Public radio feeling fiscal pinch, too

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Some public broadcasters are suffering from the effects of the decession, as some economists now call the meltdown. Others, not so much.

National Public Radio laid off 64 people, about 7 percent of its staff, after a precipitous 29 percent decline in underwriting (nonprofit radio's form of low-key advertising). Vermont Public Radio has slashed its annual operating budget by more than 11 percent, and its employees are taking pay cuts ranging from 2 to 7.5 percent. A 27 percent dropoff in underwriting from businesses is blamed.

But the WAMC juggernaut rolls on. Maintaining $2.7 million in underwriting (40 percent of its $6.8 million annual budget) has been "tough," said President and CEO Alan Chartock, "but we're holding our own." Chartock's inimitable style of fundraising yielded $800,000 from listeners in five days last month, a record-setting pace. WAMC's powerful Mount Greylock transmitter and its 20 relay towers reach an audience of about 400,000 per month in parts of seven states.

Nevertheless, Chartock says, "we've been hit relatively hard" by the crashing economy. New York's Gov. David Paterson has proposed a 50 percent cut in the state's $75,000 annual support. WAMC has cut its staff by 5 percent through attrition and layoffs for several part-timers. The long-running daily feature, "Word to the Wise," went off the air after Merriam-Webster withdrew its funding.

At WMHT, which provides PBS and local TV programming and has several FM radio services, the tidings are definitely sad. The stations' 30,000 members have just received a letter marked "urgent, action needed!" Vice President and General Manager Scott Sauer appealed for additional support in view of "a serious financial shortfall" during the December fund drive.

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Combined with a loss of corporate contributions, WMHT's $8.5 million annual budget is $235,000 in the hole. Sauer warned that "it is urgent that you act today and send the largest gift you can." He suggested a "special gift" of $150, $120 or $90, "whatever amount you wish." Just last week, WMHT's President and General Manager Robert Altman offered mixed signals, stating the recession's impact "hasn't been dramatic" while acknowledging a "difficult environment that's challenging and a struggle." He pointed to Paterson's proposed budget cut, which would halve the stations' annual $1. 5 million in state support. While avoiding layoffs, he said, the Capital District operation has frozen hiring. Midway through a three-week fund drive, WMHT has discontinued its monthly program magazine, saving well over $100,000 a year.

At WFCR, based at UMass-Amherst, the addition of five low-power transmitters covering most of Berkshire County has boosted the station's finances, according to General Manager Martin Miller. The station's recent two-week, low-key fund drive yielded nearly $200,000, exceeding the goal by $15,000, he said. Offering an extensive classical music schedule with knowledgeable hosts that respect the listeners, WFCR has tripled its Berkshire County audience.

Miller claims 11,000 listeners per week; that's about half the number reached by WAMC but well over WMHT-FM's 8,600. With a $3.5 million annual budget and 200,000-plus weekly listeners in western New England, WFCR has lost cash support from the state university, though UMass continues to house the station's studios.

But $55,000 in combined annual support continues from Amherst, Smith, Mount Holyoke and Hampshire College, as well as $350,000 from those campuses toward "Five College Radio's" $4.2 million capital campaign, which is halfway toward its goal. The station plans not only to upgrade its facilities but also to add a daily, late-afternoon half-hour talk show and to initiate an outreach program, "WFCR Music for Young People."

"We have maintained our staff, with no layoffs and no attrition," Miller said. WFCR is in year two of a 10-year lease from commercial giant Clear Channel Communications of WNNZ (AM 640) in Westfield, which is devoted to news and information programming. Miller at WFCR and Altman at WMHT insist they're strongly committed to continuing classical music programming. Such silver linings are gratefully accepted.


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