By PHIL KABLER
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Faced with the possible elimination of nearly half of its $10 million budget, West Virginia Public Broadcasting could eliminate its service in parts of the state and rely on programming from neighboring states, members of the state Educational Broadcasting Authority were told Tuesday.
Still, the chairman of the authority, which oversees WVPB, said he remains optimistic.
“Although it was a surprise to us, we have confidence in this administration. We have confidence we can work this out,” EBA Chairman Bill File said of Gov. Jim Justice’s proposal to eliminate state general revenue funding — nearly $4.6 million — for the authority. That would eliminate nearly half of the authority’s budget, which is slightly more than $10 million.
State Education and the Arts Secretary Gayle Manchin attended Tuesday’s emergency EBA meeting, saying she was there “in support and defense” of WVPB, an agency under her department.
“I don’t believe Governor Justice has any ill will toward Educational Broadcasting,” Manchin told the authority. “I do believe he sees this as an opportunity for people to really set policy choices: What is important in our lives in West Virginia?”
WVPB Executive Director Scott Finn said that, at the very least, there needs to be an orderly, “fair-share” cut in funding, as opposed to the abrupt elimination of state funding when the new budget year begins on July 1.
“What we’re asking for, really, at the end of the day, is time,” Finn said.
About $4.2 million of the $4.6 million state appropriation covers salaries and benefits for WVPB’s 71 employees, who are entitled to various payments if their jobs are terminated.
Finn noted that, in some states, public broadcasting is operated by universities or by nonprofit organizations — which is how most of the stations that became part of WVPB originated.
“Over time, this proved to be too expensive to maintain,” he said, explaining that WVPB was created to take advantage of economies of scale of having one central operation provide TV and radio programming statewide.
Finn said he and File would meet with the Justice administration to discuss alternatives to the budget cut.
Finn said the EBA’s philosophy has been that all West Virginians should have access to WVPB programming, even in markets such as the Mingo County town of Matewan, where contributions from viewers and listeners aren’t enough to offset costs.
He said reaching all West Virginians is a complicated and fairly expensive proposition, requiring a network of 27 transmitters and broadcast towers across the state.
Currently, state funding accounts for about 45 percent of WVPB’s budget, with the remainder coming from federal grants, contributions, pledges and membership dues.
“Without a state subsidy, we will not be able to maintain the network,” Finn said. “We will have to make hard choices on what stations stay on or go off.”
Finn said 99 percent of Americans can pick up local public broadcasting stations — something that might not be true for parts of West Virginia, if WVPB partially or completely ceased operations.
He said one scenario is that the state could make arrangements to use the existing network of towers to retransmit public broadcasting from outside the state, perhaps from the Kentucky Educational Network or WQED, in Pittsburgh, but said those stations would have little incentive to provide any programming aimed at West Virginia audiences.
Finn said there would be other issues, including who would operate WVPB’s secure satellite link from the Capitol, which last week allowed commercial stations statewide to broadcast Justice’s State of the State address live without having to set up satellite trucks at the Statehouse and provides about 600 hours of broadcasts from the Legislature and state Supreme Court each year on the West Virginia Channel.
“We need to know, philosophically, where the governor stands, and even where the Legislature stands, if you can figure that out,” said EBA member Dr. Bruce Berry, chairman of the state Higher Education Policy Commission. “We need to show the governor and the Legislature what we provide to them.”
Longtime EBA member Ann Brotherton agreed, noting, “We have a real selling job to do, and I think it’s our responsibility to do it.”
Afterward, Finn directed all news media questions to the Governor’s Office. Shortly after taking office, the Justice administration told all Cabinet secretaries and agency heads to direct all questions and requests for interviews to the Governor’s Office, which often has not responded to such inquiries.
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