WGCU prepares for $500,000 budget cuts; audience shouldn’t notice

Rick Johnson, general manager of WGCU public media, says he was shocked at Gov. Rick Scott's veto of more than $4 million for public broadcasting, which he says carries a large amount of educational programming.  Anthony Narehood

Rick Johnson, general manager of WGCU public media, says he was shocked at Gov. Rick Scott's veto of more than $4 million for public broadcasting, which he says carries a large amount of educational programming. Anthony Narehood

When the local public broadcasting station scales back in coming weeks to accommodate state budget cuts of more than $500,000, the listeners and viewers shouldn’t notice much difference.

“Obviously we’re trying to avoid that,” WGCU General Manager Rick Johnson said. “What we’ve tried to do is create a budget that avoids having any loss of service to our viewers and our listeners.”

A governor’s veto struck $370,000 from WGCU on top of a $152,000 general revenue cut from the Legislature, meaning that the NPR and PBS affiliate’s revenue side is expected to be $522,000 lighter in 2011-12 than the year before. That equates to about 10 percent of WGCU’s $5.1 million operating budget, which is overseen by Florida Gulf Coast University.

However, Johnson said that the station is avoiding layoffs and making only slight changes to programming, in some cases scaling back the frequency of certain locally-produced recurring segments and in others reducing travel and training costs. What it won’t mean is the loss of nationally syndicated programs like “Sesame Street” on television and “The Diane Rheme Show” on the radio.

The station is also leaving a radio reporter position vacant, which Johnson said will stretch the existing staff considerably thinner.

“I think on the radio side, when you have a staff of five that’s been basically reduced to a staff of four, inevitably we won’t be able to do as many local stories as we did in the past,” Johnson said.

For listeners like Barbara Winsloe, that’s a tough pill to swallow.

“This is the thing, of course, which is primary in their thinking — they don’t want to start cutting their programs because it means they’re going to lose listeners,” Winsloe, 81, said. “There’s nothing I’ve ever heard come out of that building that isn’t educational and just dandy.”

At an FGCU Board of Trustees meeting last week, Provost Ronald Toll called layoffs and programming reductions “the worst of our poison pills.” However, Johnson said the station should be able to avoid the worst of the worst.

In all, WGCU has identified about $150,000 in expense reductions, Johnson said. That includes the position that will be left vacant, as well as a 90 percent reduction in travel and training budgets, a reduction in freelance dollars and fewer supply purchases.

In terms of specific programming reductions, WGCU’s “Your Voice” radio documentary initiative will go from four times to three times annually; the recently introduced “FGCU Sports Report” has been cut from a weekly to a monthly feature; and the television station will produce two documentaries this year, as opposed to its usual three or four.

WGCU will seek to make up the loss of the remaining $372,000 through donor support and through earned revenue, particularly the money that WGCU makes by essentially renting its studios to outside groups producing video and audio packages.

“We have set some ambitious goals,” Johnson said. “But, I think (they’re) achievable ones for membership and underwriting support.”

Winsloe, who has volunteered at WGCU for six years, said she thinks the community is up for meeting that challenge through corporate support and private individual donations, known as memberships.

“I am just thrilled to death to see the number of people that support that station,” she said. “I have stuffed a myriad of envelopes this week thanking people for their contribution.”

FGCU’s Board of Trustees has also addressed the funding loss, and briefly discussed examining whether the FGCU Foundation can help fill the gap. Trustee Edward Morton, of Naples, said he would like to see that added as a topic for the board to take up at a future workshop planned to address funding at FGCU as state allocations have slowly dried up.

Overall, WGCU’s state funding is down 40 percent from its peak in 2006, Johnson said.

Public radio has had a tough year all around, enduring criticism for the firing of news commentator Juan Williams, and suffering embarrassment over a video that appeared to show NPR executives ridiculing conservative Tea Party activists and questioning the need for federal funds at the national radio outlet.

Conservative commentators have in turn called for legislators to remove the “public” from public broadcasting by pulling the plug on tax dollars to NPR.

While that didn’t happen at the national level, WGCU fell victim to such a fate on the local level. However, Johnson said he does not associate the loss of funds with an ideological stance by legislators.

“I think it’s a reflection of the economy, really,” Johnson said. “We understand that reductions have to be made.”

As for whether the flow of funding might eventually come back to WGCU, Johnson could not say with any certainty, but pointed to the long-standing precedent set by the Legislature.

“I think we’re in the process of thinking that through, in terms of where we might be able to regain support from the state,” Johnson said. “There’s possibility that the support that the Legislature has seen fit to provide to public broadcasting for the last 40 years might be reinstated.”

Connect with higher education reporter Leslie Williams Hale at naplesnews.com/staff/leslie_hale

© 2011 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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