Public Broadcasters Prepare to Fight Federal Budget Cuts

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The New York Times

Public Broadcasters Prepare to Fight Federal Budget Cuts

by
Elizabeth Jensen

It's a familiar dance: for eight straight years, the Bush administration has proposed deep cuts in federal funds for public broadcasting, and seven times so far, Congress has restored them. But the magnitude of the proposed cuts put forth this week - Patricia Harrison, president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, called them "draconian" - still sent public broadcasters scrambling.0206 07

Matt Martin, general manager of KALW-FM in San Francisco, went on the air Monday night to tell listeners about the effects of the proposed budget, which would cut in half the $400 million allocated in advance by Congress for fiscal year 2009 and cut $220 million from the $420 million already planned for 2010.

In addition, President Bush proposed eliminating advance funds for 2011, along with any additional funds in 2009 for stations to convert to digital transmission, which is federally mandated. They are the deepest cuts yet proposed by the administration.

KALW relies on federal funds for just under 10 percent of its $1.6 million annual budget, but that is money "that can make or break a lot of things we do," Mr. Martin said. He added that he was particularly concerned about relying on contributions to make up any potential shortfall, given the state of the economy.

Critics of public funds for public broadcasting have long held that educational and other public-interest programming is increasingly available elsewhere, including on cable.

"The administration's proposal is consistent with the evolving role of public broadcasting in a market that has benefited from tremendous growth and diversity of programming," Sean Kevelighan, press secretary at the White House Office of Management and Budget, said in an e-mail message. He also said that government funds make up only 15 percent of public broadcasting revenue.

The administration's budget also called for cuts at the National Endowment for the Arts, but not nearly of the magnitude of those faced by public broadcasting. There the administration proposed a cut of $16.3 million - to $128.4 million from $144.7 million.

Robert L. Lynch, president and chief executive of Americans for the Arts, an advocacy group, called the cuts "senseless" and asked Congress to restore the National Endowment for the Arts to its 1992 financing level of $176 million.

"After three years of minimal, but incremental, funding growth, we are sorry to see an attempt at this progress erased," Mr. Lynch said in a statement.

The administration also refused, for the eighth consecutive year, to finance arts education programs.

By contrast, the White House requested $716.4 million for the Smithsonian Institution for fiscal year 2009, up from $682.6 million for fiscal 2008.

This was a positive turn for the Smithsonian, which has been struggling over the last year to improve its administration and oversight amid recent scandals.

The appropriation provided for an additional $15 million in a "legacy fund" requested by Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, that would become available once the Smithsonian raised $30 million. The fund would be used for renovations and repairs at the institution's various museums.

The proposed cuts for public broadcasting come just as local public television station executives are set to descend on Washington next week for a day of lobbying. They will be asking not just for the cut funds to be reinstated but also for an increase, which they eventually got last year, said John Lawson, president and chief executive of the Association of Public Television Stations.

"I'm confident we will be successful," he said in an interview, noting that this year for the first time, stations will be tying their pleas to "the delivery of quantifiable services to local communities," in the form of early childhood education, health information and a "recommitment to local programming, which is increasingly missing from the media marketplace."

But others are not so sure. Ken Stern, chief executive of National Public Radio, said in an interview that even though public broadcasters had been successful in fighting off past proposed cuts, this year could be different. "I worry that this gets lost in a whole lot of other issues," he said, acknowledging that it was also "an incredibly tight budget year."

He added that "one of the shames" is that by focusing on restoring the budget, instead of adding new funds, attention is drawn away from how public broadcasting could do even more to serve its constituencies at a time of media upheaval.

"That's the conversation we should be having, and not just fighting off these paint-by-numbers cuts that the administration is proposing," he said.

Mr. Martin, at KALW in San Francisco, said he was careful not to advocate what action listeners should take when he told them about the cuts. But public broadcasters are hopeful that Congress will see the same groundswell of support for their services as they did during past budget fights. The last time around, some two million citizens contacted Congress, Mr. Stern said.

In a statement, Ms. Harrison of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which administers the federal money, noted that the proposed cuts "would work to degrade a 40-year partnership the American people overwhelmingly support and their elected representatives in Congress have repeatedly voted to strengthen."

Robin Pogrebin contributed reporting.

© 2008 The New York Times

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