Fewer people will be hearing about the plight of the rural farmer on Minnesota public broadcasting, now that there’s a new Body in town. Reform Party Governor and former pro-wrestler Jesse "The Body" Ventura (who’s recently renamed himself Jesse "The Mind" Ventura) is phasing out the $4 million that public broadcasting receives from the state of Minnesota. Under the governor’s plan, state appropriations for public radio will be reduced by 25 percent in the next fiscal year (beginning July 1), 50 percent the second year, and be eliminated altogether in the third. Television funding will remain stable for one year, then be cut the second year by 25 percent, 50 percent in the third, and be eliminated in the fourth. Ventura has targeted Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) for budget cuts and privatization largely based on his own experiences as a radio talk-show host in his body-slamming days. He claims state funding is superfluous to public radio stations that already boast for-profit subsidiaries, copious, well-paid executives, and high-tech equipment–compared with gear held together with baling wire and duct tape at the commercial station where he used to work.
"At first, I felt sorry for him," jokes Will Haddeland, principal executive officer and vice president of public affairs for MPR. "I thought we should send his former station some used microphones. But then I realized the radio station Ventura worked for was owned by Chancellor Media, whose stock has skyrocketed in the past two years."
Haddeland, who wrote an editorial in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune suggesting that a tax credit be given to contributors to let them make their own decisions about the value of public radio, admitted that the MPR mother station will not be affected by the cuts.
"We have never asked the state for any operating funds," he says, "but we provide services for smaller public radio communities in the rural areas that can’t get them in any other way."
Indeed, MPR still earns $27 million from programming, contributions, and sales of show products, so it could easily shrug off the annual $600,000 it receives from state funding, but itÕs the smaller radio stations like KAXE in Grand Rapids and KFAI in Minneapolis that would be hardest hit. The $36,363 grant KAXE received from the state last year, for example, allowed the station to qualify for an additional $6,000 from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), thereby making up roughly 14 percent of the station’s annual operating budget of $300,000. Besides MPR, 11 Minnesota public radio stations receive state aid.
The financial implications of Ventura’s proposal seem more dire, however, for Minnesota public television. According to Bill Hanley, Executive Vice President of Content at Minnesota’s public television station KTCA, although only two percent of KTCA’s operating budget comes from state funding, it is important in several ways.
"Directly, it’s some of the funding that allows us to do our educational services in a more vibrant way," says Hanley, referring to the operating money earmarked for children’s programming, as well as outreach programs to help parents and daycare providers make the most of children’s shows such as Barney, Mr. Rogers, and Sesame Street.
Hanley explains that the most powerful impact of state level cuts would come in indirect ways, since smaller public television stations in the state might have to close down altogether as an eventual result of Ventura’s cuts. Smaller stations in the area rely heavily on non-federal support–such as KSMQ in Austin, which counts on state funding for 30 percent of its budget. "It’s a domino effect if these other smaller stations go off the air, since we lose our impact in our pitch to statewide funders in claiming we appeal to a statewide audience. ItÕs oftentimes hard to explain to legislators why this is so crucial," says Hanley.
Says KSMQ general manager Rick Sailors, "To even have a shot at getting CPB funding, a station has to demonstrate a certain level of support from non-federal funding." He predicts that KSMQ would not be able to make up the loss from state funding two years from now to claim the necessary non-federal support dollars needed to qualify for the federal grant.
"This isn’t a trend, it’s an exception," says Mark Lynch, Senior Catalyst in the Office of the President at KTCA, who has been working with lobbyists to present information in support of public broadcasting to the Minnesota legislature. "Traditionally, public broadcasting has enjoyed support from a very wide range of people," he says. "Seventy-nine percent support government funding for public broadcasting in the state. When Ventura first announced his budget cuts, the commercial television stations turned around and wrote their support of public broadcasting to us, including the president of the Minnesota Broadcasters’ Association, so it’s not really a notion of whether the two are in competition."
Although Lynch understands Ventura’s reasoning due to his own personal experiences with commercial radio, he questions the Governor’s familiarity with the reality of public broadcasting and the significant reduction in local production both the Twin Cities and rural towns in the greater area could experience in the next few years.
"This reinforces chronic problems you see in public television," Lynch says. "When you’re trying to bridge the gap between urban and rural, rich and poor, you have to get out there, and increasingly in the smaller public television markets we’re seeing forums between inner city folks and farmers. It’s expensive to bridge these gaps, and that’s the first stuff that goes with these cuts, because it’s these kinds of mission-oriented programs that don’t generate much revenue.
"In turn," Lynch concludes, "the loss of local stations results in fewer federal, corporate, and foundation dollars coming to these communities. Fewer stations means fewer matched federal and corporate dollars, so you have less money for programming. Fewer people watch and then fewer people become members. It’s a downward spiral."
To make amends, since the Internet was such a successful tool for Ventura during his campaign for Governor (he has noted that the Internet is maturing much faster than television did as a medium for political communication), perhaps Ventura might suggest an educational forum be set up on the web for Minnesota farmers to peruse in between harvests and cow-milking.