The idea of defunding public media in the United States, as President Trump’s new budget proposes, is nothing new according to Shane Iverson, “but it’s serious every time it happens.”
Iverson is the general manager of a small public broadcast station in Bethel, Alaska — one of the only reliable news sources in the Bethel Census Area. And if the Trump budget were to pass, it would cut funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — which would in turn mean that his station might not get the money it needs to stay open.
Iverson’s station, KYUK, is one of the hundreds of public media outlets to receive support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. In 2015, the CPB spent $129 million — or nearly 30 percent of its entire budget — on direct grants to support more than 500 public broadcasters across the United States.
Among those broadcasters were some 162 radio stations that serve rural communities with the mandate “to provide all Americans with free, over-the-air access to public broadcasting's programming and services.”
In the 49 years since its founding, the CPB has been successful in meeting that mandate. Today, 95 percent of all Americans can freely watch or listen to public media, including programming from NPR and PBS.
But if President Trump has it his way, that might change. If his new federal budget proposal were to pass as is, the entire budget of the CPB would be cut.
National broadcasters NPR and PBS could most likely survive the elimination of the CPB. But small-market public broadcasters, most often found in rural American towns, often rely heavily on federal funding. And they might find themselves unable to continue operations. Disappearing with them would be the local news and programming that many rural communities depend on.
It’s that scenario that Iverson hopes does not come to pass.
More than half of KYUK’s budget, which Iverson manages, comes from the federal government. Without it, Iverson says his station would be “a hollow shell of the station that it is today.”
I recently spoke to Iverson for the latest episode of Vox Voices, where he talked to me about the unique stories his local broadcaster commissions and some of the special challenges they face in times of economic uncertainty in his small corner of Alaska.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
There is the criticism from policymakers who want to defund CPB that Americans have lots of choices of media these days, thanks to the internet and cable. Why couldn’t your listeners just switch to those options for news?
Internet does exist out here, but it’s slower than [in] a lot of other places. It could be a luxury item, not something that everyone could afford. But even if everyone could afford to have cable or dish or internet, what they would be lacking without KYUK is any sort of daily local journalism and information.
Just like everywhere else, the United States’ local newspapers have really taken a hit. And out here, where there is really no economy to speak of, they’ve all but folded.
We live in a census area where Yupik is spoken. It’s an Eskimo language called Eskimo Yupik and it’s spoken in over 65 percent of the households in the census area we serve.
So it’s really important for us and other rural stations to make sure we are providing information in a language that people understand and hear. We translate our newscasts in Yupik. Our daily announcements are translated in Yupik, and important worldwide news is all translated into Yupik, so that everyone can understand in a language that they understand best what’s going on in the world.
Can you tell me about some of the other types of stories you run that you couldn’t get from national news services?
There are stories we cover every day on KYUK that you won’t see on any other media outlet. The opioid epidemic, for one — it’s a problem nationwide, but here in the Yukon–Kuskokwim Delta, we realized there was just a basic lack of understanding about what heroin and other opium problems were because of a language barrier.
So we produced a huge series on opioid addiction, resources, and ways that people in the community can fight against this epidemic. And we produced this all in English, and we produced it all in Yupik, so people could actually understand it.
While many organizations are covering global warming, none of them are putting that in terms of what that means for a local subsistence fisherman, or a local hunter, and how that’s going to affect what they can ... provide for their family or how they provide for their family.
One of the things we cover is public safety. When a hole opens up in a river we’re driving on to get from point A to point B, if a hole opens up that can swallow your vehicle whole, you need to know that. KYUK makes sure you know where that hole is and what danger that presents. [Editor’s note: In Iverson’s community, locals often drive their cars and trucks over frozen rivers to travel around the region.]
I mean, it’s simple, it’s not complicated stuff, but without a public broadcaster that’s local that cares, people are going to be left in the blank.
What are some of the funding challenges that a smaller station like yours faces versus larger-market public broadcasters like WNYC?
If I’m WNYC or another station that’s working in a big market, I’m going to be looking at lots of businesses and organizations working right in my metropolitan area that want to be a part of public radio and want to brand with public radio and public television. So I’d be asking them for money.
I’m going to be surrounded by millionaires and maybe some billionaires too. So there’s some people that you can ask for money to help out. Doctors, lawyers, professionals. We have a few of them here, but I can count on my hands the [number] of those types of people we have to ask for funding. So when you’re in a big city, there’s just piles of money all over the place, and if you’re doing a good job and you’re asking the right people, you can access those people.
But here, we’ll ask all of those people. We’ll ask all of our doctors, all of our lawyers, everyone that has money, we’ll ask our local businesses, and they provide, but when you pile it up, it’s just still just not enough to be able to provide the kinds of services our region needs.
If President Trump’s budget goes through and CPB is defunded, would stations like yours shut down? Would they ever be able to reopen?
If funding was cut for CPB completely, there would be stations in Alaska that would be shut down. And I don’t know if all of them would be able to come back. Some of them might be able to have a signal up, but they would maybe only have one person running things.
So would they be able to serve the public? Probably not. Would they be able to be engaged in journalism? Probably not. So the nature of what would constitute [a] public radio station would be severely diminished. And who would suffer would be the people who want information. You know, everyday people who simply want to know what’s going on in the world. They wouldn’t know what’s going on in the world because there wouldn’t be the funding there to provide those services.
A zero funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting would be devastating for rural Alaska. Absolutely devastating.