When President Trump released his budget in February, he vowed to eliminate federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), telling the country's vast network of publicly funded radio and television stations that they would be better off entering the commercial market.
Public broadcasters, especially those in rural areas and smaller markets, say that would be akin to putting them out of business. And if that happens, it could exacerbate the already sharp decline of state and local government news coverage across the country.
In response to Trump's proposal, public broadcasters converged on Washington, telling members of Congress that defunding the CPB would effectively end public radio and TV in many markets across the country.
“Since there is no viable substitute for federal funding that would ensure this valued service continues, the elimination of federal funding to CPB would at first devastate and then ultimately destroy public media’s ability to provide early childhood content, life-saving emergency alerts and public affairs programs,” said Patricia Harrison, president and CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, in a statement in February.
The CPB's current annual budget of $445 million, which has remained effectively flat for several years, is used to fund some 1,500 public TV and radio stations across the country.
Big-city stations are less reliant on federal dollars and may receive significant funding from other sources, including local companies and individual donors. Public broadcasting stations in rural markets, on the other hand, rely more heavily on government funds -- in some cases up to a third of their annual budgets come from federal and state funding.
In many of those rural areas, public stations are often the only news organizations that are regularly covering state and local government.
Take an outlet like KTOO, based in Juneau, Alaska.
The public broadcasting operation is the only news agency that keeps reporters covering state government when the Alaska legislature’s 90-day session ends. It's also the only outlet with full-time coverage of the regulatory bodies that oversee Alaska’s massive commercial fishing and natural resource industries. Even the large newspapers in Juneau and Anchorage can’t afford to staff the Capitol year-round, so KTOO shares its content with them and other media outlets.
“The name of the game for any newsroom is to get some kind of scale to have the biggest impact. So we work with the 26 public broadcast stations and share stories with the Anchorage Daily News and the TV stations,” says KTOO president and general manager Bill Legere.
Just over one-third of the station's $3.1 million annual budget is covered by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. In a place like Alaska, that funding base is crucial, says Legere.
Juneau is on the state’s panhandle, an area the size of New England. Anchorage is 848 miles away, and the next closest public radio station is in Seattle, some 1,700 miles to the south. Sending reporters on assignment often means chartering a plane.
“There are other small state capitals where you can drive to the next town and there are people," Legere says. "In Juneau, there is no next town. We are surrounded by mountains and the ocean."
While not nearly as isolated, WCTE in Cookeville, Tenn., is similarly one of the only public media outlets in its region with regular coverage of local government. Cookeville only has one newspaper, and TV stations in Knoxville and Nashville rarely cover the area unless there's a notable homicide or other major crime, says WCTE President Becky Magura.
“The state of Tennessee placed the station there because this was a black hole for public television and educational programming,” Magura says.
That was in 1978, when Magura was an intern at the station. Today, she spends a significant part of her time searching for money to keep the station running.
Nearly 35 percent of its budget comes from CPB funding. The rest comes from a hodgepodge of philanthropy and fundraising, including a craft beer festival, membership drives, running races and about three dozen donors who each give more than $1,000.
Cookeville is in a rural, high-poverty part of the state, which can make fundraising especially challenging, says Magura. “There is extreme competition for charitable dollars in a poor area [like ours]. We have a lot of services in need of support.”
When public stations do attract sizable grants or underwriters, the money is often earmarked for specific projects or in-depth reporting on particular topics. It's the federal and state money that keeps the lights on, says Mark Vogelzang, the head of Maine Public, which operates public television and radio stations across the state.
Maine Public has a more robust local funding operation than either KTOO or WCTE. But it still pales in comparison to big-market public media outlets. Maine Public operates on an annual budget of roughly $12 million, with 14 percent of that money coming from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. By comparison, WAMU in Washington, D.C., has an annual budget of over $25 million, with just 5 percent coming from the federal government.
“If CPB was zeroed out, we at a rural station would lose a lot of coverage," says Vogelzang. "We would lose a significant amount of our ability to do what we do."
The prospect of losing these media outlets comes at a time when the commercial press corps in city halls and state capitols across the country have already been slashed. Large daily newspapers have scaled back their newsrooms dramatically in recent years, or shut down completely, as have many cities' alternative weekly papers.
In some places, well-funded public radio stations have actually saved or resurrected local commercial news operations that have gone under, including Gothamist, DCist and LAist. But for most smaller public broadcasting operations, it's a struggle just to stay operational themselves.
The hollowing out of commercial media -- and the struggle for public broadcasters in smaller markets -- takes a toll. There are fewer reporters holding government accountable. And readers in places where local news has contracted are less engaged in local politics and report less knowledge of political candidates, according to a 2015 study by George Washington University.
“Public media is an opportunity for Americans -- no matter what your education or income -- to have a chance at education and being informed,” says Magura.
Of course, Trump is hardly the first political leader who has vowed to defund the CPB. The group's federal financing has been under direct threat for decades, including a 1995 attempt by Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, along with efforts from several other Republican lawmakers since then.
And despite threats to cut funding, Republicans are expected to maintain the current funding levels in the upcoming budget. The last time funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was cut was 2013, when the federal government slashed funding by $23 million, according to the CPB.