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Proposed cuts to public broadcasting funding rile rural Alaska radio listeners

  • Author: Pat Forgey
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published March 5, 2015

JUNEAU -- Facing the prospect of possibly devastating cuts proposed by a legislative committee, fans of public radio and television are turning out to say what it means to their communities during budget hearings in Juneau this week.

In communities without other news sources and sometimes staggeringly long distances to big cities, public radio provides an essential service, legislators were told.

"We don't have local newspapers, certainly not daily ones, and it would be pretty drastic to lose APRN," said Cyd Hanns of Barrow. The Alaska Public Radio Network, which brings news from across the state to Barrow, also allows those in Barrow to tell their stories outside the North Slope.

With Alaska facing big declines in oil revenues, Gov. Bill Walker has been looking for places to cut the state budget. He recommended an 18 percent cut for public broadcasting, which last year received $4.4 million, mostly in grants to the state's couple dozen public stations.

But in the Legislature, a subcommittee chaired by Rep. Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla, went far deeper, cutting 59 percent from the budget.

Ellie Henke of Talkeetna called public radio, such as local station KTNA, "the glue that holds us together."

She said Walker's proposed 18 percent cut would hurt. "Which is a hit, but we can make it work," she said. But the 59 percent cut is something that stations may not be able to survive.

Gattis acknowledged the importance of public radio in rural areas, even as the cuts were being made.

The budget proposal included "intent" language telling the Alaska Public Broadcasting Commission to first give grants to "communities that have no other broadcasting service available to them, before funding communities that have another source of broadcasting available to them currently."

But testimony from those at smaller rural stations said that they rely on help from the stations in population centers for everything from technology to story-sharing, and feared the impact of cuts in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau would spill over to them.

Dillingham's Susie Jenkins-Brito called the cuts facing public broadcasting "disproportionate and excessive" and said her community relies on local KDLG radio. Its coverage is imperative during salmon season, when it provides fisheries reports and word of openers.

"I don't know what we'd do without KDLG radio to bring us up-to-date news," she said.

Rep. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, said he'll try to reverse at least some of the cuts when the operating budget is considered next week in the House Finance Committee, of which he's a member.

Kawasaki said he grew up on "Sesame Street" and "Nova," two popular public television programs, and that National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" is one of the staples of his household.

"I was a little disappointed when I saw the governor's cuts coming through on public broadcasting," Kawasaki said. "I was floored when I saw the secondary cuts in the subcommittee."

Kawasaki said he plans to introduce amendments to the operating budget to return money for public broadcasting. He said the public testimony provided information about the value of public broadcasting, especially radio, in communities without other sources of information.

But Gattis said budget cuts are needed because of dwindling state revenues. She said public broadcasting isn't as important to Alaska as it once was.

"With advancements in technology and development of other broadcast sources, there is less of a need to maintain public service programming at comparable levels to prior years," she said in budget documents.

Gustavus resident Melanie Lesh said the line between urban and rural stations is blurred in Southeast and other places where city stations such as Juneau's KTOO operate translators, bringing radio service to surrounding communities such as Excursion Inlet, Hoonah and Gustavus.

"Public broadcasting is critical to those of us in rural Alaska, who are completely dependent on this service," she said.

Steve Lindbeck, CEO and general manager for Alaska Public Media, said that the Alaska Public Radio Network, which it manages, is a service to rural stations but relies on them as well.

"APRN is a hugely collaborative enterprise," he said. It counts on other stations to provide news to the state about their regions, he said.

Anchorage-based Alaska Public Media also provides group-buying services for National Public Radio programs, with the bulk of the cost carried by the city stations because the smaller stations simply don't have the population base.

Lindbeck said state money provides about 9 percent of Alaska Public Media's funding.

As the House Finance Committee prepares to take up possible budget amendments, House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, said the subcommittee's cuts may have been too deep.

Chenault, who says he's not much of a public radio listener, has been hearing from unhappy public radio supporters in his district and elsewhere on the Kenai Peninsula.

"They were not complaining so much about a cut, but the size of the cut," he said. And he predicted the Finance Committee might restore some of the lost money.

"I'm not going to say that they will, but I'm going to suggest they'll probably change those numbers," Chenault said.

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