The culture war for public radio stations came into focus 31 years ago,
when President Reagan’s budget director David Stockman fired the first verbal
shot by announcing he was going to zero-out funding for the Corporation for
Public Broadcasting. That action ushered in three decades of inconsistent
congressional funding, grandstanding, threats and panics within the
system. Still, CPB decided to continue funding new radio stations in
un-served or under-served markets.
in recent years, however, this strategy collided with the financial realities
of CPB-qualified stations, leaving the system in dire need of some sort of
reform. At stake is the very soul of the public radio system, including the
life of independent, community-based small market stations.
stations have far fewer resources, especially when major-market “cousins” close
by drop in for a “visit.” I can’t think of a better example of where this
crisis plays out than on bus bench advertisements that were recently placed in
Salisbury, Md,, in the heart of the Delmarva Peninsula.
More than 100 miles from its home base in
Washington, public radio stalwart WAMU(FM) decided to place “tune-in” ads on
bus benches in Salisbury. Why? The story goes: to increase awareness
of WAMU’s new associate station in Ocean City, a station started to serve loyal
WAMU listeners vacationing at the beach.
There are two problems with this explanation: 1) The Salisbury bus benches
are 40 miles west of the Delmarva coastline, and no one vacations in Salisbury,
and 2) one of the cute bus bench ads was placed just across the street from the
studios of WSCL, one of three local public stations struggling to survive in
this very small radio market.
The WAMU bus bench ad story led me to write to the CPB, which is in the
midst of evaluating and revising the way it distributes Community Service Grant
funds to CPB-qualified stations. This commentary contains a great deal of the
message that I sent to them.
Since the 1970s, we
have seen phenomenal growth in the number of public radio signals available
across the country, from large to small markets. In Colorado’s Eagle Valley
(including Vail) and Summit County (including Breckenridge), no local public
radio station exists.
But today three public
signals are repeated from stations from across the Continental Divide in Denver
and Greeley. This type of situation is ideal for places without a local
station. But the rub comes when a small-market CPB-funded station, with
relatively limited financial resources, must compete with a new major-market
station signal that has arrived in their small market.
In those situations, if we are to see the survival of the local station
(and the programming diversity and training opportunities that it brings),
funding has to be altered in favor of the local station.
Speaking from experience
When I worked at WSEA(FM)
in Georgetown, Del., in 1977, the closest public radio signals were more than
100 miles away. Aside from the fun part of my job hosting album rock, I worked
in the sales department during the day and came face-to-face with the
challenges of selling advertising in a small market, scattered across Sussex
County, Del., and the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
It isn’t nearly as easy or
lucrative as maintaining multiple accounts in a section of a major city.
Raising money for radio on Delmarva is tough, period. But with CPB
support and with the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore on board, WESM(FM)
signed onto the air in 1987, followed closely by WSCL(FM) from Salisbury State
Knowing this market, I had to pinch myself the first time I heard strains
of “Kind of Blue” and Mozart coming over my radio during a 1989 vacation in
programming to Delmarva is a challenge. WSEA(FM)’s format was changed in late
’77 to a more marketable disco/hits format, so I can fully appreciate the added
burden for WESM(FM) and WSCL(FM) when WAMU(FM) set up shop in Ocean City,
airing some of the same programming to a relatively small-but-faithful NPR
listener base in the area.
Here’s what I’d like to see
When reporting their
annual Non-Federal Financial Support (NFFS), WAMU should be required to isolate
their reporting of NFFS from Delmarva (at least the eastern half of the
Peninsula, clearly out of reach from WAMU’s primary signal). That portion of
WAMU’s NFFS should be divided equally between WAMU, WSCL (with two stations)
and WESM; matched by CPB accordingly.
It was CPB that started us on the path to fund and nurture small-market
stations. If they are to survive, CPB must make adjustments, now. It must
revamp CSG distribution so that stations not enjoying major-market listener and
business support potential are placed at the front of the CPB funding line.
It’s nice that
WAMU enthusiasts can listen non-stop to their station all the way from
Washington to the beach, from Lewes, Del., south to Assateague Island, Md.
But the question remains: With all of CPB’s
investment in local small-market radio thus far, is maintaining the funding
status quo akin to throwing in the towel on what seemed like a great idea, just
a few years ago? And, if that is true, what kind of national public radio
system is CPB building now?
I look forward to a timely decision by CPB
because, this just in, WHRO(FM), Norfolk is also setting up shop on Delmarva
with its own repeater in the coming months.
One can argue this is a climate of desperation
experienced by all public stations, but that is an issue that Congress has yet
to address adequately.
Pete Simon has worked at
community and/or public radio stations as manager, program director and reporter/producer.
Stops have included WHYY(FM); KCSU(FM), Fort Collins; KPRN(FM), Grand Junction
(before and after the creation of Colorado Public Radio); and KVNF(FM), Paonia,
Colo. Recently he has been a volunteer jazz host on KUVO(FM).