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Is MPR’s member drive fear-mongering about federal cuts?

Minnesota Public Radio is known for its institutional coolness, but since its member drive started Wednesday, listeners have heard a whiff of panic more like Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds.”
Related: Breathe easier, MPR: Obama doesn’t cut

Minnesota Public Radio is known for its institutional coolness, but since its member drive started Wednesday, listeners have heard a whiff of panic more like Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds.”

The threat: The GOP-controlled U.S. House plan to eliminate the $430 million Corporation for Public Broadcasting subsidy, which in turn subsidizes MPR.

The impact: “We could lose our ability to cover news of the region … the nation … the world,” shrieked — er, said — one pitchwoman on Thursday’s “All Things Considered.”

Skeptical listeners snark that the danger is as authentic as Welles’ 1938 radiocast — one even parodied MPR president Bill Kling’s ubiquitous come-on (audio below). The cynics argue that Republicans may be pissed about Juan Williams’ firing, but public-media-friendly Democrats control the Senate and White House.

AUDIO: Parody of MPR president Bill Kling’s membership pitch

After all, we’ve seen this particular passion play fizzle before. Then-Speaker Newt Gingrich proposed zeroing out CPB subsidies in the mid-‘90s. Didn’t happen. Republicans again swung the axe during the George W. Bush years. They largely missed.

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So is MPR — which famously advertises “no rant, no slant” — ranting and slanting here? It comes down to two questions: How likely are the cuts? And how profoundly would they hurt MPR’s newsgathering?

How likely are CPB cuts?
The truth is, “just” $36 million in CPB cuts are on the table right now [pdf]. That’s for the current fiscal year, 2011, which ends Sept. 30. The GOP’s only other announced plan is to eliminate CPB funding after 2013.

There’s nothing on the table for 2012, says CPB. Given the other moves, though, it’s hard to believe that money is safe. 

Later today, we may have a better idea how real the threat is. President Obama is due to release his 2012 budget, and a House Rules hearing could affect proposed 2011 cuts.

Two independent experts pegged a CPB cut — if not zeroing out — as far likelier this time around.

Stan Collender — whose “Capital Gains and Games” column tracks the federal budget for D.C. paper Roll Call — says Obama hamstrung himself by pledging a five-year discretionary spending freeze. “The President has some investments he wants to make, but as I remember, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is not one of them,” Collender quips.

The freeze means Obama must cut if he wants to “invest” elsewhere. Collender says Senators will defend pet projects, but few, if any, regard the CPB as such.

Prof. Steven Smith, a former Minnesotan and Tip O’Neill aide who follows Congress from Washington University in St. Louis, also terms the CPB threat “serious.”

“Senate Democrats will not go for cuts as deep as the House, but it is possible that CPB will take a significant hit as a part of the ultimate deal,” Smith says. “Democrats may have to defend high-speed rail, the EPA, AmeriCorps, WIC, science labs, and home heating assistance before they defend CPB. I doubt that President Obama and [Office of Management and Budget Director] Jack Lew will give CPB very high priority.”

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Four Senate staffers — who, in time-honored D.C. tradition, asked not to be named — noted that unlike many programs, the CPB has a two-year appropriation through 2012. Republicans would have to jump through an additional hoop, known as “rescission,” to take that money back.

However, Congress hasn’t passed a fiscal year 2011 budget. The U.S. operates via “continuing resolution,” sort of a federal auto-pilot, which expires March 4. That puts everything on the table — and Friday, the GOP specified the $36 million CPB cut.

While it’s true Gingrich and Bush-era Republicans never made good on the elimination threat, both managed to cut CPB … modestly.

CPB’s $285 million 1995 appropriation slid to $250 million by 1999 before bouncing back. The 2007 appropriation of $400 million slipped to $393 million in 2008 but then grew again.

How much pain for MPR?
MPR receives about $4 million annually from the CPB, says communications director Bill Gray.

In some ways, that’s a huge number. Last fall, MPR boss Bill Kling announced a $5 million annual plan to add up to 70 reporters. His successor might need that just to tread water.

MPR has just over 100,000 members; a $4 million cut would require 66,666 new members donating $5 a month, or 16,666 donating $20 a month. Four million bucks would fund three MinnPosts (with a few hundred thousand left over).

In other ways, the figure is not as formidable. MPR and its sibling entity American Public Media reported $68 million in revenue for the year ending June 2009 (the most recent public disclosure). The CPB’s $4 million is 5.8 percent of that — one dollar in 17. It’s 4.8 percent for MPR’s Twin Cities stations.

Losing $4 mil would rock any local news operation, but MPR wouldn’t lose its “ability to cover the region.” In fact, the network just survived a bigger funding drop.

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Revenues plunged $14 million from fiscal year 2008 to 2009, at the height of the financial crisis, according to MPR’s most recent federal form 990. The newsroom took some cuts, but MPR spread the pain, even whacking some executives. I’d wager most listeners don’t think coverage has worsened.

This particular bump was smoothed by a $9 million infusion from MPR’s assets, which stood at $101 million after the transfer. As of mid-2009, MPR sat on a $15 million endowment, $38 million in restricted investments, $50 million in grants, pledges and accounts receivable; and $2 million in cash.

However, the CPB cut’s ripple effects could exceed $4 million. Fewer stations nationwide might buy APM shows such as “Marketplace” and “Being.” NPR programming could become pricier. And the state of Minnesota might cut MPR support, a governmental double whammy.

Again, though, even if CPB cuts are historically large, they’re unlikely to be the full $430 million.

There are those who argue federal spending is a small price to pay for a better-informed public. Others believe public media — especially at MPR’s scale — would be better and more independent if weaned from the government teat. (Many who feel this way are competitors, it must be said.)

It’s important to note that for smaller public stations such as Minnesota’s AMPERS network, CPB monies are a much higher share of the operating budget. CPB also funds public television; locally, TPT has urged members to contact Congress.

Straight sell or propaganda?
Every sales pitch needs a call to action, but MPR risks harming the brand by putting hype into its news staff’s mouths. Newspeople regularly read promotional scripts about “profound” effects, and hosts sit idly by when other employees overreach.

I asked MPR news boss Chris Worthington about pitching standards for his newsroom, and he replied:

Reporters, hosts, newscasters are not dispassionate about the value of MPR to the region. They are some of our most eloquent advocates. They’ll typically talk about the merits of our service and ask people to become members. Most of what they say is scripted and reviewed by news leaders. In the case of the risk to CPB funding — and subsequently MPR — they’re simply pointing to next week’s House vote as yet another reason to become a member.

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In other words, the straight sell. But MPR newsies aren’t telling you about the obstacles to cuts, or how limited the impact might be. Instead, the one-sided drumbeat on the CPB issue amounts to propagandizing on an issue of the day, even if it occurs during breaks instead of newscasts.

As a fellow member of the donor-supported media, I understand the need to fundraise and proclaim your organization’s honest virtues and risks. I’m not naïve that money — be it advertising, member drives or politician-headlining roasts — carries conflicts. Still, MPR managers need to demonstrate a little more shame — and spine — to protect their news staff from spinning an ongoing news story.

So should you donate to MPR? If you listen enough to be pissed off by a pledge drive, yes. Are they kidding about federal cuts? Not as much as cynics think. Would some cuts hit the newsroom? Likely. If the cuts happen, will MPR lose its ability to cover local news? No.