Government & Politics

State subsidy to Kansas public broadcasting could disappear

The Kansas Statehouse preservation and restoration project included the complete restoration of the exterior masonry on the building. (January 22, 2014)
The Kansas Statehouse preservation and restoration project included the complete restoration of the exterior masonry on the building. (January 22, 2014) The Wichita Eagle

A 40-year history of state subsidies for public broadcasting in Kansas could evaporate when lawmakers return to Topeka this week.

The state funding has already shrunk from $3.8 million in 2008 to $600,000 in Gov. Sam Brownback’s budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

At one point in recent years, Brownback wanted to wipe out the funding completely. This year, the Kansas House wants to end the subsidies.

The budget fight reflects both an increasingly tight state budget and conservative lawmakers’ reluctance to underwrite what they see as left-leaning media.

A House committee voted to remove the remaining subsidy earlier this year. A Senate budget measure sides with Brownback, allocating $600,000 in the coming year for public radio and broadcast stations.

The chambers reconvene Wednesday and need to resolve the spending plans before leaving the Capitol at session’s end. Legislators could wrap up their work as early as this weekend.

Supporters of the subsidy think the public broadcasting funding is in real peril.

“I’m worried about it,” said Rep. Don Hineman, a western Kansas Republican who wants to preserve funding for public broadcasting.

Broadcasters are too. They already feel a pinch from early cuts in state funding.

They have cut staff. They have trimmed educational outreach efforts, such as giving books to children. They have moved to cheaper programming.

Station executives say they are building private support, but it’s not increasing as fast as public support is disappearing.

“We’ll have a lot of hard decisions to make,” said Deb Oyler, executive director of High Plains Public Radio, which serves an area of western Kansas. “We’ll have to look at every single aspect of the station.”

A growing number of lawmakers find public broadcasting easier to cut amid the search for money to pay for schools, social services, public safety and roads.

“I don’t care if PBS exists,” said Rep. Virgil Peck, a Tyro Republican. “I’m just not in favor of taxpayer dollars going to fund something that can do its own fundraising and competes against private industry.”

In some cases, such as in Kansas City, state funding makes up less than 1 percent of a station’s budget. The state provides about $44,000 to Kansas City Public Television, which has a nearly $8 million budget. In Lawrence at Kansas Public Radio, state funding is about 1 percent of that station’s budget.

At High Plains Public Radio in Garden City, state funding of about $89,000 makes up about 9 percent of that station’s $1 million budget.

At Smoky Hills Public Television in Bunker Hill, about $209,000 — or about 12 percent — of its $1.7 million budget comes from state grants. The station’s general manager, Mike Quade, said a loss in state funding could cost the station federal matching funds.

But some lawmakers think that public broadcasting isn’t as relevant today when people have access to hundreds of cable TV stations, satellite radio and the Internet.

“It used to be when I was a kid that you could drive through western Kansas and you couldn’t get anything. There wasn’t an AM station or anything,” said Rep. Jim Howell, a Derby Republican. “Those days are so far gone.”

Public broadcasting executives don’t necessarily think their airwaves will go silent with the loss of state funding. Just don’t expect quality broadcasting.

“Will it all go away? Probably not,” said Janet Campbell, station manager for Kansas Public Radio. “Will it be as reliable and strong? No.”