PTFP Shutdown Leaves Pubcasters Scrambling

WASHINGTON A source of money on which many public broadcasters depend to address equipment needs is gone, leaving stations reviewing capital expenditure plans and in some cases delaying projects indefinitely.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration lost funding for its Public Telecommunications Facility Program national matching grant program this spring. Congress zeroed out PTFP funding for the current fiscal year in a continuing resolution to keep the federal government operational.

While the Corporation for Public Broadcasting also funds a small portion of station operations, it does not provide grants strictly for equipment replacement. The elimination of PTFP comes at a time when CPB’s digital conversion funds are squeezed — all having the effect of giving pubcasters fewer options to fund at least some portions of their cap ex projects with federal dollars.

The PTFP shutdown means all grant applications for 2011 have been aside and will be destroyed, though NTIA staff will continue to monitor previously awarded grants to ensure that taxpayer funds are used responsibly and efficiently.

Asked if the program might be re-funded, some observers in the noncom community described the chances as slim, at least in the short term. “Historically, once funding for a program is cut from the federal budget, it is difficult to get those dollars back,” a National Public Radio executive said.

Amounts shown indicate total federal funding levels available for both radio and television PTFP grant awards by year. The 2012 figure is requested funding only. Source: NPR

Advocates of the grants said funding has been under attack by some members of Congress, mostly House Republicans, for years.

Federal funding for the Corporation of Public Broadcasting itself has come under fire by some in Congress. An appropriations subcommittee plan released earlier this year would have completely phased out federal CPB dollars within two years. CPB essentially was funded at the same level as last year in a continuing resolution passed in April.

Federal cuts also come at a time when many states are cutting funding levels for public broadcasting programs and operations. For example, Florida Gov. Rick Scott in May signed a bill that eliminates all state spending to public radio and television stations.

Noncommercial radio broadcasters will need to find other funding resources to move projects ahead, most likely from local fundraising, public radio observers said.

History

PTFP has played a major role in the development of public broadcasting infrastructure across the United States for nearly 50 years.

It began operations as part of the Educational Television Facilities Program in the U.S. Office of Education, which was signed into law by President John F. Kennedy in 1962. The goal of the program was to expand the coverage areas of public radio and television stations.

“With the program’s assistance, public radio today reaches approximately 90 percent of the country’s population,” according to the NTIA website.

PTFP was a competitive grant program to help public broadcasting stations, state and local governments, native tribes and nonprofits build facilities for educational and cultural programs.

The awards were matching grants. NTIA-PTFP funds could provide no more than 75 percent of eligible project costs for a construction project that would extend public broadcasting services. For projects to replace or improve equipment, PTFP’s general policy was to provide no more than 50 percent federal funding, according to the NTIA website.

The program received 225 applications from radio and TV stations for fiscal 2010, asking for a total of $40.7 million; it awarded 126 grants totaling about $20.5 million. For radio specifically, PTFP approved 73 awards totaling $8 million in 2010, according to National Public Radio and previous Radio World reporting.

Typical is the grant application filed by South Dakota Public Broadcasting asking for $272,000 in PTFP money for FY2011 to help build a full-power FM in Watertown, S.D. The public broadcaster operates 10 full-power radio stations and another nine low-power translators in the state.

Don Forseth, technical services coordinator for South Dakota Public Broadcasting, stands in the server room of the Network Operations Center in Vermillion, S.D. He says the loss of PTFP funding means emergency grants used by pubcasters when a major equipment failure hit in the past will not be available.

“We have benefitted greatly from PTFP through the years. All of our FM projects were built with the assistance of PTFP. We have had to place on hold an FM project planned for this year because of the lack of funding,” said Don Forseth, technical services coordinator for South Dakota Public Broadcasting.

“We still hope to one day build the (Watertown) project, but it will have to be community funded. We have a local steering committee exploring ways to raise the money locally. The whole project is going to cost $400,000. We had hoped to use PTFP money to cover the tower and antenna expenses.”

In addition, the loss of PTFP funding means emergency grants used by pubcasters when a major equipment failure hit in the past will not be available, Forseth said.

“We lost a tower once and submitted successfully to PTFP for emergency funds to rebuild. That won’t be happening anymore.”

Expanding new noncommercial service into underserved areas was the “highest priority” of the PTFP, said Tim Warner, president of Timothy L. Warner Inc., a consulting engineering firm.

“The federal government has just eliminated the single best source of funding to do that,” Warner said. “This will be a significant loss of funding. There is no other place to look for grants to fund equipment purchases for noncommercial broadcasters.”

Warner said many of his clients have put projects on indefinite hold because of the recent developments. Others continue moving forward but with drastically different government funding levels, he said.

“People are looking at every other conceivable source of funding, from foundations to other grants, but there is no one else doing significant grant writing for equipment because PTFP has always been there.”

Warner speculated that the end of PTFP funding was continued backlash against public broadcasting in the United States. “There is an anti-public broadcaster movement. It’s a political attack on public broadcasting that’s coming at the same time as a downturn in the economy.”

Doug Vernier.

Funding levels dropped

National funding levels for PTFP had declinced significantly through the years. Appropriations had been averaging around $20 million per year since FY2004, said Doug Vernier, president of V-Soft Communications, a broadcast engineering consulting firm.

Funding for PTFP was cut drastically from $43.5 million in FY2003 — its largest regular appropriation ever — to $21.8 million in FY2004.

“There was always a lot of competition for the money and that has increased as funding levels dipped through the years,” Vernier said.

“The grant applications had to be very detailed. It was a well-run program. I’m afraid it’s unlikely any money is going to come from the federal government anymore [for equipment]. Unless you are in a major city, it is increasingly difficult for stations to raise money for equipment needs.

“For those broadcasters holding CPs with the three-year window closing to get the station built, it will be devastating not to have grants for equipment available any longer.”

What Did PTFP Fund?

Here’s a sampling of radio projects awarded PTFP federal grants in 2010; dollar figures are rounded off:

• $68,000 to Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif., to purchase digital production studio and control room equipment for KHSU(FM).

• $69,000 to Pataphysical Broadcasting Foundation in Santa Cruz, Calif., to replace analog on-air and production audio consoles with digital audio consoles for KUSP(FM).

• $80,000 to Spokane Public Radio Inc to activate public station KPBW(FM), at 91.9 MHz, in Brewster, Wash., as a repeater station of KPBX(FM), Spokane, Wash.

• $148,000 to Radio Bilingue in Fresno, Calif., to activate a public station at 88.1 MHz in Douglas, Ariz., as a repeater station of KSJV(FM) in Fresno.

• $20,000 to Cumberland Communities Corporation in Knoxville, Tenn., for emergency funding to replace the transmitter for WDVX(FM), which was lost as the result of a lightning strike.

• $19,000 to Grand Valley Public Radio in Grand Junction, Colo., to replace the existing transmission facility for KAFM(FM).

• $52,000 to Hawaii Public Radio to activate a repeater station for KIPO(FM) at 89.7 MHz on Maui.

• $112,000 to KUTE Inc., in Ignacio, Colo., to replace automation system, add generators at two transmitter sites and build a voice over studio at KSUT(FM).

• $74,000 to Driftless Community Radio, Inc., in Viroqua, Wis., to activate WDRT(FM) on 91.9 MHz.

• $50,000 to KDUR Radio in Durango, Colo., to replace audio consoles and associated equipment in production and control rooms for KDUR(FM).

• $105,000 to San Diego State University Research Foundation for the digital conversion of KPBS(FM) in San Diego and KQVO(FM) in Calexico, Calif.

• Funding for nine new radio stations serving Native American communities in Arizona, California, Idaho, Minnesota, New Mexico and South Dakota.

Vernier is the former director of broadcasting services for the University of Northern Iowa and used PTFP grants to expand the school’s broadcast services. He said the size of PTFP radio grants ranged from under $100,000 to several million dollars, depending on the project.

“It’s very difficult for most public radio stations to find money for equipment these days because of the high cost of operations,” Vernier said.

But efforts to have PTFP funds restored in fiscal 2012 are already underway. National Public Radio has asked Congress to approve $20 million in funds for PTFP for FY2012, said Mike Riksen, vice president of policy and representation for NPR.

“PTFP money has been critical to the equipment infrastructure of public broadcasters. We’ll restate that to Congress. Even though the fund is relatively small, it is heavily relied upon by public radio stations to replace equipment that is worn out or antiquated. It has been a big boost to public radio stations and keeping them on the air,” Riksen said.

PTFP funding was used by stations for purposes that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting does not fund, analysts said.

Bruce Theriault, senior vice president of radio for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, said CPB typically funds programming and operations for public radio and television stations and not equipment replacement projects.

“On average CPB funds about 15 to 20 percent of public radio stations operations. If the broadcaster wants, they can use some of that money on equipment, but that hasn’t happened much. We are not an equipment program, per se,” Theriault said.

Broadcasters have about tapped out the CPB fund for digital conversions, too, he said. The CPB digital technology fund for radio and television conversions decreased from $36 million in FY2010 to $6 million in FY2011, and CPB is not in position to pick up any of the slack with the loss of PTFP, he said.

“There is going to be a big squeeze happening here. It will be a hardship especially for Native American and rural radio stations in trying to build new facilities. The financial burden for equipment needs will fall directly on areas that already have a difficult time raising money,” Theriault said.

National Telecommunications and Information Administration officials declined to speculate about the possibility of PTFP grants ever being re-funded.



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