Fearing federal budget cuts, WERU reaches out



ORLAND — Many government institutions face an uncertain future now that the Trump administration is up and rolling. The Affordable Care Act, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy and now the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) variously could be changed, done away with or privatized.

That last agency is of particular concern to the over 1,500 locally owned public radio and television stations across the country, which receive funding from the CPB.

One of those stations is the Orland-based WERU Community Radio 89.9 FM, which receives 25 percent of its $500,000 operating budget from the CPB.

“The largest amount of that money is spent on paying staff, heating the building, repairing the transmitter on top of Blue Hill Mountain and keeping the lights on,” said WERU General Manager Matt Murphy. “We don’t directly pay people to host ‘Wabanaki Windows’ or our organic farming show, but keeping the lights on and the transmitter going are essential to them doing their shows.”

Late last month, U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colorado) introduced a bill that would defund the CPB in an effort to save money that could, according to Lamborn’s website, “be put to better use rebuilding our military and enhancing our national security.”

Cutting CPB funding would indeed save money, but not very much relative to total federal spending.

In 2014, the CPB, which also supports programs such as National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting Service, received $445 million in federal appropriation. That sum is less than 0.02 percent of total federal spending overall that year, which totaled $3.5 trillion.

Lamborn proposed similar bills in 2011 and 2013, both of which were defeated by bipartisan votes. Still, the new President has Murphy worried this time around.

Part of what drives his concern is that during the 2016 election campaign, Trump’s budget plan appeared to follow one proposed by The Heritage Foundation that calls for privatizing the CPB and eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

“This is the first time the White House has been interested in eliminating or greatly reducing the CPB,” said Murphy, who said that privatization might have that effect because the corporation has been publicly funded since its inception 50 years ago.

When the CPB hired a consulting firm to investigate alternatives to federal appropriation in 2012, the firm found that, if the CPB were privatized, new revenue streams from advertising or merchandise sales would not offset the loss of federal funding.

The CPB’s member stations would likely have to disavow its mission to provide universal access to listeners free of charge.

“It’s more of a threat now than it has been in the past,” Murphy said.

Murphy said members of WERU’s Board of Directors will call Maine’s congressional delegation. Though WERU receives 50 percent of its budget from its 2,100 individual members and 25 percent from its 250 business supporters, Murphy said a federal funding cut would still be disastrous for the 28-year-old radio station.

“I don’t want to scare people by saying we’d have to cut half our staff, but that’s a possibility,” Murphy said. “Hopefully, our listeners would really rally and pitch in more to replace that money, but we understand giving more is not possible for everyone.”

Of course, that would be bad news for anyone who’s a fan of WERU programs such as the Maine music show “Acadia Highway” or the maritime call-in show “Boattalk.”

“It’s not simply the broadcasters saying, ‘Boy, we’re in trouble if we don’t have this money,’” Murphy said. “It’s the listeners who will be affected.”

WERU’s next on-air fundraiser runs Feb. 25 to March 4.

David Roza

David Roza

David grew up in Washington County, Maryland, has reported in Washington County, Oregon, and now covers news in Hancock County and Washington County, Maine for The American and Out & About.