Satellite subsidy extended for minority nets
Published in Current, Jan. 24, 2000
By Mike Janssen
Public radio's two minority program services American Indian Radio On Satellite (AIROS) and Satelite Radio Bilingue will be carried without charge on its satellite system for three more years, until 2003, the NPR Distribution/Interconnection Committee decided in December . And the committee proposed a permanent policy that would give free carriage to other radio programmers demonstrating both financial need and underserved audiences.
The NPR Board will consider the recommended policy in March .
"Basically, all of the political issues have been settled," says Pete Loewenstein, NPR's v.p. for distribution.
Those "political issues" dogged the committee for months. Since 1995, AIROS and Radio Bilingue have put their programming on the satellite free of charge [earlier article about that decision, 1994]. When their initial contract expired last year, they sought a renewal, igniting a debate over whether their subsidies should continue and whether the waiver should be extended to other producers. The D/I Committee finally laid the issue to rest Dec. 17 , in an intense all-day meeting that included Frank Blythe and Hugo Morales, the heads of AIROS and Radio Bilingue, respectively.
D/I Committee members call the policy "fair" and say it clears up some troubling gray areas. "The past policy had the appearance to some people as being perceived as a private bill for those two entities [AIROS and Radio Bilingue], and I think it was very clear that the committee was committed to the principle of creating a solid public policy that was not a private bill," says Jim Paluzzi, committee chair. "The framework reflects that commitment."
The policy sets out detailed standards for granting free access. Eligible producers would have to create at least five original hours of programming a week; demonstrate a "clear financial need"; target unserved or underserved audiences; and make the "best use of available and appropriate technology," among other requirements.
D/I members gave the new policy mixed reviews. "Of course, I think it's great," says Susan Braine, a D/I member who supported the subsidies. She was also AIROS' first network manager. Jim Russell, g.m. of Marketplace Productions, was more reserved. "I feel okay about it," he says.
Russell had agitated for review of the policy, and asked for stronger eligibility standards, but says the D/I Committee rejected many of his suggestions. "The model that I was originally looking at was a model that temporarily subsidizes, and the model that now seems to be looked at is there may be entities that can't survive without this support," he says.
For now, it seems the policy won't open any floodgates. D/I Committee members say no one besides AIROS and Radio Bilingue has requested a waiver, and they don't know anyone waiting to apply. In addition, NPR will expand the satellite's capacity with a third transponder, which makes it unlikely that its channels will fill up anytime soon.
One possible applicant is independent producer Larry Josephson, who wants to launch a Jewish programming channel stocked with his programs, including What Is a Jew?, and other material. "I am pleased with the outcome, that we got an entry point for other groups," he says. "It gives something to everyone."
Satellite charge waiver backed for minority nets
Originally published in Current, Nov. 28, 1994
By Jacqueline Conciatore
A working group appointed by the NPR Distribution/Interconnection Committee will recommend waiver of satellite uplink and channel charges for two fledgling program distributors Radio Bilingue's Satelite network and American Indian Radio on Satellite (AIROS).
The group met in mid-November to consider ways to guarantee viability of the two networks and to give Latino and Native American stations easier access to the satellite system.
Radio Bilingue runs a Spanish-language program service, Satelite, utilized to varying degrees by about 45 stations around the country, while the newer AIROS distributes an hour of archival material daily and early next year will launch a talk show, Native America Calling.
The working group, which met Nov. 16 , agreed to recommend the waiver, expecting that AIROS and Bilingue will use the savings to subsidize or otherwise support underfunded affiliates. Both Hugo Morales, executive director of Bilingue, and Susan Braine, director of AIROS, participated in the discussion; Braine also is a member of the D/I Committee.
According to Tom Thomas, a consultant to Bilingue, the waiver probably represents savings of about $200,000 for Bilingue, and $20,000 or $30,000 for AIROS, which currently incurs lower costs because it uplinks only one hour programming daily. It is unclear precisely how the services would pass on the savings to stations. As envisioned now, the waiver would be in effect from October 1995 through fiscal year 1999, Thomas said.
Discussion about how to ease satellite costs for Latino and Native American broadcasters was prompted by two proposals Morales put before the Distribution/Interconnection Committee at NPR's October 1994 board meeting. He first asked the committee to designate a satellite channel for Satelite and AIROS, subsidized by the public radio system. His second proposal, presented on behalf of Latino and Native American stations, sought a flat $500 interconnection fee for those stations about a dozen Spanish-language stations and about 31 Native stations. The low fee would promote diversity within public radio, benefit a small number of stations that serve audiences with no access to other public radio services, and give stations a secure place within the satellite system, the proposal said.
In its recent meeting, the working group did not consider discounting D/I fees for stations because not all Latino and Native stations are in fiscal straits, according to Thomas. About three Latino stations and fewer than 10 Native stations need help with the D/I fees, he said. By leaving it up to distributors to decide which stations need a break, the group avoided the difficult task of outlining elaborate discount eligibility criteria.
At its October meeting, the D/I Committee tabled Morales' two proposals and voted to set up the working group; moments later, Morales arrived and distributed a prepared statement withdrawing the proposals. He explained later that it had become clear from his discussions with various people that the committee was "not prepared to make a decision.''
Some of the reluctance may have come from D/I Committee members' concerns about setting a precedent for other groups seeking special accommodations. But Thomas said AIROS and Bilingue both have a unique place within the public radio system that merits special treatment. Their programming choices are much more limited than those of African-American stations, for example. While a significant majority of black-controlled CPB-qualified stations are NPR members, for example, few Latino or Native stations are.
Morales said he thought the compromise a good one, though he would have liked relief from the uplink and channel charges to begin Jan. 1  or in March instead of next October, when Bilingue and AIROS' CPB funding runs out. Morales also said he hasn't yet gotten feedback on the proposal from Bilingue affiliates; so far, one station manager told him "to keep on pushing'' NPR to waive interconnection fees for stations.
Some of the stations seeking relief from interconnection fees may opt to forsake NPR interconnection and use the smaller and cheaper Ku-band dishes that would allow them to downlink Bilingue's or AIROS' transmission directly. On the downside, however, they would not have access to programs from NPR, Public Radio International and other distributors; in addition, the Ku-band signal is more fragile than the C-band signal in stormy weather (Current, Oct 31, 1994).
The working group composed of Morales, D/I committee member and independent producer Larry Josephson, NPR Board member and WAMU General Manager Kim Hodgson, Braine, National Federation of Community Broadcasters President Lynn Chadwick, NPR Vice President Pete Loewenstein, and Rick Madden, director of CPB's Radio Program Fund will make its recommendation to the full D/I Committee when the board meets in January or February. If the committee approves the recommendation, it will go before the full NPR board for final consideration.
To Current's home page Earlier news: AIROS begins operations, 1994. Outside links: AIROS, Radio Bilingue and Public Radio Satellite System.
Web page posted Feb. 12, 2001
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