Federal funding of public radio pays dividends

February 28, 2011|By Stephen Yasko

Federal funding for public broadcasting is a small investment that pays big dividends. More than 170 million Americans engage with public media every month for fact-based journalism, educational programming, arts and culture — and music they cannot hear anywhere else. The federal investment in public broadcasting creates jobs and programming that provide opportunities to our community.

The threat to federal funding is real. The House of Representatives recently voted to eliminate funding for public broadcasting in the 2011 budget, and no matter the bill's fate in the Senate, numerous national political leaders, newly elected and returning House members and senators have vowed to totally eliminate funding for public radio and TV in fiscal year 2012. We're taking them at their word that elimination of federal funding is a priority and will be acted upon.

Although public radio's defenders frequently point out the quality and importance of its news programs, its role in America's musical life is sometimes overlooked. Public radio has become the nation's home for music considered no longer viable on commercial radio, like folk, blues, jazz and classical. In fact, one third of all public radio listening is to music.

Although Baltimore is blessed with several excellent public radio outlets, WTMD is the only radio station in Baltimore to give a significant amount of airplay to local musicians. Baltimore bands and artists are always included in WTMD's events and concerts.

Our commitment to making sure local musicians have a community would be severely curtailed if federal funding were eliminated. WTMD receives about 11 percent of our budget — about $115,000 — from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. This funding would be eliminated under the bills being considered in Congress.

That's an infinitesimally small amount in the context of the federal budget, but it seeded the production of Baltimore Unsigned (which is hosted by Sam Sessa, a Baltimore Sun editor) and allowed us to begin providing Baltimore with the First Thursday Concerts in the Park series, attended by thousands each summer.

Federal funding allows WTMD to reach further even into the Baltimore music and arts communities. WTMD has helped nurture the careers of bands like The Bridge, Beach House and J. Roddy Walston and the Business. Many of these bands have gone on to regional and national recognition.

First Thursday Concerts provide a family-friendly environment with national and Baltimore musicians. They are also an economic engine for the Mount Vernon neighborhood. Sixty-nine percent of respondents to an economic impact survey said they spent money in Mount Vernon's stores and restaurants before or after the show. And 73 percent believe First Thursdays have a positive impact on local businesses.

The total federal appropriation for public broadcasting for this fiscal year comes out to just $1.39 per American. More than 70 percent of the $450 million the CPB receives is distributed directly to stations, which use it to invest in producing local programs like WTMD's Baltimore Unsigned, WYPR's The Signal and WEAA's At Issue.

This year, public radio and television stations in Maryland received $4,448,044 in Community Service Grants from the CPB. This money creates jobs, develops educational programming and enhances the quality of life for millions of Marylanders, from the panhandle to the Eastern Shore.

The CPB also negotiates and pays millions for music rights for the entire public broadcasting system. It's a lifeline for 1,300 locally owned public radio stations across the country, subsidizing digital conversions and infrastructure improvements in recent years. Public radio music stations would not be able to afford the commercial rates charged for these music rights.

Although WTMD and most of the other public broadcasting stations in Maryland won't go out of business if federal funding is eliminated, stations in rural and severely depressed areas are more vulnerable. Federal support is their financial lifeline.

Yes, times are hard and tough choices need to be made. But the investment by the federal government in public broadcasting does more than fund station operations; it strengthens communities and provides the positive economic and cultural impact that we need — especially now.

Stephen Yasko is general manager of 89.7 WTMD-FM. His e-mail is syasko@towson.edu.

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