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Bankrupting Big Bird 

by Brian Everstine


An action by the House of Representatives last week restored $100 million in funding to public broadcasting, a sum that was strategically left out of the previously proposed budget. This seemingly gave PBS and NPR a brief break in their constant battle for dollars. However, in the House budget that ultimately passed, some key funds are missing. Without them, there may not be enough to keep Big Bird in the nest he's occupied for more than 30 years.


The draft of the budget for the 2006 fiscal year that passed through the House Appropriations Committee cut funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting by 25 percent. (The CPB is the agency that distributes federal dollars to public stations for use in programming.) Last Thursday, an amendment to the budget was passed by a vote of 280-140, reinstating the funding to the final House bill.


"What they did was really wonderful, but it is a complicated funding mish-mash," says Richard Kunkel, general manager of KPBX and KSFC, the public radio outlets in Spokane.


According to Kunkel, the $100 million was a part of a total of $400 million that is given to the CPB and then distributed to outlets as part of a fund called "community service grants." This made up about $370,000 for KSPS, the public television station in Spokane, and about $200,000 for KPBX and KSFC. Many parts of the public broadcasting world are not funded, however, leaving the stations in a difficult position.


The Ready to Learn program, which is responsible for shows like Sesame Street, Reading Rainbow and Arthur, among others, was left with less funding in the recent proposal. Also, the CPB will not receive funding for converting the public stations to digital, something which has been mandated by the government for television.


The costs of the Ready to Learn program and the digital conversion, combined with a possible loss of competitive grants and funding for rural stations, would amount to around $50 million that would have to be taken from the already tight $400 million budget for the CPB.


"With less funding, there are fewer dollars to spend on programs and equipment," says Claude Kistler, general manager of KSPS. "And the more we must spend on equipment, the less we can spend on local programming or on purchasing national programs."


For KSPS, if just the Ready to Learn funding were cut, that means a loss of $50,000 in grants. This alone could eliminate the station's ability to give local workshops and limit the use of programming that is used to educate children in their homes, Kistler says.


The recent attack on public broadcasting was the biggest attempted cut in the CPB's budget since the corporation's inception through the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967.


"This came like a thunderbolt," says Patty Starkey, the development director of KSPS. "It was big, hard and deep."


Many, including proponents of the cuts to the CPB, have accused public broadcasting of being liberal. Polls reveal, however, that PBS is actually considered the most moderate and trusted media outlet in broadcasting. A poll sponsored by the CPB itself shows that about 80 percent of Americans believe that PBS is the most balanced and fair station on television.





The members of Congress who proposed the cuts have said that they are necessary because it came down to a choice among other programs, and because the slashes were needed to help balance the budget. Also, some have said that the public media outlets could be funded privately and that the American taxpayers should not have to foot the bill.


The decision to make the cuts by the House of Representatives Committee of Appropriations was met with harsh opposition and criticism by supporters of public broadcasting. The television and radio outlets worked to have their viewers or listeners call their representatives in Congress, and the activist group Moveon.org sent more than 1 million signatures to Congress on behalf of the stations.


Locally, both Rep. Cathy McMorris (R-Wash. 5th District) and Rep. Butch Otter (R-Idaho 1st District) voted to cut the funding.


"Across the nation, success is given to the mobilization of viewers," Kistler says. "In our district, however, it didn't happen. I'm not sure of the numbers, but I am sure that there were voices in [McMorris'] office."


The Senate will propose its budget in mid-July, and the Washington senators, Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, both Democrats, have supported public broadcasting in the past. Also, the Senate as a whole has been more supportive of the CPB and public broadcasting in general.


Public broadcasting has turned into a trustworthy source of news and entertainment, Starkey says, and the reach of its influence has been well documented. Results of a recent Gallup Poll have shown that 82 percent of Americans say that money spent on public broadcasting is money well spent and 52 percent say that it does not receive enough federal funding, while 84 percent say that PBS is a safe place for children.


"Public broadcasting puts the facts in context better than anyone else," says Kunkel of KPBX. "It works to improve civic discourse, which is so very important to our society."
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