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Florida public broadcasters search for solutions to their funding crisis

At WUSF Public Media, they shut down a program to read periodicals for the blind, laid off two people and declined to replace two more.

At WEDU-Ch. 3, they've avoided fully replacing departing staffers and may drop programming from the Florida Channel.

And at bohemian-friendly Tampa community radio station WMNF-FM (88.5) — which already announced a scrap-metal drive to earn money — there is another, even more unlikely fundraising project under development: a golf tournament, possibly at the tony Belleair Country Club.

This is the local legacy among area public broadcasters after Gov. Rick Scott's decision in June to veto nearly $4.8 million in state funding for such outlets across Florida. Each public TV station lost more than $300,000; each radio station more than $60,000. Across the Tampa Bay area, WEDU, WMNF and WUSF radio and TV stations saw total losses of up to $1 million.

"There's no sugar daddy out there to replace the ($62,000) the governor took away from us. I wish the public would realize how dire the situation is," said Rob Lorei, WMNF's longtime news and public affairs director.

The cuts mirror a nationwide trend. Public broadcasters in 24 states, including Florida, have lost a combined $85 million in state aid since 2008, according to a study by the media watchdog group Free Press.

And while Tampa Bay area public broadcasting fans initially responded with a surge in donations, as the year wore on local stations found themselves increasingly challenged to find new, permanent solutions to the funding dilemma.

The biggest irony may be that any success in finding new revenue may prove the governor's contention that they didn't need the money in the first place.

The cut amounted to 3 percent of WMNF's budget, strained enough by the economy already that it nearly implemented the first layoffs of its history last year. And while its first pledge drive after the cuts brought in more money, October's fundraising fell $30,000 short, indicating how short listeners' memories can be.

"The public, in times of emergency, comes through. Now they don't have that sense of urgency," said Lorei, noting WMNF has expanded the length of its fundraising drives, further disrupting regular programming.

Fundraising moves

Now the station is considering some unusual fundraising moves, including the golf tournament in March and expanding something that has been a dirty word in the halls of WMNF for more than 30 years — corporate sponsorship.

"Some people are very much against it, and others are saying, 'Let's have a look at this,' " said Mercedes Skelton, the station's interim station manager. "Our mission comes first. And if a corporation is aligned with that mission, that's just fine."

WEDU has seen its budget shrink from $11 million to $7 million since 2007, even as costs of purchasing programming from PBS have risen. And while fundraising totals in June were up 58 percent compared with 2010, the August/September drive brought only a 17 percent bump from the year before. The additional money still fell more than $200,000 short of replacing the $435,000 lost through the governor's veto.

Susan Howarth, WEDU general manager, said the state's public radio stations were surprised by Scott's veto of funds already made available by the GOP-controlled Legislature, even though his conservative stances on fiscal policy were known.

Asked for a strategy to replace the funding, beyond hoping the governor might change his mind, Howarth repeats the mantra of the statewide alliance of public broadcasters, the Florida Public Broadcasting Service: They need to tell their story better.

"We learned a lot of people don't understand the teacher training we provide, the educational materials, the emergency broadcast services," said Howarth, noting that the governor did not cut funding for the Florida Channel, which often simulcasts sessions of the Legislature like a state-centered C-SPAN, run by Tallahassee-based WFSU-TV.

To make way for programming that might draw funding, WEDU is considering dropping 12-hour broadcasts of the Florida Channel from its third digital TV channel, Howarth said. "In order to get that coverage of the Legislature out to citizens across the state, you pretty much need the local stations," she added. "I think there is a role for government funding of public broadcasting, just like there's a role for funding libraries."

Anger over $2.8 million in continued funding for the Florida Channel and a story-sharing network maintained by WFSU-TV and radio in Tallahassee called the Florida Public Radio Network led officials at WLRN Public Radio and Television in Miami to drop both services and start a new story-sharing system for the state's public broadcasters. Dubbed the Florida News Exchange, it uses newer media-sharing technology than FPRN.

But John LaBonia, WLRN's general manager, said he started the new service because of questions about the quality of reporting in material passed along the state-subsidized networks. "It's really about reporting. … The funding issue was just the last straw," he said. "When we had the governor on, we asked him three times why he defunded us."

At WUSF Public Media, which operates WUSF-Ch. 16, NPR/jazz outlet WUSF-FM (89.7) and classical music station WSMR-FM (89.1), the combined funding loss of more than $500,000 required cutbacks. Beyond the layoffs and shutting down its volunteer radio reading service, for example, they can produce local TV programming only when a separate grant pays for it.

A statewide health-reporting project, started with a two-year grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, runs out in April. WUSF general manager JoAnn Urofsky said they have not figured out how or if they might continue the project.

Pledge drive results have been mixed, drawing slightly more money but slightly fewer members than targeted goals.

"When you look at the loss of $500,000, there's no way to replace it," Urofsky said. "All you can really do is eat into the plan you already have."

Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or edeggans@tampabay.com. See the Feed blog at tampabay.com/blogs/media.

Florida public broadcasters search for solutions to their funding crisis 12/30/11 [Last modified: Friday, December 30, 2011 9:05pm]

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