Opinion Columns & Blogs

Gwyn Mellinger: Public radio, television on Brownback's hit list

Public radio and television: Your turn is next.

In addition to vetoing funding for the Kansas Arts Commission last month, Gov. Sam Brownback has said he'll ask the 2012 Legislature to cut funding for public broadcasting.

Brownback had planned to nix the allocation this year, but left $1.5 million for public radio and television operating grants in the budget that will take effect Friday. Next year, he has said, state support of public broadcasting will disappear.

For some small-government conservatives, public broadcasting raises questions about the role of government. Should taxpayers subsidize nonessentials that contribute to quality of life but can be funded by private donors who choose to support them? Should government fund the media on constitutional grounds? Should government insulate one category of broadcasters from the competition of the marketplace?

The ideological debate intensified after National Public Radio fired Fox News commentator Juan Williams and an NPR fundraiser was secretly taped making disparaging remarks about the tea party.

It's important to note that support for public broadcasting, like support for government funding for the arts, crosses political lines. Recent visitors to 170millionamericans.org, a national organization supporting funding for public broadcasting, saw a video clip of conservative commentator David Brooks making the case for continued government subsidy.

Similarly, as public broadcasting supporters in the center and to the left formulate their responses to conservatives, some acknowledge the difficulty of arguing, with a straight face at least, that tax dollars should be subsidizing "Click and Clack," the brothers who host NPR's "Car Talk."

In Kansas, however, the compelling argument for public radio and television is that they provide a blanket of information, including local programming, for the whole state. When the governor gives his State of the State address, for example, public broadcasting makes it possible for almost every Kansan to listen in.

Moreover, tax dollars tend to benefit Kansans who live in areas with fewer media options. According to the Kansas Public Broadcasting Council, the largest portion of the state allocation goes to western Kansas.

Smoky Hills Public Television, based in Bunker Hill, and High Plains Public Radio, with a studio in Garden City and 13 transmitter stations, together receive more than 40 percent of the state's allocation. Each relies on state funding for more than 20 percent of its operating budget.

Southeast Kansas also benefits, as KRPS 89.9-FM in Pittsburg has received 18 percent of its budget from state grants. The other public broadcasting entities, which are based in cities the size of Hutchinson or larger, draw 10 percent or less of their budgets from state grants.

Already an organization called Save Funding for Kansas Public Broadcasting is gathering signatures on an online petition and lobbying state lawmakers against the proposed subsidy elimination. But public broadcasting in Kansas will face a monumental challenge next year.