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Trump’s budget would deal a blow to Charlotte’s NPR and PBS stations

Erin Keever produces “Charlotte Talks” in the WFAE studio. WFAE, Charlotte’s NPR news station, receives about 6 percent of its budget from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Erin Keever produces “Charlotte Talks” in the WFAE studio. WFAE, Charlotte’s NPR news station, receives about 6 percent of its budget from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

Under President Donald Trump’s proposed budget, public radio and TV stations in Charlotte and other North Carolina cities may need to ask listeners for more money to stay afloat.

That’s because Trump wants to slash all funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which received $445 million in the current fiscal year. CPB provides grants to public radio stations like WFAE, Charlotte’s NPR news station on 90.7 FM, as well as to public TV stations like WTVI, which uses its grants to pay PBS dues and for nationally syndicated PBS programs such as Sesame Street.

More than $6 million goes to TV and radio stations in North Carolina, in most cases accounting for 6 percent to 28 percent of the stations’ operating budgets.

Congress will write the federal budget, and it’s unclear whether Trump’s public broadcasting cuts have enough support there to be included. National Public Radio has launched an online petition drive lobbying members of Congress to keep supporting the CPB, noting that the federal money it receives amounts to just $1.35 per taxpayer annually.

“I am hopeful that because there has been considerable Republican support for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting … most people think it’s an investment that’s well worth it,” said Joe O’Connor, WFAE’s president and general manager.

WFAE received just under $300,000 in federal funding last year, about 6 percent of its $5.024 million budget, O’Connor said. The station raised about $2.91 million, or 58 percent of its annual budget, from individual donors last year, O’Connor said.

When news reports started coming out around the middle of last week about cuts to the CPB, WFAE’s spring fundraising drive was underway. The station saw an uptick in donations, O’Connor said, and ended up surpassing its $300,000 goal by 48 percent.

“People wanted to give at a time when a portion of our budget is vulnerable,” O’Connor said.

WTVI, Charlotte’s PBS affiliate run by Central Piedmont Community College, received $939,873, or about 28 percent of its budget, from federal funding last year, according to Jeff Lowrance, a spokesman for CPCC. Contributions from 5,432 donors accounted for $856,579, or 26 percent of the station’s budget.

“It would be an incredibly challenging situation if we lost federal funding,” said Amy Burkett, general manager for PBS Charlotte.

Burkett noted how the station has grown its number of individual donors by about 1,000 over the last year thanks in part to programs that are “unique to the Carolinas.” The station, she said, would have to solicit even more contributions from viewers and corporate sponsorships without federal funding.

But White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney argues the cuts to public broadcasting are needed to pay for military spending and other essential items.

“Can we really continue to ask a coal miner in West Virginia or a single mom in Detroit to pay for these programs?” Mulvaney said during a recent interview with MSNBC. “The answer was no. We can ask them to pay for defense and we will, but we can’t ask them to continue to pay for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.”

WUNC, the primary NPR station serving the Triangle on 91.5 FM, received about $800,000 in federal funding last year, about 7 percent of the station’s budget.

“We take every dollar that CPB contributes and leverage that in our community by matching it with $6 to $10 of local support,” he said. “That’s a really good public-private partnership.”

In smaller markets, the situation is a bit more precarious.

Jill McGuire, acting general manager of Public Radio East in New Bern, says some rural NPR stations might have to shut down without federal funding. “The direct impact for Corporation for Public Broadcasting cuts is going to be felt first and foremost by these small rural stations,” McGuire said.

If stations shut down, the national networks will see drops in revenue to support programming – forcing them to raise fees on affiliate stations or cut costs.

Public Radio East, which serves areas from Raleigh east to Greenville and Atlantic Beach, gets $129,000 per year from the CPB – about 12 percent of its total operating budget. That amount has been decreasing each year with cuts from Congress, McGuire said.

Public Radio East has been able to increase its local support, but the station has also cut back on staffing to make ends meet, with some employees now doing multiple jobs. “You don’t want to mess with your product, so we do everything to protect the programming,” McGuire said.

UNC-TV, the statewide network that airs PBS programming and local shows, received $3.5 million from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, about 12 percent of its $29 million annual budget. State government chips in about $9 million, while donations account for $11 million.

Katherine Peralta: 704-358-5079, @katieperalta

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