The recent controversy surrounding National Public Radio, in which a conservative operative caught top executives disparaging conservative groups and offering to protect a controversial donor, could not have come at a worse time for WVPE.
The local NPR member station, which already faces an uncertain future in light of calls to cut federal funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, is preparing to launch an important spring pledge drive in less than two weeks.
"It's disappointing," said station manager Anthony Hunt. "It's like one more straw that the camel has to carry, is the feeling I'm having. I mean,Inside WNIT could also be affected. we’re two weeks away from a pledge drive, and my concern is how that is going to affect us.”
According to Hunt, the station receives about 50 percent of its funding from listener members. The other 50 percent comes from the CPB (12 percent), corporate sponsors (35 percent) and Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations (3 percent), a coalition of public broadcasting stations in the state.
The recent controversy, he said, could serve to erode listener support at a time when it is desperately needed - especially among conservatives and moderates.
“The possible neutral opinion people had of us … is possibly going to be clouded because of this,” he said.
Coincidentally, the Juan Williams episode, in which NPR faced criticism for its decision to fire the longtime contributor for statements he made about Muslims, played out during WVPE’s previous pledge drive.
“We were significantly affected by the Juan Williams firing,” Hunt said, “which happened during our fall pledge drive.”
The trouble for NPR this time around began last week, when conservative provocateur James O’Keefe released a pair of undercover videos featuring NPR chief fundraiser Ron Schiller and Betsy Liley, the senior director of institutional giving.
In both tapes, members of the conservative group Project Veritas, of which O’Keefe is the founder, pose as potential donors representing a fake Muslim group with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.
In the first, Schiller is captured disparaging Republicans and the tea party and claiming NPR would be better off without federal funding. And in the second, Liley offers to shield the group’s donation from the government.
NPR responded to the tapes by firing its CEO, Vivian Schiller (no relation to Ron Schiller), and placing Liley on administrative leave. Ron Schiller, who had been preparing to leave the organization in May, instead resigned immediately.
The organization also issued a statement in which it denounced the remarks made in the tapes, describing them as “contrary to what NPR stands for and deeply distressing to our reporters, editors and others who bring fairness, civility and respect for a wide variety of viewpoints to their work every day.”
But the damage had been done, with congressional Republicans quick to cite the videos as further evidence that public media, which conservative groups have long accused of promoting a liberal agenda, should no longer receive federal funding through the CPB.
Currently, Congress appropriates about $420 million annually, or about one-tenth of one percent of the federal budget, to the CPB, which supports about 1,300 locally owned public media stations across the United States.
Though much of public radio would survive without federal funding - it’s been reported that some rural stations, which rely more heavily on CPB funding, could fold - it could change the way stations deliver programming, Hunt said.
“Many of the people that listen to (WVPE) often say they do so because it’s a kind of advertising-free zone,” he said. “So I think the longer-term repercussion … is that we won’t have any places that are non-commercial respites.”
That could in turn jeopardize public radio’s journalistic independence, he said, increasing as it would its reliance on corporate sponsors for financial support.
In terms of the potential effect on programming at WVPE, Hunt said the station would “probably have to reshuffle some things” if federal funding disappears, “but I’m not ready to make anything public, because this is an ongoing debate.” He said local programming, which consists primarily of music, would probably not be affected.
In the meantime, WVPE and other public radio stations find themselves part of an uncomfortable waiting game, as Congress considers possible solutions to the current budget impasse.
“We’re facing tough decisions on how best to cut federal spending, which means everyone is going to have to do some belt-tightening,” Rep. Joe Donnelly, D-Granger, said in a prepared statement. “Yet I also understand and support the many contributions of public broadcasting to our community.
“There is a sensible way to do this,” he said. “Reduce spending without completely defunding certain programs.”
For his part, Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Howe, said he also supports public media, but the current fiscal situation demands cuts “across the board.”
In terms of NPR, he said, recent events simply make it easier to drop the ax.
“To see a video come out that shows NPR employees displaying a liberal bent, I think that makes this decision simpler,” he said, “because it (public radio) was never designed to be a conservative mouthpiece or a liberal mouthpiece.”
Staff writer Erin Blasko: firstname.lastname@example.org; 574-235-6187