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, more than 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 corporation 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 out migration 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.
- 248 of the total 552 radio and TV grantees are considered rural. Of these, 85 are public television station grantees and 163 are public radio station grantees.
- During FY 2020, CPB provided more than $162 million to support operations and programming at these stations, which represents 37 percent of our total appropriation. Rural stations leveraged this funding to raise $505 million in non-federal funds, including $152 million in state funding, $52 million from colleges and universities, $36 million from foundations, $37 million from local businesses and $224 million from individual donors. All told, this represents a return of over $3.1 for every appropriated dollar.
- These rural stations employ over 5,740 people.
According to stations’ most recent financial reports to CPB:
Rural stations depend more on CPB funding than urban stations. CPB grants represented 20 percent of an average rural station’s revenue, versus 10 percent for the rest of the industry. More than half of all rural grantees – 137 stations – relied on CPB for at least 25 percent of their revenue while 40 rural stations – many on Native American reservations – relied on CPB funding for at least 50 percent of their revenue.
Rural stations depend more on state government funding than urban stations. State funding represented 20 percent of an average rural station’s revenue, versus 6 percent for the rest of the industry. 34 rural stations relied on state government funding for at least 25 percent of their revenue while 10 rural stations relied on state funding for at least 50 percent of their revenue.
Rural stations have a harder time raising money from individual donors than urban stations. Individual donations represented 27 percent of an average rural station’s total revenue, versus 41 percent for the rest of the industry.
Due to the low population density of its audience, and the fact that they often operate multiple transmitters to reach remote areas, broadcasting and engineering costs are higher at rural stations than at urban ones, and represent 20 percent of the average station’s total expenses, versus 15 percent for the rest of the industry.
CPB Policies Support Rural Stations
As stated 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.”
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 Universal Service Support Grant, created in recognition of the challenges of stations serving small and rural populations. Additionally, Distance Service Grants go to grantees operating multiple digital repeater transmitters or translators, in recognition of the efficiency of multiple transmitter operations and the additional costs of serving multiple communities.
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, a multiplier is applied to a station that serves an area with 40 or fewer persons per square kilometer. CPB also has a Rural Support Grant through which rural grantees are eligible for additional financial support. Similarly, a public radio station that serves a primarily minority audience receives a multiplier in its CSG calculation. Many of the stations that serve minority audiences are, at the same time, serving rural areas, including a number of Alaska Native stations and those on the Navajo and Hopi reservations in the Southwest.