From the April 11, 2009 edition of The Charlotte Observer
By Mark Washburn
Things have never been worse in that stretch of imagination from Sesame Street to Lake Wobegon.
Public broadcasters, supported largely by donations from “viewers like you,” are facing the biggest cash crunch in their six decades of existence.
In the Carolinas:
WTVI (Channel 42) laid off four employees this week in the wake of a massive shortfall in its winter fund drive.
At UNC-TV (Channel 58), the statewide network will consider itself lucky if donations are down only 10 percent this year.
NPR affiliate WFAE-FM (90.7) has had to slash $166,000 in expenses this year.
Public broadcasting’s woes mirror those of the commercial media industry, where revenue – led by a plunge in automotive advertising – fell about 30 percent at some stations in the first quarter of 2009.
S.C. ETV (WNSC, Channel 30), which includes a statewide radio system, laid off 15 people and imposed pay cuts and furloughs on remaining employees in December. That came as a result of a $2.3 million cut in the state’s contribution to the system, a 14 percent reduction.
WTVI, Charlotte’s public TV station, laid off two people in administration and two in production this week after a dismal spring fundraising campaign. The goal for the March drive was $150,000. Only $84,000 was raised.
Elsie Garner, WTVI’s president, said she expects Mecklenburg County’s annual appropriation to the station to shrink as well this year because of budget problems.
At Chapel Hill-based UNC-TV, which operates 11 transmitters across North Carolina, the March drive collected $1.9 million, 18 percent below last year’s total.
Still, that is seen as encouraging – nationally, PBS affiliates report that fund drives are off a record 27 percent this year. By the end of the fiscal year in June, UNC-TV expects overall donations from viewers to be off 10 to 12 percent.
“While significant, if we end up there, we’ll be grateful it wasn’t more,” said Gail Zimmermann, UNC-TV’s associate general manager. “Our supporters have been wonderful, considering the economic situation they find themselves in.”
In this fiscal year, the state gave the network about $13 million, which is down 7 percent (or about $920,000) from the previous year.
Personnel is the biggest expense for the system, which employs 190. But programming costs continue to rise, especially charges from PBS, “which have increased precipitously,” Zimmermann said.
UNC-TV won’t know until the state budget is finished this spring how much it will have to cut or where the trims will come from, Zimmermann said.
It did get a little help from former Gov. Mike Easley, who appeared on the UNC-TV show “The Woodwright’s Shop” in 2007 and made a walnut table with the help of host Roy Underhill. It was auctioned off during the Festival 2009 fundraiser for $3,400.
UNC-TV needs to raise more than $3 million by June 30 to hit its target of $11 million.
At WFAE-FM, listeners pledged about $400,000 in the latest fund drive, about even with last year. But average pledge amounts were lower than before, meaning the NPR affiliate had to round up more donors.
“Before, when you were looking for money you’d try to raise the average pledge,” said Roger Sarow, WRAE’s president. “The current thinking is we shouldn’t do that right now. It’s better to have more pledges at a relatively lower level. If you push it too high, that creates a barrier to entry.”
In last year’s drive, WFAE got pledges from about 3,400 listeners. This year, it was 4,000.
Sarow said the station, which in its 28 years has never had an operating deficit, has cut back on travel, seminars, training, trade publications and outside contractors.
“This is the most messed up I have ever seen it, and that’s what my colleagues at stations tell me across the country,” said Sarow, who has been at WFAE for 21 years.
One bright spot for the station is the surge in ratings for NPR’s daily news shows, which are up about 10 percent nationally, probably a reflection of the country’s appetite for news in the current economic environment.
WFAE’s overall share of the Charlotte audience jumped 16 percent this fall, making it No. 7 among the 25 strongest stations in the region. News-talk competitor WBT (1110) also saw a big jump, with overall share rising 19 percent in the fall, making it No. 4 in the region.
“We’ve managed to avoid layoffs. We’re trying to protect the core offerings, the big news shows,” Sarow said.
South Carolina’s six-station ETV radio network has also seen rising interest in its NPR offerings and is taking the same strategy as WFAE – smaller pledges, more donors.
“We’re seeing an increase in new members because of the larger audiences,” said Debbie Hamlett, ETV’s development and programming director. ETV finished its spring fund drive Thursday, raising $223,000 out of a goal of $260,000.
The network is also pursuing new listeners through Web-based strategies like Facebook and Twitter. “It helps us reach people who knew about us but didn’t know exactly what we were doing,” Hamlett said.