public TV. “He said, ‘You have to give me ammunition so that when I go to [the state capitol in] Richmond, I can say the people in my district strongly oppose ending this funding.” So Schmidt immediately notified his grassroots, and calls and e-mails poured into offices in the capitol. “We’re fortunate because the people who support are passionate,” he added. “Ultimately that made the difference.”
ID: Constituency aroused
Peter Morrill, g.m. of Idaho PTV, got bad news the night before last Christmas Eve. As officials of a state agency, Morrill and his fiscal manager were called to the governor’s budget office and told that Gov. Butch Otter (R) planned on phasing out funding within four years—zapping more than 60 percent of IPTV’s operating budget. “It wasn’t the greatest Christmas present to get,” Morrill said.
Within a week, Morrill had made a formal presentation to the budget office to sway Otter’s position, but that didn’t work. So IPTV dug in for a more intense battle. To illustrate how the budget-cutting would change its services, the state network warned that an unsubsidized public TV operation could not afford to maintain translators in less-populated parts of the state, plus remote studios in Pocatello and Moscow. Those could begin closing within a year. The network added material to a special page on its website, “Idaho PTV Belongs to You.” “We knew the press and public wanted to have information about what was going on,” he said.
A supportive Facebook page independent of the station popped up, and within a week had more than 5,700 fans. The nonprofit Friends of Idaho Public Television created its own website and its members continued to meet with legislators, wearing yellow feathers on their nametags. Morrill made several more presentations to statehouse committees. Calls and e-mails flowed into lawmakers’ offices. A lot was at stake: The state-operated network’s $7 million annual budget counts on nearly $2 million from the state.
Legislators slowly took note. By the time they adopted the budget in April, the state wasn’t completely withdrawing aid to Idaho PTV. It would receive $141,000 less than requested but still got a $2.4 million appropriation—a slight increase of from its usual $2 million. In March the governor “went out of his way to come over and help with the pledge drive,” Morrill said. “He appeared on air with me and encouraged viewers to support the station.” Overall pledge individual contributions were up about 14 percent. “I felt pretty darned good about that,” Morrill said.
Ultimately, “there was no magic wand,” Morrill said. “It’s gratifying that a lot of people in the state care for public TV, and those feelings came out in a big way. And leaders in the statehouse took note.”
TN: Breakfast in blizzard
Monica Shumake was named g.m. of WLJT in Martin, in western Tennessee, in September 2009. Soon after, the station faced a proposed 100 percent reduction in its $1.2 million in state money — a sum equal to about 45 percent of the station’s budget. The lobbyist for WLJT and the five other stations in the Tennessee Public Television Council warned it would be a tough slog to overcome the proposal by Gov. Phil Bredesen (D).
The stations hired Siegenthaler Public Relations in Nashville to devise an approach and immediately mobilized their grassroots to reach out to reps.
Besides inviting legislators to appear in holiday on-air greetings, the station took another idea from a supporter inside the statehouse. Rep. Jimmy Eldridge (R) told Shumake that food is a sure-fire way to bring out the politicians. WLJT leaders decided to treat the pols to breakfast. “So he got on the phone and told his colleagues they needed to be there,” Shumake said.
And that’s how more than a dozen legislators turned up at the Old Country Store at Casey Jones Village in Jackson, Tenn.—during a blizzard — to munch on a buffet of breakfast goodies, hear Shumake do her PowerPoint speech and receive a pamphlet full of pubcasting facts. After the meal, Shumake told Current, “the chair of Finance, Ways and Means Committee said to me, ‘I would never have known the impact you have, had you not done this.’”
Shumake recently received an e-mail from a legislative leader that the state government would restore 100 percent of public TV’s funding. The official vote will take place by the end of June.
VA: This is not about Big Bird
Bert Schmidt’s financial woes at WHRO actually began with Virginia’s previous governor, Democrat Tim Kaine, who had proposed to slice out 15 percent of aid to five pubTV licensees in the state. Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), elected in November 2009, revised Kaine’s budget, and soon Schmidt was working to stop an amendment that would phase out all state aid to public broadcasting — more than $2 million, over four years.
More than some pubTV stations, WHRO could argue from a position of political strength — its close association with education, a high priority for Virginians of all stripes. The Norfolk-area operation is licensed to a group of 18 local school systems. and it offers many services to schools, such as professional development for teachers.
While drumming up station support, “I was literally showing folks a financial statement,” he said. “We’re a core service for classrooms. We serve 18 school divisions at once. We’re saving taxpayers’ money.” He deliberately “de-emphasized” television and radio programming, he said, even posting an online message to supporters: “This is NOT a question of saving Big Bird. The on-air general viewing programs are funded by our members/donors. This is a question of maintaining the educational services that public broadcasting stations provide to the schools, educators and students of Hampton Roads.”
“With everything else being cut — mental health services, help for the homeless — it’s hard to argue for keeping television and radio,” Schmidt said. “But I could argue that we provide important educational services in a cost-efficient way.”
In April, the General Assembly rejected the proposal to cut almost $600,000 from public TV and radio programming and $1.6 million for public broadcasting education projects. But Schmidt is staying alert. “I had lunch with a former delegate who said we should expect the same fight again,” he said.
MN: We’ll take an equal cut
Bill Strusinski, lobbyist for Minnesota’s six pubTV stations for nearly 30 years, knew there was tough work ahead when the proposed state budget was released in February: Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) proposed cutting nearly all aid to pubcasting, including nearly $1.4 million for public TV stations.
Strusinski asked stations to write statements about how that loss would affect them. Each station manager spoke at hearings. “It was pretty dramatic,” Strusinski said. “Basically they said that their cuts would have to be very draconian, with a dramatic loss of service.” A drop in state funding would endanger CPB grants to the small stations in Appleton, Austin and Bemidji, and could kill them off.
To persuade state officials, Strusinski said, “we used our own technology to demonstrate our value.” The stations produced a video about the value of pubcasting, pointing out specialty programming such as shows for the large Hmong community. Strusinski also encouraged station leaders to meet with legislators.
Another persuasive tactic was for the stations to request a reduction — a smaller one — without waiting for legislators to adopt a position. “We stepped forward to take a cut,” he said. “We asked to be treated like other state agencies with a 3.5 percent cut. I think our positive attitude helped.”
On March 24, both chambers of the Minnesota legislature voted to restore all but $161,000 of pubcasting money.
“The legislators heard from a lot of people,” Strusinski said. “The grassroots are powerful.”
Comments, tips, questions?
Web page posted June 29, 2010
Copyright 2010 by Current LLC