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WVPT faces cuts in public funding

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By James Heffernan -- jheffernan@nvdaily.com

The fight over government funding of public broadcasting is hitting close to home.
Public television and radio stations in the Shenandoah Valley face significant holes in their operating budgets if Republican lawmakers in Richmond and Washington follow through on their plans to reduce or even eliminate taxpayer support.

"Right now, the issue is foremost on the mind of every public television and radio station in America," said David Mullins, president and general manager of PBS station WVPT in Harrisonburg.

WVPT is already facing a 10 percent cut in funding from the state for fiscal 2012. The station, which is broadcast over the air and on cable and satellite systems throughout the region, received a little more than $600,000 from Richmond toward its current $3 million budget.

The spending plan introduced by Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell in December called for phasing out state funding of public broadcasting over the next two years as part of his administration's effort to "re-establish the proper role of government." But by the end of the winter legislative session, budget negotiators had whittled the figure down to 10 percent.

"[McDonnell] now has the budget to review, and we're waiting for the outcome," Mullins said, adding that he remains "hopefully optimistic" that the governor won't try to reinstate his original phase-out plan.

For public radio station WMRA/WEMC in Harrisonburg, a reduction in state funding has almost become "an annual rite," according to general manager Tom DuVal. The station received just $86,000 of its $1.3 million budget from Richmond this fiscal year, down from $150,000 in recent years.

Meanwhile, if Republicans in Congress succeed in pulling the plug on federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the holes could become much larger.

WVPT stands to lose an additional $700,000, or about a quarter of its current budget, while WMRA would forgo $215,000, about 16 percent of its budget.

Conservatives have long criticized public broadcasting as having a left-leaning bias, and have used some recent missteps by its officials -- such as National Public Radio fundraiser Ron Schiller's characterization of tea party members as "seriously racist, racist people" in a hidden-camera video that surfaced earlier this month -- as ammunition.

In the same video, Schiller was quoted as saying NPR "would be better off in the long run without federal funding" -- a scenario that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-7th, immediately embraced.

Public broadcasters refute any claims of bias and point to the value of their programming, which they say offers a different dimension and approach than that of commercial media outlets.

Mullins and DuVal said there have been times in the past when federal support for public broadcasting has been at risk, most recently in the mid-1990s. But the present threat appears to be serious, they said.

The GOP-controlled House of Representatives recently passed a continuing resolution that eliminates all funding for public broadcasting beginning Oct. 1, 2012. The measure is now in the Senate, where Democrats have a slim majority.

For WVPT, the loss of federal dollars, in particular, would mean cuts in both services and staff.

"We're always reaching out to our local communities, to individuals and businesses, for support, but [$700,000] is a significant amount to recoup through those means," Mullins said. "I think it would be almost impossible to offset that size of a reduction."

Program acquisitions, as well as shows that WVPT produces locally, would likely go away, he said.

"We would have to look for efficiencies in every area of doing business," he said, including forming partnerships with sister stations around the state.

DuVal said he is focused on how WMRA could replace the funding rather than what services would have to be cut.

"We would certainly make a very strong effort to replace that money with private sources," including individuals, businesses and private foundations, he said.

"I feel somewhat confident that we could do that in the short-term," he added, "though I'm not nearly as confident that that would be sustainable."

Both WVPT and WMRA have links on their websites urging those who enjoy their programming to contact Virginia lawmakers and ask them to vote against eliminating funding for public broadcasting.

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