Without national support, rural radio stations face an uncertain future

 

From a singlewide trailer perched atop a mesa south of Moab, Utah, KZMU community radio began broadcasting in 1992. It took nine years for the station to build a modest studio next door, but the station kept growing, and in 2008, KZMU erected a solar array to power its electrical needs. Now 23 years old, this scrappy public radio station has become a Moab institution.

But KZMU is threatened. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting — the agency that's supposed to help small rural radio stations — is withdrawing its support next year, leaving KZMU high and dry without federal dollars.

Why? Because the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has decided that KZMU is "too small to survive." The station's lean operation and donor base have not come up to the standards CPB expects of its grantees. That's not all: KZMU, originally funded because it provided "sole service," no longer qualifies in that category because public stations based in Salt Lake City and Logan now beam into Moab.

But Salt Lake City and Logan aren't Moab, and KZMU, which gets by with a part-time staff and volunteers, is responsible for informing the 5,000 residents of the area about what's happening in their community. That is why KZMU does live broadcasts of city council meetings while also airing hot regional issues: overcrowding in the surrounding national parks, proposals for tar-sands mining and a nuclear power plant, and the burden of what Edward Abbey prophetically called "industrial tourism."

Some 70 volunteer DJs create idiosyncratic programs with names like Jah Morning, Trailer Park Companion, Atomic Lounge, and Free Speech Friday. KZMU also produces a daily module featuring sixth-graders spelling and defining challenging words.

But KZMU's donors come primarily from Moab's permanent residents, and most of them work at low-paying seasonal jobs in the tourist industry. Without the stable financial support of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which for two decades has provided roughly half of KZMU's annual budget -- CPB contributed $70,000 this year -- Moab's community radio station probably would not exist. CPB was created in 1968 to support public broadcasting, disbursing some $400 million in federal money this year to about 1,400 radio and TV stations.

Unfortunately, other small stations are also on CPB's chopping block. Some have yet to receive any funding. KPOV, for example, the only noncommercial station in Bend, Oregon, was denied three times even though it met CPB's stated criteria.

"By the time we applied, they knew they were changing their rules to serve only big stations," KPOV station manager Pearl Stark says. "Yes, we're small, but we're serving our community. ... I wish they'd judge us by our value to the community in ways other than money."

Sally Kane, who directs the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, an advocacy group for grassroots stations, says the current metrics –– things like financial support and number of listeners –– may sound reasonable, but CPB's formula "automatically handicaps small community broadcasters serving poor communities." Of the 150 members of NFCB, only 58 receive community service grants from CPB. At least a dozen may lose their funding because they can't meet CPB's new financial thresholds.

Kane says the defunding will affect not only these local stations and their communities, but also the system as a whole. "We can't have a healthy public media system without the presence of grassroots community media organizations," she says. "They are the ones who put 'public' in public media."

In addition to their role as conduits for the First Amendment, community broadcasters also provide free training. The once-groundbreaking programs now gracing the public airwaves were created by people who cut their chops in community or college radio, where creativity and experimentation are encouraged. Garrison Keillor is a case in point.

But here's what really rankles: Even if federal dollars dry up for the big public radio stations such as KQED in San Francisco, or any of the giants in public radio, they will survive. But when CPB money gets cut from rural stations such as KZMU and KPOV, these small broadcasters will immediately face challenges that threaten their very survival. These little stations are just as important in their communities as the big stations are in theirs — perhaps more so, since the smaller communities lack the cultural and educational resources of urban areas.

CPB's website proudly proclaims that it has "long recognized the special challenges that small public television and radio stations face." That is a lovely and idealistic statement. But apparently the decision-makers at CPB no longer believe it.

Marty Durlin is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. She recently became station manager of KZMU in Moab, Utah.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.