Six months after the Trump administration released a budget that would eliminate funding for public television, PBS president Paula Kerger is “cautiously optimistic” that isn’t going to happen.
“But weird stuff happens,” she said in an interview with The Tribune. “I wouldn’t want anyone to think, ‘Oh, OK. Fine. We’re good.’ I think there’s still a big danger.”
Kerger was in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, visiting KUED-Channel 7 and meeting with local donors. She let them know that the news on federal funding is good, but that “there’s still danger.”
She was also here to help with fundraising by meeting with big donors. “I’m here to remind them of the importance of what they’re doing,” she said.
“We’re working harder to find money other places. If we can get more private philanthropy, that takes the pressure off stations relying on the federal money. And I can go back to the federal government and say, ’Look, we’ve taken this very seriously — this public-private partnership. We are doing our part.’ ”
The House and the Senate have passed omnibus bills that include funding public broadcasting at the same levels as last year, for the most part. (There’s some discrepancy in infrastructure money between the two bills, which will have to be worked out.)
“We’re flat-funded! Who would believe?” Kerger said. “We’re flat-funded!”
Given that the president’s budget proposal would eliminate the $455 million the Corporation for Public Broadcasting received in 2016, that’s a big win.
Federal funding represents 15 percent of the PBS budget — and just 0.001 percent of the federal budget — but that’s an aggregate number. It’s lower at some stations and much higher at others — 50 percent or more at some, particularly stations in rural America.
Kerger said her staff estimates between 60 and 80 of the 350 PBS stations would have to shut down if they lost federal funding. “We are trying to make sure people understand that.”
She encouraged local donors to contact their senators and representatives.
“The Utah delegation is 80 percent behind us,” said KUED general manager James Morgese. Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee and Reps. Mia Love and Chris Stewart support funding PBS; only Rep. Rob Bishop opposes it.
Federal funding makes up about 18 percent of KUED’s budget, and the loss of those funds “would reduce our local programming presence. It would reduce our educational presence,” Morgese said. “We’d be a slimmed-down version of what we are now.”
“And this is truly a great station,” said Kerger. “I love them all — they’re not all great — but this one is.”
Proposals to defund public broadcasting come up with some frequency, but this time it feels “more real,” Kerger said. “The last time it felt this precarious” was in the mid-1990s, when then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich succeeded in drastically cutting PBS funding.
“Some of our stations never recovered,” Kerger said. “They went into debt and they’ve just continued to struggle since those years. A big hit like that would be just devastating.”
She wants to make it clear that while, in the past, the issue has been portrayed as an attempt to kill “Sesame Street” characters, it’s far more serious than that.
“It’s really about service to communities, it’s not really about Big Bird,” Kerger said. “It’s about making sure that no matter where you live, you have access to a world that can make a profound difference in people’s lives.”