The KBBI Public Radio office and studio is on Kachemak Way, as seen in this photo taken July 2m 2019, in Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News)

The KBBI Public Radio office and studio is on Kachemak Way, as seen in this photo taken July 2m 2019, in Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News)

Local stations grapple with cuts to public media funding

In the wake of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s line-item budget vetoes, local public radio stations on the Kenai Peninsula stand to lose a substantial chunk of their operating budgets.

As part of a $444 million cut to the $8.7 billion state operating budget through line-item vetoes on June 28, Dunleavy eliminated $2.7 million in state funding for public broadcasting, which includes TV stations as well as radio.

KBBI Public Radio in Homer will have been on the air for 40 years this August and has been operating with a two-person news staff for the last few years. The station currently has one full-time reporter, and is advertising for a news director after the departure of News Director and reporter Aaron Bolton in June. Kathleen Gustafson has been named interim news director.

Interim General Manager Scott Waterman and Board President Genie Hambrick put out a statement to the station’s supporters regarding the statewide budget cut and what it could mean for the local station. According to the statement, KBBI’s share of state funding is $74,335.

“The news is disappointing, but not unexpected,” the statement reads. “KBBI has been aware for months that our state grant … was in jeopardy.”

“On the southern Kenai Peninsula, KBBI is the only radio station that is part of the emergency alert system, the only source for local daily news, and the only place for local programming,” it continues. “While we will make every attempt to maintain current services, the Governor’s (sic) decision makes it more challenging than it already is — and the following year will be even more difficult.”

Waterman and Hambrick do not anticipate KBBI closing, according to the release. However, the loss of state funding will shift more burden onto local station donors and supporters, they wrote.

“We must increase membership donations, local business underwriting, and special event fundraising, and we must continue to seek other sources of operating dollars, such as grants,” the statement reads.

Waterman said in an interview that he won’t know right away what KBBI’s next steps will be in terms of making potential cuts. That will take a while to figure out since the fiscal year is just coming to an end. He said he’ll be looking at the daily tasks that need to be done to make the station run, and trying to find which ones KBBI can potentially live without.

Stations like KBBI need to show at least $300,000 in local or non-federal revenue in order to quality for federal funding. Last year, KBBI had about $375,000 from fundraising efforts. Without the $75,000 from the state the station usually gets, they’ll be just skating through.

“We may be OK on that one,” Waterman said. “It’ll be a tight push.”

Waterman emphasized what an important role KBBI plays during emergencies and natural disasters on the lower Kenai Peninsula. It’s able to broadcast up-to-date information through its role in the emergency alert system.

“This whole last week, people have been tuning in to find out whether they could drive up the road to Anchorage,” Waterman said, referencing updates KBBI has been giving on the Swan Lake fire near the Sterling Highway near Sterling. “We’re a critical part of the infrastructure for that.”

KBBI has 40-50 volunteers who help made the station run, Waterman said. As a public media outlet, the station serves as a way to unite people across the southern peninsula.

“Community radio is one of the linchpins that tie communities together,” he said. “It’s a linchpin for kind of helping keeping the community informed, keep it entertained, and to really bind the community together in many ways.”

KDLL, the public radio station based up the road in Soldotna, is also in the midst of preparing for harder times. General Manager Jenny Neyman said the station’s share of state funding generally falls anywhere between $75,000-$77,000. This is about a quarter of the station’s overall revenue, she said.

“Our board in developing our FY2020 budget, we did talk possibilities and dire possibilities, and we’re going to have to readdress that budget now that things are looking a little more certain,” Neyman said.

One of the things the board discussed was possibly using money from the station fund balance to get it through this next fiscal year without having to reduce services or programming. KDLL’s first priority going forward will be to keep as much local programming on the air as possible, Neyman said.

However, she did say “the only two areas we could cut are our programming costs and our staff.” Staff at a local radio station means local programming, Neyman said.

Neyman also pointed out that, for a lot of smaller radio stations, there is the added burden of the fact that the local match requirement for getting federal funding was raised four years ago. Instead of needing to show $250,000 in local revenues, stations now must raise $300,000 from their local communities. It was an “uphill battle” for KDLL to make that funding leap to begin with, Neyman said. She also said that a large potion of that federal funding comes in the form of the state contribution.

Neyman said public radio stations play a special role in Alaska, especially in villages or communities off the road system, where public radio is sometimes the only media outlet available.

“I feel like the value of public radio in Alaska is connection,” she said.

Neyman pointed out that not only do public radio stations localize their programming and news, but that they also contribute to the statewide network of news called the Alaska Public Radio Network.

Radio stations like KDLL and KBBI also air bushline messages, broadcast local basketball games and put the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly and Homer City Council meetings on the air — all things that help a community, but don’t make the stations money, Neyman said.

“We feel like it is a public benefit to have an informed citizenry, so we choose to do those things,” she said. “We’re never going to make money doing those things.”

KDLL Board President Sally Cassan-Archuleta echoed the sentiment that a loss of state funding puts federal dollars at risk. It also poses a risk to local programming and services, she said.

“What I see right off the bat is that it jeopardizes how our area receives information,” Cassan-Archuleta said. “We’re listener supported radio just like KBBI.”

She said people in Alaska rely on public radio for a myriad of things that aren’t strictly local or national news.

“That’s why we have public media,” she said. “That’s why our country thought it was a good idea.”

Cassan-Archuleta said KDLL is proud of both its reporters as well as the music shows and other programming run by local volunteers.

“Our local DJ program at KDLL is really very cool,” she said. “We have people who have been doing a weekly show for six years. Volunteer.”

One of those people is Cassan-Archuleta herself, who has hosted the music show Dead Musicians for the last four years.

“I think we’re going to see some of that have to disappear because we just will not have that support,” she said. “We will do the best we can, and we will try and stay local public radio with local reporting with local programming as much as possible.”

Cassan-Archuleta, who said she’s been supported public radio since she was 18, and who stepped into the board president role this year, said the best thing listeners can do is get in touch with their state representatives.

“I would encourage people who also deem public media as the important thing that is actually is … to call their legislators, to call and express that,” she said.

If communities were to lose certain programming, services, or stations altogether, they’d lose more than news.

“You’re losing a media source whose soul purpose is to serve its community,” Neyman said.

Reach Megan Pacer at mpacer@homernews.com.

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