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NPR and PBS — This Time It’s the Fight of Their Lives

With budget shortfalls, vicious infighting and a power shift in Washington, make no mistake — public media is under attack

Massive budget shortfalls, vicious in-fighting and a power shift in Washington. Make no mistake, public media is facing the biggest ever threat to its existence. 

This time, the haters are deadly serious. And they have timing on their side.

At stake are hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding and the future of such popular programs as "Nova," "This American Life" and "Sesame Street."

And while public media has long been a favorite target for Republican lawmakers, the mounting federal deficit — coupled with a series of PR blunders — mean that threats to slash government aid to non-profit stations are no longer just idle boasting.

Should the government turn off the spigot, National Public Radio and Public Broadcasting Service will likely have enough corporate and donor support to limp along, but jobs will be lost and popular shows will have to be canceled. On a local level, some of the thousands of public television and radio stations will almost certainly have to close up shop.

“There has been a longtime hate affair between the political right and public TV and radio," Martin Kaplan, director of the USC's Norman Lear Center, told TheWrap. "As the culture wars have flared on and off, the attacks on them for failing to be on the same side of the barricade have grown more intense.”

Broadcast veterans and analysts say that the Republican party’s newfound control of congress may spell the end of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — the organization that distributes parts of the federal largesse to non-profit media.

Armed with the backing of President Obama’s deficit reduction committee, congressional leaders are gunning for the CPB and its $420 million budget. Support from the CPB accounts on average for 15 percent of funding for the more than 1,100 public radio and television stations around the country.

CPB has requested $608 million for its next funding cycle, which begins in 2013. So far, the current constellation of Republicans in the House and Senate do not seem inclined to grant that request.

“With record debt and unemployment, there’s simply no reason to force taxpayers to subsidize liberal programming they disagree with” Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) said in introducing legislation last October to cut CPB funding.

To compound the problem, when the leadership of PBS, NPR and the CPB trudge up the steps of congress to plead their case, they’ll find it’s not the same group of Republicans that cropped up the last time the party regained control. The band of moderates, who might be more willing to back public media as a necessary expenditure, has dwindled to near extinction.

“They're way to right of the Republican party of 1994 that came in with Newt Gingrich. NPR is the bête noire of the Republican right,” Raphael Sonenshein, a professor of political science at Cal State Fullerton. “These people are more conservative to the point where the only media they see as legitimate is Fox, and everything else is unreliable.”

Add to all that a series of gaffes — such as NPR’s recent firing of contributor Juan Williams over remarks he made about Muslims — and the result is a raging political firestorm that leaves the non-profit badly burned. 

“NPR made the big mistake of becoming the news. No news organization wants to do that or should draw attention to itself,” Alicia Shepard, NPR’s ombudsman, told TheWrap. “What impact it has remains to be seen, but the context it takes place in — the cultural wars, the political polarization, the concerns people have about deficit anyway. It came at a bad time.”

It’s not just NPR that has egg on its face. That other titan of public media, PBS, has suffered a series of embarrassments, unwittingly getting itself in political hot water at its broadcast of the Mark Twain Prize, when it edited a Sarah Palin joke out of Tina Fey’s acceptance speech.

Late last month, Republicans in the House launched one failed attempt to slash payments to public radio, charging that the networks are leftist mouthpieces. Come January, when the leadership shifts to the GOP, both analysts and public media executives fully expect the issue of federal subsidies to bubble to the surface once again, and the outcome may be less pleasant.

In an age of austerity, public media has to either find a compelling way to make a case for its continued importance or learn to live with belt tightening. 

“All media is being asked to reinvent itself — and that includes public media,” Tom Glaisyer, a Knight Media Policy Fellow at the New America Foundation, told TheWrap. “Their heart is and should be in producing quality public media, but there’s been a lack of comfort with making the kind of argument in favor of what they offer that needs to be made.”

Though they may have made halting efforts at talking up their value in the past, public media corporations are trying to improve their talking points this go-round. After all, with the federal government looking to slash about $4 trillion from the budget over the next decade, all discretionary spending has a bullseye affixed to it.

“The rhetoric around this issue has been politicized, but we don’t approach our mission from an ideological perspective. We offer something for listeners all over the political spectrum,” Dana Davis Rehm, senior vice president of communications for NPR, told TheWrap. “These issues come up perennially, and each time they are resolved in a bipartisan manner. We’ve been talking to members of congress and reminding them about the support we receive from every part of the country.”

That may not be enough.

A bigger threat, in some cases, actually may come from within. Take the recent break-up of the West Coast-based KCET and PBS. That 40-year association will come to an end in January, after the two sides failed to reach an agreement on a reduction in dues and greater programming flexibility. 

In the short term, Huntington Beach-based KOCE will become the leading PBS affiliate in Southern California, but some analysts speculate that other local stations around the country will follow KCET's lead. 

“KCET’s move may just be the first of many as local stations search for new ways to be public broadcasters in the 21st century,” Glaisyer told TheWrap. “If they’re successful, KCET could totally remake public broadcasting by making it dependent on locally produced content that speaks to local issues.”

Should other member stations defect, PBS will suffer a seismic financial hit. For example, the dues KCET pays programming accounts for 5 percent of the $139 million PBS receives from stations. In turn, those dues support 81 percent of the $172 million PBS spends to produce its content.

That defection could not come at a worse time. Though PBS and NPR have made strides to wean themselves off federal funding and diversify their sources of support, public money still represents a big slice of their budgets. For NPR, federal support makes up some 10 percent of its total funding, while PBS receives approximately 15 percent of its funding from the CPB.

In theory, they could redouble their appeals for corporate, viewer and listener support, but losing that money would jeopardize their ability to provide the same level of programming.

“Our community support is very strong, but the fear is that it’s not strong enough to make up for the loss in federal aide,” Rehm told TheWrap.