Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


New funding process frustrates small public radio stations

Critics allege the move was a GOP attempt to cut MPR funding — and now it appears the strategy backfired.

Student Alex Simpson works the mixing board at Radio K at the University of Minnesota.
Photo by Greta Kaul
Student Alex Simpson works the mixing board at Radio K at the University of Minnesota.

Changes in the way grants are awarded to public radio have left Minnesota’s network of small, educational stations frustrated as they cut back on high-quality programming.

Further, critics allege the move was based entirely on politics — and now it appears the strategy backfired.

“The only reason it was done that way was just because a bunch of Republicans didn’t want to give money to MPR,” charges Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley.

But if this is the case, the GOP-backed change in the funding process, mandated by the Legislature in July, produced an unexpected result: Minnesota Public Radio has received even more public money.

The change requires the association of small radio stations across the state, known as AMPERS, to compete with one another and with MPR for funding coming from the so-called Legacy amendment that provides money for arts and culture. Previously, the money was divided equally between AMPERS and MPR.

AMPERS stations, which use the funding to supplement arts and cultural programming, received less money than in years past — and less than MPR received under the new funding system.

AMPERS stations got $73,047 less than the previous fiscal year, leaving programs and concerts that station managers thought worthy of Legacy money unfunded. MPR received $168,000 more than the $1.15 million it received last year.

AMPERS members point to a number of problems under the new system, including confusion in the requirements for grant proposals, a committee weighted heavily toward members from the metro area, a process that allowed only 33 days to prepare and submit grant applications and a delay in receiving the money once it was approved. In addition, members said they were surprised to learn there was disagreement over whether money could be used to supplement their educational mission. That left some educational programs unfunded.

This year, AMPERS will lobby the Legislature to change the process back.

“It’s an unnecessary additional layer of government because it’s just a competition among two entities that were already competing in the first place, [when] the Legislature was making that decision,” said Joel Glaser, the executive director of AMPERS. “[The added bureaucracy] just costs taxpayers more and delays the process.”

Late-night funding changes
In May Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, chairman of the Legacy Funding Division Committee, outlined funding legislation that envisioned public radio, public television and libraries switching to competitive grants, bringing them more in-line with the majority of Legacy recipients.

Rep. Dean Urdahl
Rep. Dean Urdahl

On July 19, the Legislature worked all night to pass a budget, ending the special session and the government shutdown. In the morning, Gov. Mark Dayton signed the budget bill and AMPERS stations learned that they — but not public television or libraries — would compete for Legacy funds.

“In order to pass a bill, I did what I felt needed to be done,” Urdahl said in an interview.

After that late-night lawmaking spree, the Minnesota Department of Administration had just 10 days to produce grant application guidelines for stations.

Despite early talks of competitive grants, AMPERS assumed it would split funding evenly between the 11 qualifying stations in its association, which together serve more than 200,000 listeners weekly. In the past, stations made funding recommendations to the Department of Administration, which usually approved them.

When the grant guidelines were released on July 29, stations had 33 days to compile proposals to make their cases for Legacy funding in competition with one another.

“Four weeks is not enough time to really, truly develop strong arts and cultural heritage programs,” Glaser said.

Station managers had positive feedback from legislators like Urdahl on the educational quality of their programming in the past, so several emphasized the educational components in their applications.    

“We did what we thought we were encouraged to do by the Legislature and not from the committee [that reviews proposals],” said Jo McMullen-Boyer, the station manager at KVSC-St. Cloud.

“As a result of the lack of clarity, the taxpayers didn’t end up with the best programs possible because there was too much room for misunderstanding and misinformation to be passed along — there were so many decision-makers in the process,” Glaser said. “The only thing that was crystal clear was ‘competitive grant.’ Beyond that, it was pretty vague.”

On a grant review for three programs at Radio K , a station that serves the University of Minnesota, Sue Gens, a member of the committee that reviewed the proposals, wrote: “UM educational mission should be funded with UM dollars. Arts, arts education, arts access and to preserve Minnesota’s history and cultural heritage — not journalism training!” Gens is the director of the Minnesota State Arts Board.

Committee meetings were held in two conference calls, and much of the evaluation was done online, said David O’Fallon, committee member and president of the Minnesota Humanities Center. O’Fallon said he wasn’t aware of any discussions about not funding educational programming, but acknowledged he did not take part in one of the conference calls.

“I never had any discussions about throwing education out,” O’Fallon said.

Unfunded programs
At St. Cloud State University’s KVSC, officials proposed a grant to develop a program to help high school students and community members learn about radio production. The program also would give a voice to a growing Somali community.

But the grant committee funded only facilities costs — not programming, according to McMullen-Boyer, who said the station will leverage funds from other sources to fund production.

“We were authorized to buy the equipment, but not to execute the program,” she said, noting that the program’s emphasis on education may have been caught up in the education debate, which became known among stations as the “supplement-supplant” debate.

“It certainly appears that there was a significant amount of confusion at the committee level about the difference between supplanting and supplementing,” Glaser said.

But MPR officials said the expectations were clear.

“The expectations of the process were clear, and department staff were available to answer questions when they arose,” Bill Gray, MPR’s director of communications, wrote in an email.

Glaser said he doesn’t have a problem with competing against MPR, but added: “The reason we want to get out of it is it forced all of the AMPERS stations to compete against themselves also, and that’s where we would much rather be able to facilitate that than be competing against each other.”

In previous years it didn’t take long for AMPERS to divvy up Legacy funding between its 11 qualifying stations at the start of its fiscal year in July. But under the new system, grant totals were announced to stations Sept. 30 — nearly a quarter into their fiscal years. The first payment to an AMPERS station came Nov. 4, according to Glaser.

In addition, the government shutdown and a bookkeeping software change caused a delay in stations’ operating funds, said Jane Xiong, grants specialist at the Department of Administration.

AMPERS lobbyist Tom Hanson said he’ll push for legislation in the next session to change the grant process back to the previous system.

This article was produced in partnership with students at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and funded in part with a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. The article was reported and written by university journalism students.