Thanks in part to decades of bipartisan Congressional support, public broadcasting has largely achieved the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967’s “universal service” mandate — to provide all Americans with free, over-the-air access to public broadcasting’s programming and services. Today, over 95 percent of the U.S. population is able to access public broadcasting’s over-the-air signals. This reach could not have been achieved without a significant federal investment in rural communities throughout the country, as well as the efforts of the thousands of Americans employed by local public television and radio stations in those communities.
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), a private nonprofit which acts as the steward of the federal investment in public broadcasting, and the public broadcasting system as a whole have long recognized the special challenges that rural public broadcasting stations face in providing service to their communities, and in helping achieve the goal of universal service. Many of these small stations operate in communities with limited financial resources and high poverty and outmigration rates.
Below is a snapshot of the public broadcasting system in rural America, as well as an overview of how CPB policy has evolved over the years to support rural stations.
- 232 of the 577 station grantees currently receiving CPB support are considered rural. Of these, 62 are public television stations and 170 are public radio stations.
- In Fiscal Year (FY) 2011, CPB provided more than $103 million to support operations and programming at these stations, which represents over 24 percent of our total appropriation. Stations leveraged this funding to raise $413 million in non-federal funds, including $115 million in state funding, $57 million from colleges and universities, $18 million from foundations, $46 million from local businesses and $135 million from individual donors. All told, this represents a return of nearly $4 for every appropriated dollar.
- These stations employ almost 5,000 people.
- Rural stations are more reliant on CPB funding than urban stations. In FY2011, CPB grants represented 20 percent of an average rural station’s revenue, versus 14 percent for the industry as a whole. Nearly half of all rural grantees — 111 stations — relied on CPB for at least 25 percent of their revenue while 23 rural stations — many on Native American reservations — relied on CPB funding for at least 50 percent of their revenue.
- Rural stations are more reliant on state government funding than urban stations. In FY2011, state funding represented 22 percent of an average rural station’s revenue, versus 12 percent for the industry as a whole.
- Rural stations have a harder time raising money from individual donors than urban stations. In FY2011, individual donations represented 26 percent of an average rural station’s total revenue, versus 34 percent for the industry as a whole.
- Due to the low population density of its viewer and listener bases, and the fact that they often operate multiple transmitters, broadcasting and engineering costs are higher at rural stations than at urban ones. In FY2011, broadcasting and engineering costs represented 27 percent of the average rural station’s total expenses, versus 18 percent for the industry as a whole.
CPB Policies Support Rural Stations
As noted above, CPB and the public broadcasting system have long recognized the special challenges that small public television and radio stations face in providing service to their communities, and in helping achieve the goal of universal service.
Direct station grants, or “Community Service Grants” (CSGs), are by far the largest station grants provided by CPB, representing nearly 70 percent of the annual appropriation. CSGs are used to augment the capability of public broadcasting stations supported by CPB to expand the quality and scope of their services to their communities. By statute, CSGs must be used “for purposes related primarily to the production or acquisition of programming.” (47 U.S.C. 396(k)(7))
For many years CPB’s television CSG program has developed a variety of provisions that provide special assistance to small and rural stations. These include the Local Service Grant, created in recognition of the special needs and challenges of small grantees and the role they play in providing universal access to free local public television. Through Local Service Grants, CPB provides additional funding to stations generating less than $2 million in nonfederal financial support. Additionally, Distance Service Grants go to grantees operating three or more broadcast transmitters, in recognition of the efficiency of multiple transmitter operations and the additional costs of serving multiple, far-flung communities.
Since the current economic downturn began, the formidable challenges facing small television stations serving rural communities have grown exponentially. The recession has hit them hard, and the costs of providing the expanded digital services made possible by the June 2009 digital television transition have proved significant. In some cases, station survival may be at risk. Because of this, CPB has been working with rural stations in places like Illinois and upstate New York to explore ways that stations can work together to increase efficiency and drive down costs. Along these lines, in October 2011 CPB announced a $6.6 million grant to consolidate the broadcast operations of nine New York public television stations into a single facility. The single, cutting-edge facility, housed at WCNY in Syracuse, NY, is expected to save participating stations more than $25 million in operating costs over the next decade, savings that will be invested in increasing local content and services.
With regard to public radio stations, since 1998 CPB has provided incentives to encourage stations to extend public radio service to rural areas and to minority listeners, which has resulted in greatly expanded service to those audiences. When calculating a station’s annual CSG, Rural Multipliers are provided to stations serving less than or equal to 40 persons per square kilometer. CPB also has a Rural Support Grant through which rural grantees are eligible for additional financial support. Similarly, public radio stations serving primarily minority audiences receive a minority multiplier in their CSG calculation. Many of these stations serve rural areas, including a number of Alaska native stations and those on the Navajo and Hopi reservations in the Southwest.
1 Under current policy for radio Community Service Grants (CSGs), CPB’s main station grant program, a grantee is considered to be rural if the population density of its coverage area is less than or equal to 40 persons per square kilometer (104 persons per square mile). For the purposes of this document, this definition of rurality was applied to public television as well as radio stations.