Public broadcasting stations in Alaska trying to make up for loss of state funds

KCHU station in Valdez. (Photo courtesy KCHU)

Alaska now joins 14 other states that don’t fund public media. Public radio and TV stations across the state lost all their state funding this year because of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s vetoes.

Some stations are responding by trying to increase their fundraising. But the loss of state funds poses a long-term challenge for others.

KIYU in Galena and 11 other stations that repeat KIYU’s signal in western Interior and rural Alaska have had one full-time staff member in recent years. Now they’re moving to none — they’re planning on replacing the full-time general manager who left earlier this year with three part-timers.

KIYU operations manager Tim Bodony said along with cutting personnel costs, the station has replaced some of its music programs with less expensive shows. And the station has asked local businesses to increase how much they give.

All of this creates more work for the station.

“It’d be nicer maybe to not have so many projects like that going at once — to throw so many balls in the air all at once — to trim this and that and that and that,” Bodony said. “But the situation just sort of demanded it.”

KIYU lost $75,000 of its roughly $300,000 budget when Dunleavy vetoed all $2.7 million the Alaska Legislature appropriated for public radio and TV this year. The state funding ranged from 7% to 28% of the 27 stations’ revenue. The state will maintain nearly $800,000 to operate the ARCS TV service that reaches 185 rural communities and provides emergency alerts.

The Legislature tried to restore the money during its second special session in July. The governor reversed his position on some other cuts, but he again vetoed all public broadcasting funds.

Dunleavy said in June that he vetoed the money to help balance the state budget.

“It’s really the fiscal situation that’s driving the need to reduce the budget,” he said. “And we believe people will still be able to access programs through other means.”

At KFSK in Petersburg, $77,000 in state funding made up 16% of the yearly budget. Station manager Tom Abbott is aiming to make up a quarter of the cut with fundraising. The rest will come from trimming the budget.

The cuts range from reducing phone lines and eliminating staff travel to ending the station’s membership in American Public Media, which allowed it to broadcast live world news from the BBC overnight.

Abbott said he’s focused on avoiding eliminating any of the four full-time positions at his station.

But during a local community news show, he said the station would stop buying supplies, which prompted an outpouring of support.

“It was amazing, to have people come by with cases of paper towels and … gallons of liquid dish soap,” and other daily necessities that weren’t central to the station’s broadcasts, he said.

Abbott said it’s important to the community to have local nonprofit journalism. The station broadcasts assembly meetings and school board meetings live. And one reason why the station is essential to the community, he said, is the role it plays in emergencies, like when a mudslide buried a road.

“The information comes through the radio as to what to do, how the detour is being worked out by the officials,” he said. “First responders calls us right away to the get the information out to the public, how they want people to react to an event.”

At an Alaska Public Broadcasting Commission in meeting in June, when the state funding cut was on the horizon, all station managers were asked what would happen if the funding disappeared. Among those attending the meeting was Mollie Kabler, the executive director of Alaska Public Broadcasting Inc., which provides coordination and technical support for all of the state’s public broadcasters.

“No station manager reported that their station was going off the air,” she said.

Kabler said stations will likely draw on savings as they try to balance their budgets.

“They said they could probably make it this year,” she said. “But they were concerned about fiscal year ’21, and how they would manage.”

That’s because more than a quarter of public media funding in the state comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. That’s the federally funded body that provides grants to stations. And it requires most stations to raise $300,000 to be eligible for these grants. The only exceptions in Alaska are nine smaller stations like KIYU that receive grants regardless of how much they raise, because they’re the only stations within 50 miles.

Kabler said $185,000 in federal matching funds is at risk, while more than $1 million more could be lost in the future, depending on how well stations succeed in replacing the state dollars.

“They will have to spend less time serving community directly with broadcasting, and spend more time raising money,” Kabler said of station staff.

An example of a station in a more challenging position is KCHU, which is based in Valdez and serves other communities in Prince William Sound and the Copper River Valley.

Station manager John Anderson said Valdez residents have responded to a call for support. And the station has tried a lot of different approaches.

Anderson said the station “threw a dance, got a band … charged 10 bucks. People have been pretty generous around here.”

But Anderson said it’s hard to raise money in communities directly impacted by the cut to Alaska Marine Highway System service this fall and winter.

“Overall, there’s a feeling of loss of population, loss of importance and loss of any attention to our area here in Prince William Sound and the Copper River Valley,” he said.

Anderson said there may come a time when KCHU is no longer a nonprofit, public radio station.

“I’m not saying the operation is unsustainable, but it is a struggle to keep this thing going with losing a funding stream the way we’ve been doing it,” Anderson said. “There aren’t other funding streams popping up to take its place.”

Anderson said he hopes the Legislature overrides Dunleavy’s veto when it meets next.

Disclosure: KTOO Public Media and Alaska Public Media are among the organizations that lost state funding. Read more about how stations are thinking about covering the broadcast cuts.