Scandals at NPR have small public radio stations on edge

Amid a string of negative news reports, two high-level firings and a move in Congress to end its federal funding, National Public Radio was an organization in turmoil this week.

But as grim as it seems for NPR, it is not the large public radio network headquartered in Washington that could suffer the most from the political fallout. Instead, small niche public radio stations like Towson's WTMD and Morgan State University's WEAA in Northeast Baltimore would be the hardest hit. And the cutbacks could start in a matter of weeks, station managers say.

"We have a very limited relationship with NPR — we carry only one half-hour of programming from there a week," says LaFontaine E. Oliver, general manager of WEAA (88.9-FM). "But I think the issues at NPR are getting mixed up with the move to cut federal funding to stations like ours. And that could have an impact. If federal funds are cut to WEAA, we're going to be looking at some tough programming decisions — and I will probably be looking at some layoffs as well."

Steve Yasko, general manager of WTMD (89.7-FM), the Towson University station that showcases music by Baltimore artists, says he will be faced with furloughs for his staff and cutbacks in programs and local events that the station sponsors, such as the "First Thursdays" concerts at Mount Vernon Place.

"I believe that many local public radio stations, including WTMD, will have to reduce their staffs," Yasko says. "And while that is totally separate from NPR, I don't think everyone understands that at all."

It's unclear as to how and when cuts would implemented, but Oliver and Yasko said they were informed by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — the federal funding agency that provides grants to their stations — that they could be forced to give money back that had been promised for the federal fiscal year 2011. And both say that would likely mean immediate layoffs.

There are two major public broadcasting stories at play. One involves trouble at the top of NPR, with the network's chief fundraiser, Ron Schiller, caught on a hidden-camera video by conservative filmmaker James O'Keefe. In the video, Schiller trashes tea party members, laments the "large uneducated public" NPR is supposed to serve and expresses the opinion that public broadcasting "would be better off in the long run without federal funding."

The video was posted online Tuesday, and Schiller was gone from NPR by the end of the day.

NPR President and CEO Vivian Schiller (no relation to Ron Schiller) was already under fire for the way she handled the firing of part-time analyst Juan Williams last fall. She was forced to resign Wednesday by NPR's board of directors. And on Thursday, another secretly recorded O'Keefe tape, this one audio, surfaced with an NPR fundraiser on it suggesting a donation to the broadcaster could be hidden from government auditors.

Meanwhile, conservative members of Congress are moving to cut all federal funding for public broadcasting — ranging from NPR and television's PBS to local public radio and TV stations across the nation. One bill in Congress would eliminate funding immediately, while another proposal targets the 2012 federal fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1, 2011.

Sponsors of the bills say the goal is to get serious about reducing the federal deficit — not harm public broadcasting. But some are using Ron Schiller's words to link the two — and potentially bring negative feelings toward NPR to bear on the larger issue of funding for public broadcasting in general.

"As we continue to identify ways to cut spending and save valuable resources, this disturbing video makes clear that taxpayer dollars should no longer be appropriated to NPR," said Rep. Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican and the House majority leader, in response to a question about O'Keefe's video.

Joseph Hutchins, general manager of WBJC (91.5-FM), Baltimore's classical music public radio station, says funding for stations like his "has nothing to do with Congress appropriating money for NPR." But many people are not aware of the distinction.

"People think NPR means public radio, but it doesn't," Hutchins says. "NPR produces programs that it sells to public radio stations. I think there are over a hundred public radio stations, in fact, that carry no programs from NPR."

According to the station managers, the letters that matter most in this discussion are CPB, which stand for Corporation for Public Broadcasting. That is the agency set up by Congress to dispense federal funds to public stations and serve as a firewall between the political world and the world of public broadcasting.

The CPB gives money to the stations, which then use some of it to buy programming from NPR. How the stations spend the money varies widely. Baltimore's largest public radio station, WYPR (88.1-FM), will receive about $320,000 from CPB in 2011, according Anthony Brandon, station president and general manager.

That amounts to about 7 percent of the station's overall budget of $4.6 million. (Most of the rest of WYPR's money comes from fundraising, membership and underwriting. )

This year, WYPR will pay NPR about $600,000 for the right to air such programs as "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition," which are key components of its news/talk format.

"WYPR's model is a little different because we are far and away the biggest public radio station in Baltimore, and the bigger stations are not quite affected as the smaller stations would be by a cutback," Brandon says. "That's the just the way it is."

WEAA will receive about $219,000 this year from CPB on an overall budget of $1 million, according to Oliver.

Putting WEAA even more at jeopardy if all federal funding is cut is that the station also receives $500,000 from CPB to produce "The Michael Eric Dyson Show" for national distribution. Oliver says that show would be canceled unless the station could find a way to raise half a million dollars on its own.

WTMD, meanwhile, will get about $115,000 from CPB, which is 11 percent of its budget, according to Yasko. The station will use $25,000 to pay for programs and services from NPR. Beyond paying for the right to air programs like "World Cafe" and various newscasts, stations pay a membership fee to NPR.

WBJC will receive about $160,000 from CPB this year, which amounts to about 10 percent of its budget, according to Hutchins. Baltimore's classical music outlet will pay less than any other station to NPR — only about $7,200, which involves $7,105 for use of NPR's satellite to download programs and $95 for the one-time right to air a music show that NPR distributes.

As bad as the cuts could be for Baltimore's smaller stations, the consequences are nowhere near as dire as they would be for stations in small towns and rural areas.

"CPB funding can be as much as 40 and 50 percent at small stations in small towns," Brandon says.

And unlike Baltimore, where there are four public radio stations and access to another three in Washington, often in the Midwest and West there is only one public radio station for hundreds of miles.

"For the big urban stations that are doing full NPR talk/news format like us, the CPB impact is generally under 7 percent," Brandon says. "Now, having said that, $320,000 coming out of our budget in total would be very hard to absorb."

Even at WYPR, which just ended what Brandon describes as its most successful fundraising drive in history, the playing field would change.

"I do think we would have to enter into a combination of some new fundraising techniques and would probably have some cutbacks in content — and it would stunt our growth," Brandon says. "I mean, we have plans for news expansion here, and those would have to be put on the backburner."

His prediction for how it all might play out in funding for 2012: "I expect to see a reduction in allocation to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting of up to a 20 percent," he says. "Which for us would mean a decrease of about $50,000 or $60,000. That's the model we're planning for anyway."

WTMD's Yasko says the situation is so "fluid" and "political" that he's unwilling to even hazard a guess.

"The calls for an immediate end to public funding are so relentless and loud that you have to take the politicians making them at their word," Yasko says. "And that would mean an immediate loss of programs and jobs."

David Zurawik occasionally appears on WYPR as part of a content-sharing agreement between The Baltimore Sun and the station.

Recent tweets from Baltimore Sun media and television critic David Zurawik:

Follow David Zurawik on Twitter | Read David Zurawik's blog, Z on TV | Read David Zurawik's bio