How Federal Dollars Are Key to the Indie Producer Economy

Alternative Sources of Funding for Public Broadcasting StationsPolicy alert: A proposed spending bill unveiled yesterday by the House Appropriations Committee calls for deep cuts to public broadcasting support over the next two years, ramping up to complete defunding by 2015.  
Could public broadcasting survive without federal dollars? That's the question that a recent CPB report set out to explore with prompting from Congress. 
The short answer—no—should interest radio makers struggling to find support for their work. As the AIR/ITVS Scan of Independent Journalists shows, radio producers in particular have strong ties to local public stations—where the bulk of federal funding directly flows. These dollars in turn support both national and local programs that hire freelancers as contributors and support staff. 
The hard-won national commitment to public broadcasting also underscores the importance of maintaining a public space for production of high-quality news and cultural content, and engagement of citizens in civic dialogue. These are mission-driven values shared by many independents.
A Strained System
Based on research by management consulting firm Booz & Company the CPB report, Alternative Sources of Funding for Public Broadcasting Stations, reveals that:
  • Stations are already struggling: More than 60 percent of public radio/TV stations are operating with budget deficits.
  • Federal dollars serve as core support for stations, especially in rural and minority communities, providing a base for soliciting donations from state, private, and individual sources.
  • In the absence of federal funding, a "domino effect" would first take down the most vulnerable 76 radio stations in 38 states, and then cascade to debilitate remaining stations and national programming networks that depend on station dollars.
Alternate funding options that Booz & Company analyzed include:
  • TV and radio advertising,
  • retransmission consent fees,
  • paid digital subscriptions,
  • digital game publishing,
  • proposals to sell off spectrum or shift the law to allow public broadcasters to air political ads. 
The report also examines the prospects for existing funding sources, such as charitable giving, corporate underwriting, merchandising, online ads, fee-for service arrangements, leasing of facilities and equipment, content sales, and production of books/magazines/apps—finding that these also fail to fill the projected gap.
After a thorough examination, Booz & Company conclude that no combination of alternate funding sources could replace or shrink federal support.
At Stake: Access, Innovation, Localism
"The interdependence of today‘s public broadcasting system is such that while eliminating federal funding would be a blow to public radio and television stations in Boston, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, it would create a spiral of diminishing service and reach in every community with particularly devastating consequences to dozens of smaller stations in states such as Maine, Iowa, Colorado, New Mexico, Montana, Idaho and Alaska," the report says.
What's worse, "it is in those communities that the public television and radio stations provide critical and sometimes the only available communications services in sparsely populated areas." 
Recent support from CPB for innovative initiatives that connect independent producers and stations to create diverse digital content would also go by the wayside. This would kill a budding renaissance in local public interest journalism and station-based creativity—bolstered by investments in building multiplatform public media models, such as Project Argo, the Local Journalism Centers, the Public Media Corps, and AIR's own Localore.
In sum, while this report does not directly address funding structures for independent producers, it reveals the vulnerability of the interconnected system that makes much independent work possible. 
Want to keep an eye on the debate in Congress? See Currrent's blog, where they're tracking the bill as it makes its way through committee.