Public TV: a tougher row to hoe


For six decades TV and radio public broadcasting affiliate WGTE has subsisted on a budgetary mix of government funding — federal and state — as well as local support by businesses, donors, and members.

And for years that financial backing has been on the wane.

As a reflection of our struggling local economy, underwriting and foundational assistance for the public radio and TV station has shrunk, as has area membership, which has declined by nearly 48 percent from 1996 through 2010. The station’s ongoing radio pledge drive through April 26 may help its bottom line, but likely countering any positive-ledger revenue for WGTE is its net loss to the sequester, the hack-and-slash cuts to federal spending created as bipartisan incentive for a bickering congress and president to strike a budgetary compromise.

When that didn’t happen, the real-world penance for the government stalemate was triggered in March, and now WGTE will lose 5 percent of its appropriation — almost $47,000 — for this fiscal year. That’s a loss of 7.4 percent in federal funding since 2011, in addition to the 45 percent that’s vanished in state funding from 2005 through last year.

“At this point, the loss of every dollar is a significant thing to us,” said Marlon Kiser, WGTE president and CEO. “[The sequester] just makes business operations that much more challenging for us.”

The politically popular response to WGTE’s financial strain is to suggest that the station needs to cut expenditures. Kiser counters that he has done just that: From 1998 to 2011, the WGTE staff shrank by more than half, from 76 to 30.5.

“You can only make so many adjustments,” he said. “We’ve done virtually everything we can do to control expenses. Our problem and the public broadcasting business’ [problem is] — it’s not an expense issue, it’s one of revenue ... for our core business, and that’s where our future lies, on the revenue side.”

That revenue will come from expansion, and not reduction, by the station into more projects, documentaries, and programming, including a new half-hour TV series called TimeLine. It will not come from advertising.

Congress examined the viability of commercial programming for public broadcasting affiliates in a commissioned study on potential funding sources for the Public Broadcasting Service, which provides 21 percent of WGTE’s annual budget. What the report found was “sobering,” Kiser said. The study concluded no other revenue sources could replace public support for the affiliates.

“They looked at virtually everything to do to drive revenue to those businesses,” he said. “In the end, not one of them or a combination of them would work. There were trade-offs with everything. It was an extremely sobering report.”

In President Obama’s $3.77 trillion budget proposal for next year, $445 million is set aside for the Corp. for Public Broadcasting, the conduit for federal funding for public broadcasting stations. That works out to less than $1.50 per person, Kiser said. “That’s not a big investment.”

WGTE’s fiscal year, meanwhile, will end in the red — as did 68 percent of PBS affiliates in 2011 — even if the station reaches its radio pledge drive goal of $95,000.

“Every year is a fight ... that’s the way this business is,” he said. “We’ve done very well with radio [pledge drives] and I expect that we will hit that goal. As long as people are willing to make the financial commitment and investment, life will go on and life will be good.”

Contact Kirk Baird at or 419-724-6734.