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Defunding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting won’t kill PBS. It will hurt Trump voters.

Most of the organization’s money goes toward keeping rural PBS and NPR stations alive.

TV tower m.iskandarov/Shutterstock
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Of all the cuts proposed in President Trump’s new budget, the proposal to eliminate federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is perhaps most poorly understood.

Because the CPB is an umbrella agency involved with PBS and NPR, any time the government considers cuts to the agency, it’s usually interpreted as the government defunding Sesame Street (which airs in first run on HBO now, before being rerun on PBS) or some other PBS Kids production. But the majority of PBS programming is produced by outside entities — member stations, another country’s broadcasters, or independent production companies (like Sesame Workshop) — and those outside entities usually secure their funding via means other than the government.

It’s true that just over 23 percent of the CPB’s budget (nearly entirely derived from the federal government) goes toward the development and acquisition of television and radio programming. And, yes, losing that stipend will hurt PBS and NPR on some level — though the difference will probably be covered by private funding, whether thanks to corporations, grant foundations, or the famous “viewers like you.”

But most of the federal government’s dollars to CPB (just over 65 percent) go toward one thing: keeping rural PBS and NPR stations alive. These stations only continue to operate due to funding from the federal government. If Trump’s proposed budget becomes law, PBS and NPR themselves will continue to exist, on TV, on the radio, and on digital platforms. So will local affiliates in major urban areas. But many of those rural stations will be shuttered.

The rural areas served by those stations backed Trump heavily. He received 62 percent of the vote in rural counties. Thus, his budget’s proposed defunding of CPB is yet another way that a policy proposed by Trump seems as if it will have the most adverse effect on those who voted for him.

It’s expensive to broadcast in rural areas

Though the majority of the country has access to cable television, broadband internet, and other forms of mass communication, there are still areas where significant percentages of the population get their TV “over the air” — which is to say they pull in signals with an antenna. (Almost all of us still do this with radio.)

When I spoke with PBS’s CEO Paula Kerger in 2016 (before the election), she explained to me how expensive it can be to operate TV stations in those areas:

There are people that just assume that cable television or satellite are how most people get content. That’s just not taking into account that there are parts of the country, particularly in rural areas, where over-the-air broadcast is significant in terms of how we get our content to people. But it's also how we connect into a lot of cable systems — through over-the-air broadcasts. [Cable companies] will pull down an [over-the-air] transmission, then send that out.

There are some in our system that would love nothing more than to not have to bear the cost of over-the-air transmission, the cost of the equipment and everything. I think it is such a significant part of our audience that it is the cost of doing business. Being able to maintain that is important.

The costs associated with over-the-air broadcasting are usually associated with the equipment needed to transmit said broadcasting — think of the giant TV and radio towers that still stand in many of the country’s most isolated areas. These costs are significant, and infrastructure upkeep is a major part of local broadcasting budgets.

A CBS or ABC affiliate can make money by selling local advertising to cover those costs. But PBS affiliates don’t sell ads, which means they need to make up that money somewhere. In urban areas — where there’s a longer-lasting tradition of various forms of patronage for arts and culture (to say nothing of far more people to donate cash) — that’s less of a problem. But in rural areas, the CPB is the difference between life and death for many stations.

And local PBS and NPR affiliates in rural areas are occasionally among the only local stations left. Much of the country’s radio infrastructure has been bought up by one corporation (iHeartRadio), while other local TV stations are generally affiliated with one of the major, national networks.

To be sure, PBS and NPR stations still broadcast other PBS and NPR programming, but they’re also far more likely to air, say, a talk show about local affairs, a local gardening program, or some other sort of programming deliberately aimed at one community in particular. It’s a part of the mandate of individual stations, and both broadcasters as a whole. This is exceedingly rare in a country where more and more media organizations are part of large, corporate monoliths operated out of New York, Los Angeles, or Washington, DC.

Kerger more thoroughly explains how PBS in particular is subtly different from, say, the broadcast networks in my full interview with her. Briefly, most networks are dictated in a top-down fashion — ABC makes almost all the decisions about what your local ABC affiliate will air in most major time slots — but PBS is more bottom-up. Its affiliates have much more leeway in making programming decisions, and PBS itself is less a direct broadcaster than a collective of its member stations. (That’s why anytime you read something about PBS programming that’s written by a national news outlet, you’re usually advised to “check your local listings” for airtimes.)

And PBS is still the home of some great programming, from its various British drama imports to long-running, venerable documentary franchises like American Experience, American Masters, Nature, and Nova. It’s also the home of the work of Ken Burns, perhaps the best-known documentary filmmaker in America, and Independent Lens, still one of the best distribution platforms for independent films in existence nationwide. That doesn’t even touch on NPR, which backs a wide variety of news programming at both national and local levels.

Rural areas turned out in droves to vote for Trump in November 2016. And while the fact that the American Health Care Act will place an undue burden on Trump voters is of more immediate importance than whether Trump’s proposed budget, if passed, will cut off those voters’ access to PBS, the budget is another example of how Trump’s policies often place his supporters at a disadvantage.