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Public broadcasting funding in danger in Kansas and elsewhere Kansas legislators target public stations for cutbacks, concerned about an increasingly tight budget and editorial content they say is too liberal.

  • The Kansas City Star
  • Published Sunday, Feb. 10, 2013, at 9:39 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, Feb. 11, 2013, at 11:17 a.m.

— Little by little, Kansas public broadcasters feel the pinch of state budget cuts.

At High Plains Public Radio in Garden City, the air sometimes goes dead or programs play twice on consecutive days.

Broadcasts at Radio Kansas in Hutchinson shut down from midnight to 6 a.m. so the station can cut its electric bill.

In Kansas and across the country, public broadcasters find statehouses reluctant to help with the bills for two reasons: There’s less money to spare and Republican-dominated legislatures see the radio and TV stations as too liberal.

“The real question is: Is it a dinosaur that’s dying?” asked state Rep. Pete DeGraaf, R-Mulvane and chairman of the General Government Budget Committee.

Managers at public stations face more gaps in their budgets, if not yet imminent extinction, if the Kansas Legislature agrees with Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s plans to cut funding even more.

“We would take a pretty good hit. All the stations would,” said Deb Oyler, the executive director for High Plains, which serves a large swath of western Kansas.

Brownback tried to eliminate funding outright during his first year in office, but legislators only went along with lesser cuts. This year, the governor wants to cut state support for public TV and radio stations by 40 percent, or roughly $400,000.

For some rural Kansas stations such as Smoky Hills Public Broadcasting in Bunker Hill or High Plains Public Radio, the state’s contribution can make up between 11 percent and 16 percent of their budgets. For KPTS in Wichita, it’s about 7 percent.

The Brownback administration has urged public broadcasters to look elsewhere for money, something station executives say they are doing.

KPTS raises 65 percent of its $2.6 million budget from private sources, said Dave McClintock, director of operations. But losing tax dollars undermines its fundraising efforts, and the station has seen its state funding cut by about 65 percent in the past five years.

“More cuts make it even harder, and we’re struggling as it is now,” McClintock said.

The station has tried not to reduce its content, he said, but has had to reduce staff.

Other station managers also say they are trimming staff, asking employees to take on multiple duties and stepping up fundraising.

National trend

Cuts proposed for Kansas mirror a national trend of states getting out of public broadcasting, whether because the outlets are viewed as too liberal, anachronistic in a world overflowing with media or not a core government service.

About half the states have cut money to public broadcasting in recent years. Those cuts neared $37 million — to $177 million from $214 million — from fiscal 2011 to fiscal 2013, according to data compiled by the National Educational Telecommunications Association.

At least four states — New Jersey, Virginia, New Hampshire and Florida — completely ditched funding for public broadcasting.

Amid the billions of dollars that government spends, public broadcasting is easy picking for lawmakers who want to limit government expenses. Many conservatives see public radio as outside traditional government responsibilities that should be limited to things like schools, social services, public safety and roads.

But they also see something more sinister: state-run media.

“The fundamental problem is we need to separate news and state,” said David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute, a free-market think tank.

“It is inappropriate for the government to be involved in news and ideas,” Boaz said. “The First Amendment is designed to protect the free flow of information and the free flow of ideas, but not to have the government producing the ideas.”

Role of politics

Public radio advocates say it’s hard to characterize the debate over public broadcasting simply as conservative vs. liberal or Democrat vs. Republican.

“It’s a complicated story,” said Josh Stearns, public media campaign director for Free Press, a nonprofit group that examines how the media influences public policy. “In the same states where we’ve had Republican governors going after this funding, we’ve seen Republican lawmakers standing up vehemently to protect it.”

In places, for instance, such as Kansas.

The state has been trimming public broadcasting since 2009. After taking office in 2011, Brownback wanted to eliminate or further cut grants to public stations. Yet the Republican-controlled Legislature resisted and stopped the governor from cutting deeply as he wanted.

One Republican who supported public broadcasting was Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, who until this year chaired the Ways and Means Committee. She questioned how the state could cut funding for an amenity that benefits the very rural areas where the governor is trying to build population.

“The communities that are hurt the most are rural areas,” McGinn said. “If you don’t have cable TV, you can’t get any other kind of information or channels you might want to watch.”

One thing going for public broadcasting this year is its funding source. Brownback wants to pay for it from lottery money instead of general tax dollars, which satisfies conservatives who don’t believe in sending tax dollars to public broadcasters.

Public broadcasting could get about $1 million from the state this year, down from about $1.5 million the year before.

NETA president Skip Hinton said there may have been occasions when politics drove cuts in public broadcasting. But most of the cuts, he said, reflected tough state finances.

“It’s not considered by many as an essential level of state service,” Hinton said.

Nevertheless, some Kansas public broadcasters still hear complaints inside and outside the capitol about their perceived liberal inclinations.

“If that’s true, we need to look at what we’re doing and make sure we’re not leaning one way or the other and presenting it as close to the middle as we can,” said Mark McCain, general manager at KMUW in Wichita.

State Rep. Virgil Peck, R-Tyro, is among those Kansas lawmakers who oppose using general tax dollars for public broadcasting.

“They do have a political bent just like MSNBC, but that’s not the reason I oppose it,” Peck said. “Should we give money to Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, Rush Limbaugh and all these others who are right-wing groups? No. If they can survive on their own, God bless them.”

But there are other conservatives who are more supportive of public broadcasting.

“I think it’s particularly important in rural communities that don’t have the same level of access to educational and cultural presentations in any format,” said state Rep. John Rubin, R-Shawnee. “I would rather look elsewhere to realize savings in the budget.”

Contributing: Fred Mann of The Eagle; to reach Brad Cooper, call 816-234-7724 or email bcooper@kcstar.com

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