“Garden Talk.” “Central Time.” “Here and Now.” “Simply Folk.” “Wisconsin Media Lab.” “Wisconsin Hometown Stories.”
Half a million Wisconsinites enjoy such locally produced shows and services from Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television, and an estimated 1.2 million K-12 students a year use multimedia instructional materials created by the Educational Communications Board.
But budget cuts proposed by Gov. Scott Walker may imperil such Wisconsin-based programming and the ability to deliver it across the state, according to top leaders of the state’s public broadcasting system.
The governor is proposing a $2.5 million cut in state funding each year over the next two years to the Educational Communications Board, which spends about $19 million a year. Walker also has called for a $150 million a year cut to the University of Wisconsin System, which together with the ECB operates Wisconsin’s statewide public TV and radio networks. It’s unknown how much of that cut, if approved by the Republican-run Legislature, would trickle down to public broadcasting.
The ECB buys national programming for some public TV and radio stations, provides classroom materials and operates the infrastructure for most of the public broadcasting network outside of Madison. The entire network includes six Wisconsin Public Television stations, six low-power translators and 34 Wisconsin Public Radio stations.
The other half of the partnership is UW-Extension, which pays some of the salaries of the roughly 200 public radio and TV staff members, the cost of national programming for some stations and provides locally produced content, such as news reports and talk shows. Public radio and TV together cost about $21 million a year, according to Malcolm Brett, director of broadcast and media innovations at UW-Extension, who, along with ECB executive director Gene Purcell, heads both systems.
Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick has defended the proposed cuts, saying the state must make choices to balance the budget and that public broadcasting can raise money to support itself.
“We estimate that the ECB will be able to make up the difference in program revenue through grants, gifts and private donations,” Patrick said.
A spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said their caucus is still discussing Walker’s 2015-17 spending plan. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, supports a reduction for the ECB, according to spokeswoman Kit Beyer.
“Speaker Vos doesn’t have a problem with the proposed cut because with so many media options these days, government should no longer subsidize one particular outlet,” Beyer said. “He is confident that listeners and viewers will more than make up for any decrease.”
But the governor’s proposal runs counter to the recent national trend, said Skip Hinton, executive director of the National Educational Telecommunications Association, which serves public broadcasting members.
During the recession, public broadcasting was cut, as were many other state-funded services. But now with the economy on the rebound, even conservative governors such as Indiana’s Mike Pence and Florida’s Rick Scott have moved to restore funding for public broadcasting, he said.
“There is no trend toward cutting,” said Hinton, whose organization is based in Columbia, South Carolina.
Purcell said media reports last week that Walker’s budget would end state funding for public broadcasting were overblown. But he remains concerned for its future.
“Zeroing out is not accurate. De-funding is not accurate,” Purcell said. “Inflicting a serious wound — that’s accurate.”
Any sizable cuts to the UW will almost certainly cause cutbacks at public radio and television, Brett agreed. About 20 percent of the funding for public TV and 25 percent of funding for public radio comes from the state, constituting the second largest revenue stream. Member donations and corporate sponsorships are the leading source, Brett said, and both services receive federal funds through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Purcell said he is still trying to figure out how his state agency with 56 employees could manage to lose one-third of its state funding. Walker’s budget calls for a reduction of 8.5 positions, but the toll will be much higher if ECB is not able to vastly — and instantly — increase its fundraising from listeners, viewers and other sources, he said.
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“In other words, under the budget, we’ll increase fundraising in the next four months from $10.6 million to $13.2 million,” Purcell said. “The new budget goes into effect July 1. Could we raise $3 million more? The answer is yes. Could we do it in a year? Probably not. Just because you put a number in a budget doesn’t mean we can do it.”
For Brett, the future is less clear but equally daunting. Brett said any significant funding cut to the System could force public broadcasting to evaluate which programs and services it could afford to keep and which ones would have to go. He declined to name anything specific.
“I don’t want to create any orphans,” Brett said.
But both public TV and radio have some large fixed costs that cannot be whittled down, including memberships in organizations that provide core programming for their stations.
At WPT, it’s the roughly $3 million a year that the ECB and the university spend for Public Broadcasting Service programming, including the wildly popular “Downton Abbey” series, “PBS News Hour,” “Antiques Roadshow,” “Sesame Street” and others.
At WPR, membership in National Public Radio, which provides national and international news, “Morning Edition,” “All Things Considered,” “Fresh Air” and other programs, costs about $800,000 a year. Neither service provides an option for partial membership, Hinton said.
Brett said there’s no question public radio and TV would continue to pay for PBS and NPR programming, which Purcell described as “central to what we provide.”
That means any cuts would likely be targeted toward locally produced shows and services. But Purcell said such “Wisconsin-centric” coverage is also a core part of what public broadcasting does, including local radio news reporting and cultural and educational TV programming that commercial outlets have largely abandoned.
Brett acknowledged such programming could be at risk. Unless public broadcasting can quickly ramp up its fundraising, “it will mean we have to reduce our expenses around what we could do locally,” he said.
That’s the type of programming that Mary Jane Herber said she would miss the most.
Herber, of De Pere, listens to WPR news each day on her commute to and from the Brown County Public Library. As the director of history and genealogy there, she worked with WPT when it came to do a “Wisconsin Hometown Stories” segment on Green Bay. And she was there when public broadcasting held its 2010 event called LZ Lambeau honoring Vietnam-era veterans.
State funding for public broadcasting “is money well spent,” she said. “I think that it has many advantages for people all over the state.”
Wisconsin public radio and public TV have always relied on state funding, although the proportion has declined over the years.
Just over 100 years ago, Wisconsin Public Radio began as a small signal beamed from the UW-Madison campus, where it is still headquartered. The public radio network now includes nearly three dozen stations across Wisconsin and seven news bureaus. Wisconsin Public Television was launched in 1954, also from the UW-Madison campus. Its content is now broadcast on six TV stations and six low-power translators.
The Educational Communications Board was formed in 1971 as an agency fully funded by the state, Purcell said. The state currently provides about 40 percent of its funding. Walker’s proposal would reduce that to 27 percent.
“Ever since its (Wisconsin Public Broadcasting) inception, there’s always been public funding,” Brett said.