On the eve of its spring Radiothon, which takes place April 25-May 3, local public radio station KZMU faces the potential of losing $70,000 in grant funding as changes in policy on a national level begin to have a local impact.
“We have about 2 ½ years to create alternative funding for our radio station,” KZMU program manager Christy Williams said. “If people think [the station] is worthy, then their thoughts about how to use it can help craft the strategy for its viability in the future.”
In late 2013, the radio station received a letter from the Corporation of Public Broadcasting (CPB) alerting them of a plan to eventually phase out grants for stations that don’t meet their newly adopted criteria for federal Community Service Grants (CSG). A CSG grantee for nearly all of its 22 years of broadcasting, KZMU’s yearly grant funds over half of its operating expenses.
“Shifts in technology, audience behavior, demographics, competition and the economy have dramatically changed the landscape for public media,” a review panel wrote in its report to CPB in 2013 detailing the recommended changes to CSG policy. “That environmental reality was the backdrop for our discussions and influenced our thinking about the CSG program policy.”
According to the new CPB criteria, radio stations like KZMU—classified by kilowatt power, coverage area and potential listenership—will need to raise $175,000 a year in non-federal financial support (NFFS) by 2016. That number increases to $300,000 a year by 2018.
“NFFS is used as a key indicator of a station’s overall viability and minimum foundation to build and sustain a meaningful local public service for its community,” the CSG Review Panel stated in 2012.
“We’re the exception to that rule,” said Michele Blackburn, a KZMU trustee. “We’re standing here after 22 years saying 'we’re what viable looks like.'"
Last year, KZMU made about $65,000 in NFFS through its fund-drives and underwriters, according to its income statement for fiscal year 2013, which is not quite half of its operating budget. However, the station's total operating budget is only about half of the new financial support requirement.
“It’s almost like they’re saying that you need to have a listenership that can contribute $300,000 of revenue before you qualify for a grant,” KZMU station manager Jeff Flanders said. “Well, if we had $300,000 we wouldn’t need a grant.”
KZMU, which payrolls two part-time positions and four contractors, currently runs on one of the lowest operating budgets for a radio station in the country, Flanders said.
“We run on the equivalent of two full-time people, which is insane,” he said.
All 80 DJs for the radio station are volunteers and contribute to a format that is characterized, on the station’s Web site, as “the intuitive whim of the DJ on deck.” Youth and multicultural voices are included in the eclectic programming, as well as shows that cover public affairs and connect community members to transportation, lost and found, and community nonprofit happenings.
The station management says they meet the CSG core principles of “ free, over-the-air broadcast available to all citizens; service that meets the needs of the local community, met through local decision-making, programming, governance, support,” as was stated by the CSG Review Panel. The issue hinges on NFFS money alone.
In its review and assessment of the CSG policy changes, CPB focused specifically on rural and minority-audience service stations to determine if their funds “are being put to their highest and best use under the current configuration of the CSG program,” 2012 meeting notes state.
“They’ve shifted their criteria so that all of the radio stations that need the help the most are not being afforded the help,” Williams said. “The most rural, the ones that have to do the most localism to get by, those are the ones that are being squeezed out and KZMU is certainly in that boat.”
The nearby public radio station, KOTO, in Telluride, Colo., is facing the same issues as KZMU.
“It’s a shame that it’s come to this and I’m not sure why it’s going this direction,” KOTO program manager Ben Kerr said. “[Public radio] is such a small portion of the budget it seems silly that they’re cutting back on this stuff.
“The usual justification for this kind of funding cut would be if the U.S. Congress cut the money appropriated to CPB,” Flanders said. “But CPB has not had any funding cut for years.”
According to CPB financial reports, federal appropriations to CPB have remained relatively flat since 2009. Using numbers from CPB’s fiscal reports for 2012 and the White House’s Office of Management and Budget for the 2012 federal budget, CPB appropriations represented about 0.00012 percent of the federal budget.
Despite being a blip in the federal budget, the CPB is interested in making a case for continued federal funding. Reworking the CSG criteria “to successfully compete in a crowded and fragmented media marketplace” is part of that picture, according to the CSG Review Panel.
To this end, the review panel, and now CPB, are strongly advocating the idea of public station collaboration where multiple public stations merge or consolidate. The plan is to use mergers “to achieve more effective and efficient scale, increase station resources and increase public service,” the CSG Review report stated.
“That means literally forming a brand new entity that directs all of the expenses of management and the structure of the stations that are collaborating, and it has to be a minimum six-year contract,” Blackburn said. “That’s a large change.”
Furthermore, CPB has not yet offered ideas for how rural radio stations that are over a hundred miles away from each other can maintain localism or share resources if consolidated.
“This is not a viable grant offer,” Flanders said. “CPB is simply trying to justify its new, draconian policy.”
KZMU continues to research avenues by which it may continue to receive CSG funding, but is not actively embracing CPB’s current recommendations.
“These things they’re throwing out there are sort of radical,” Flanders said. “The bottom line is we have to be self-sustainable.”
Operating without the grant would allow KZMU and the local community to maintain control over what their radio station looks and sounds like, but would still require changes.
“KZMU has tons of room for improvement,” Williams said. “This news isn’t a terminal diagnosis, it’s just a strong call to action. And it’s high time.”
The action required to save a community radio station, however, ultimately comes down to the community itself.
“This is truly a democratic thing here,” Flanders said. “The community decides whether they want to keep public radio in Moab or not, and it lies right in the donations we get.”