Republicans on Capitol Hill have called for sharp cuts in spending to reduce the deficit, including legislation to eliminate all federal funding for public radio and public television.
In a party-line vote earlier this winter, the House voted to do just that. The Senate is controlled by Democrats who are protective of public broadcasting, but public radio and public television officials are taking nothing for granted.
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is set to get $430 million this year and a bit more next year. But Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO), author of the bill that would eliminate funding starting in fiscal year 2013, says public broadcasters should not receive any more money. (The Corporation for Public Broadcasting typically receives funding in two-year commitments.)
"We live in a day of 150 cable channels — 99 percent of Americans own a TV, we get Internet on our cell phones, we are in a day and age when we no longer need to subsidize broadcasting," Lamborn says.
Lamborn, who is from Colorado Springs, is the kind of fiscal conservative who sleeps in his congressional office to save money. He has proposed a bill preventing NPR member stations from paying for any NPR programs with federal dollars. Lamborn says there's no political agenda.
"There's a lot of classical music, talk shows ... there's a lot of good programming," he says. "And I'm confident that as an ongoing concern the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and all the local affiliates around the country will be successful."
It's a small amount of money in the scheme of things, but Lamborn says U.S. taxpayers shouldn't pay for any of it at a time of trillion-dollar deficits.
When asked why public broadcasting drew his attention, Lamborn said he wasn't sure.
"It just seemed like an area of our fiscal budget that was self-contained, easy to understand," he says. "We can look at it in isolation and decide, 'Has the time come for it to stand on its own two feet?' "
Easy to understand, perhaps, but it's a complicated system. The CPB is a not-for-profit corporation that directs federal dollars to PBS and NPR member stations as well as other public outlets and program producers. NPR receives a few million dollars directly in federal funds and gets a bit more from the fees stations pay to air such programs as Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
Delaney Utterback, general manager of Lamborn's home station KRCC in Colorado Springs, says he relies on that money to help pay for coverage from Denver and throughout the state.
"We're one of the last people to have a full-time person at the Capitol," he says. "It's vital for our listeners and the community to know what our government is doing."
Federal funds provide about 10 percent of the Colorado Springs station's $1.4 million annual budget, but many small stations — especially rural ones — rely on federal dollars far more heavily. Stations also receive financial support from individual listeners, corporate underwriters and philanthropies. But Utterback says he can't cut more without damaging the service KRCC provides.
"We're sort of running on a bare-bones level as it is," he says. "I think that there would be widespread sympathy throughout the community were this to pass through, but it doesn't make it from a business end a very viable way to approach fundraising."
Lamborn first proposed the elimination of funding last June, when Democrats controlled the House. That was before NPR fired Juan Williams after he made remarks on the Fox News Channel in which he said he feared airline passengers in "Muslim garb." Conservatives attacked NPR, accusing it of political correctness, giving Lamborn's cause a boost.
In that climate, public media executives have created a campaign called 170 Million Americans For Public Broadcasting — that's how many Americans their researchers say rely on public media outlets at least once a month.
"If you take away the federal funding, many of these smaller stations just would not be able to survive," says Pat Butler, head of the Association of Public Television Stations, who is leading the unified lobbying effort of public media outfits. "Cutting us a thousand times is not going to have any material effect on the federal budget deficit — and yet it's going to have a devastating effect on the system we've built over 40 years."
Asked to quantify how bad the damage could be to the public radio system, Stacey Karp, a spokeswoman for the coalition of public media organizations, said, "We believe the fiscal solvency of up to 100 public radio stations will be put in serious jeopardy immediately if federal funding for CPB is eliminated." More will be severely hurt, she said.
In 1995, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich led efforts to cut federal funding for public broadcasting, but it backfired in the face of a huge outcry. This time around, with bigger deficits, conservatives see a new opening.