Uncertain Financial Future for NPR and KCRW

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Ethan Jones
Staff Writer

In his recent address to Congress, President Donald Trump announced a new budget which aims to increase defense funds while slashing money to various domestic programs. One program at particular risk under the new president’s financial plan is NPR, which indirectly relies on federal funding through grants.

Will further cuts to the budget mean the end of NPR? What does that mean for their affiliated stations that broadcast NPR programming, such as Santa Barbara’s KCRW?

First, it’s important to take into account how the funding breaks down regrading NPR and NPR affiliate stations. NPR doesn’t get much money directly from the government, but the stations that have a membership with NPR (such as our KCRW) do. According to the finance section of NPR’s website, on average government funding makes up approximately 14 percent of these affiliate station’s overall revenue. Affiliate stations then pick and buy the programming they want from NPR such as shows like Morning Edition, All Things Considered, localized programming, etc.

A statement on NPR’s website addresses the worst case scenario head on. “The loss of federal funding would undermine the (affiliate) stations’ ability to pay NPR, thereby weakening the institution,” it says. They then identify what specific aspects funding cuts would affect.

“Elimination of federal funding would result in fewer programs, less journalism—especially local journalism—and eventually the loss of public radio stations, particularly in rural and economically distressed communities,” the statement says.

Though nothing is certain until the budget is finalized with Congress later this month, that’s the extent of what extreme federal cutbacks look like for NPR, a very real possibility under Trump.

Budget cuts to publicly funded broadcasting aren’t something new. As identified by James Potter, a communication professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara who specializes in mass media, “They’ve (the government) been cutting the budget for a long time.”  

“There used to not be advertisement,” said Potter in regards to public funded programming, “it was originally an alternative to commercial programming.”

But as expenses increase and stations get less support from the government over time these media institutions had to switch to sponsorship and advertising. This gentle transition can be noticed in the program’s mild advertising.

“They’re not as high pressure, they’re not selling sources. They’re more of pledge breaks asking for donations,” said Potter. If the trend continues, it may mean NPR would have to rely more on station donors or open up advertising to more traditional “high-pressure” based advertising.

Prices may also change for the programming as well. With fewer affiliate stations able to afford NPR, the stations that could afford NPR would most likely be charged more for the programming. After identifying this, Potter said, “There may come a time when localized radio might not be able to afford NPR programming.”    

How will Santa Barbara locals be affected? Speculatively, KCRW Santa Barbara could still provide programming from NPR despite budget cuts. The station covers a huge portion of southern and central California including LA, Palm Springs, and Riverside, and can amass revenue from corporate sponsorship and a fundraising campaign effectively.

An example of this is their current funding campaign for the development of a new media center. As of June 2016, the station claimed to have accumulated $47 of the $48 million needed for the project. The dangers, as identified in NPR’s statement, don’t necessarily reflect a station that seems to have the financial resources and audience grasp of KCRW.

In the case of extreme budget cuts, losing a large chunk of funding for KCRW is going to be hurt, but a lot would still need to be worked out between NPR and the stations purchasing from it. The most realistic issue facing KCRW would be a change in programming costs, which could strain the relationship between the station and NPR.  

As of press time KCRW has not returned requests for comment.

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