WJCT still fighting funding cuts

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  • | 12:00 p.m. June 30, 2005
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by Bradley Parsons

Staff Writer

The U.S. House of Representatives gave public broadcasters a partial reprieve last week from proposed federal funding cuts that threatened hundreds of thousands in federal money received by local PBS stations. But the leadership for WJCT, which includes local TV-7 and radio station FM 89.9, says there’s more work to be done to regain full funding.

Even so, the local public broadcasters were happy to dodge the worst-case scenario: the House had proposed cutting $100 million in funding to more than 1,000 stations nationwide. Those cuts threatened to cut the federal money received by WJCT, which runs both the public television and radio stations, by up to $400,000. WJCT receives about $1 million each year from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to pay for operating expenses and to buy programming. Individual donor contributions and corporate sponsorships make up the rest of WJCT’s $6 million budget.

Word about the proposed cuts began to filter down to local stations several weeks ago from PBS’ national administration in Washington, D.C. The news caught WJCT’s leadership off guard said Rick Johnson, the station’s senior vice president and chief programming officer.

“It wasn’t something we were prepared for,” said Johnson. “National Public Radio and PBS got wind of it and alerted all the stations. It caught most of us by surprise.”

Federal funding has been steady for the last 10 years and has stayed ahead of inflation, said Johnson. Federal money accounts for about 17 percent of WJCT’s $6 million budget.

Following the lead of stations across the country, WJCT took its case to its viewers. It began running broadcast pleas from Michael Boylan, president and CEO of WJCT, Inc. The stations’ website outlined the impact of the cuts on local programming and provided phone numbers for congress members serving Northeast Florida.

The strategy seems to have worked. Congress was reportedly flooded with calls and letters asking for PBS’ funding to be restored. The House of Representatives voted June 23 to restore the $100 million in programming money. Public broadcasters are now hopeful that the Senate will restore about $80 million that had been set aside to help PBS stations convert to digital broadcasting.

Known as news outlets, the WJCT stations had to be careful not to take an advocacy position on one side of a national issue. Johnson said the on-air and online notices merely provided information and asked viewers to pass their own opinions on to their congress members.

But the notices painted a bleak picture for the future of PBS programming and were most likely to be heard or seen by PBS customers. The online notice labeled the proposed $100 million cut as “the most draconian.”

Boylan still appears on air asking for viewers to contact members of congress regarding the remaining cuts. Johnson said WJCT will stop running the spots featuring Boylan, but said they could reappear if necessary.

Johnson is hopeful that the Senate version of the funding bill will restore the money for digital conversion and other technical upgrades.

“We’re following a congressional mandate in converting to digital broadcasting,” said Johnson. “But that’s the money that’s still out there.”

WJCT has already invested $7 million — most of it raised from individual and corporate donations — into its digital conversion.The stations were to receive about $350,000 in federal money to continue the changeover. But that money is still on congress’ cutting room floor.

Cuts are still in place impacting children’s programming. The funding bill, as currently written, calls for the elimination of the Ready to Learn children’s programming initiative.

Ready to Learn provides start up money for childrens’ programming. It has helped give a start to such PBS standbys as Sesame Street and Between the Lions. If the cuts remain in place, the effects won’t be seen immediately on screen, said Johnson. But they will hurt the development of new childrens’ shows.

“People aren’t going to see their screens go dark all of a sudden, but you’ll see less and less programming,” said Johnson. “The Ready to Learn funds are very important to families and children out there. We’d hate to see those reduced in any way.”