Times are hard at WMKY, Morehead State Public Radio, and you can hear it as the public-radio programming powerhouses vanish from the station.
Other university-affiliated public radio stations in Kentucky are run on a fund drive-to-fund drive model, and the managers at WEKU at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond and WUKY at the University of Kentucky in Lexington say that for a non-profit, that’s a good model: It keeps them hustling for new sources of funding and close to the changing needs of their listeners.
Basically, a public radio station with a university connection operates with a budget composed of money from the school, individual contributions, donations from businesses, and grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The amounts and sources of funding vary.
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But if WEKU and WUKY work on a budget shoestring — each has an annual budget of $1.5 million — for the much smaller WMKY, that shoestring is more like a thread.
The cuts have been coming since 2008 at WMKY, but recent cuts have been small but deep: Two part-time staff members making only only $1,800 a year were cut, staff members who worked 20 hours a week and earned $9,256 between them were cut, newspaper subscriptions were cut. The station even dropped its $110 annual membership in the Morehead-Rowan County Chamber of Commerce.
WMKY station manager Paul Hitchcock said the station receives support from its university, which is paying for its four full-time staff members.
He chafes at the idea that cuts can be made “on the pretense that we have other sources of funding,” he said.
The long-term cuts have gone even deeper. Beginning in 2008, the position of a $32,331 broadcast operations specialist and its $6,466 in benefits was eliminated.
The music and production direction job was eliminated in 2009, at a similar salary.
In 2011, the chief engineer position was eliminated, saving $57,668 plus $11,533 in benefits. Programming adjustments and personnel from 2014 to 2016 saved about $83,000.
Grant Alden of Morehead, one of the owners of CoffeeTree Books in Morehead, hosts a roots-music broadcast on the Morehead station. Soon he will be hosting it for free.
Losing a public radio voice in the region, Alden said, “is frightening to me. … There has to continue to be local programming, or the area loses its vitality.”
A reduced or missing public radio presence is an obstacle to bringing educated, cosmopolitan people to town, he said.
“That is one more barrier to bringing someone to a small town in Eastern Kentucky,” Alden said.
For WNKU at Northern Kentucky University, the public radio presence is about to vanish. The school’s board of regents voted in February selling the public radio station to the Bible Broadcasting Corp. for $1.9 million.
The station remains on the air until the sale is approved by the Federal Communications Commission, but the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky independent music enthusiasts have lost a radio pipeline for new artists.
NKU had spent $4.4 million over the past six years to keep the station running. CincyMusic, a group that promotes area artists, led the charge against the sale, arguing that the station gave many artists their first exposure to a broad audience. A commenter on CincyMusic’s Facebook page said the sale “killed our contemporary music scene.”
All Kentucky public radio stations have to get inventive with membership offerings to keep up with shifting consumer preferences. WUKY-91.3 FM offers memberships for your pet. WEKU-88.9 FM sells entire days of sponsorship to honor individuals and events. Want to donate your old car because you enjoy “Marketplace” or “The Moth Radio Hour”? These public radio stations can help you with that.
David Brinkley, director of educational telecommunications at Western Kentucky University, said the key to public radio success is to be minutely accountable to the listeners, and to give them what they want, be it “Prairie Home Companion” or classical music.
Some public radio stations on college campuses in other states don’t receive any contribution from the schools, unlike the Kentucky public radio stations, he said.
“Some get square footage and the power bill; some don’t even get that,” Brinkley said. “There’s all kinds of funding models for public radio stations across the country.”
At Western, the university covers administrative costs for WKYU-88.9FM and its affiliates covering much of the state, including stations in Somerset and Elizabethtown.
“I consider them our biggest donor,” said Brinkley, who oversees both the public radio and TV operations at Western.
Funding at the Western public radio station illustrates the patchwork of sources public radio administrators have to consider: community service grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, underwriting, major gifts, endowments to offer student scholarships for intern labor.
“Successful stations will have a diverse portfolio,” Brinkley said, and struggling stations “have limited their approach to their communities.”
“If we had an outside consultant come in, I think they would tell us we should be raising even more money than we do,” said Roger Duvall, manager of WEKU and its network of stations throughout Central and Eastern Kentucky, including Hazard and Corbin.
Morehead State University pays for four full-time positions for the station. But last year, the university eliminated everything else it was providing: postage, gasoline, paper, travel, professional development, part-time staff, phone bill, and electric for the transmitter.
The station, in its financial straits, is ending sponsorship for events such as the Cave Run Storytelling Festival. It can no longer even afford the $480 for its designated parking space.
That leaves the Morehead station in a bind even before the threats made by conservative legislators to slash or eliminate the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which provides the funding that keeps the station afloat.
In February Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado, introduced two bills to eliminate the federal tax dollars that finance National Public Radio and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, calling them “superfluous government programs” that could support themselves without government help.
Should the bills succeed, it would be a reversal of 50 years of federal government support for public broadcasting. In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson viewed public broadcasting as an essential link for elevating civic discourse in the nation. Even though public broadcasting has been a occasional political volleyball in the decades since, the anti-media agenda of President Trump has public radio devotees fretting.
CPR said in a statement responding to Lamborn’s proposed legislation that the government money specifically helped stations in smaller media markets It called the funding “vital seed money — especially for stations located in rural America, and those serving underserved populations where the appropriation counts for 40 to 50 percent of their budget.”
NPR’s statement said that federal funding is essential “for the fact-based, unbiased, public service journalism (that listeners) need to stay informed about the world and about the news in their own communities.”
Duvall at WEKU is hoping that the critics of public radio and television will spur its defenders to donate. Listeners often gripe over fund drives, but station managers argue that they’re unlikely to cease.
The radio station managers are, however, trying to evolve the fund drive beyond simply reminding the listener that their products aren’t produced for free.
“For years, public radio was doing pledge drives,” said Tom Godell, manager of WUKY. “We realized, people don’t necessarily give that way, but they do understand a subscription.”
WUKY is moving to a new station after a $1.5 million renovation is completed of a donated former recording studio near Leestown Road. That money was authorized by the board of trustees and state legislature.
At WEKU, the challenge is twofold: news and entertainment stations at 88.9 FM and a classical music station at 102.1 FM. It doesn’t get federal funding for the classical station, which means that station has to overcome an additional obstacle.
Still, Duvall said, public radio had its own unique benefits and challenges.
“We don’t have to produce products for stakeholders. We’re not commercial, and if we’re going to grow, we have to cover those costs as well.”
Kakie Urch, associate professor in the school of journalism and media at UK, suggested a novel approach for raising money for public radio and television: Make it a tax return check-off item.
“Why don’t we just put a check box on our federal taxes?” Urch said. “I would give my whole return to that, and I’m sure plenty of other people would.”
Public radio, she said, exposes its listeners to “beyond-local things and intensely local things at the same time. You really get to feel the richness of the country on a public radio station.”
“If there’s ever been a time when journalism matters, it’s now,” Western’s Brinkley said. “We (public broadcasting) are such a small portion of the overall federal budget, and yet we are one of the most recognized brands in all of America.
“It’s something people want and use, and I think overall they realize it’s a great benefit for the tax they put into it. … All they have to have is access to a radio and they can have a better life.”
At a glance
Kentucky’s university-affiliated public radio stations
WKYU — Bowling Green, Western Kentucky University
WNKU — Highland Heights, Northern Kentucky University
WUKY — Lexington, University of Kentucky
WEKU — Richmond, Eastern Kentucky University
WKMS — Murray, Murray State University
In Louisville, WFPL News Louisville is an independent, community supported not-for-profit corporation with three public radio stations (news, classical music and independent/alternative music) and an investigative unit, the Kentucky Center for Investigate Reporting. Its station WUOL, “Classical Louisville,” is a service of the University of Louisville and the Public Radio Partnership.