Public radio cuts threaten more than NPR
BELZONI, Miss. — In a Mississippi Delta hamlet that calls itself the “Catfish Capital of the World,” public radio is one of Gus Mohamed’s constant companions on his long commutes past cotton and soybean fields.
One of his favorite shows, “Gestalt Gardener,” bears some hallmarks of public broadcasting stereotypes: quirky voices, cheesy music and zealous listeners calling with questions. And it could go off the air because of President Donald Trump’s proposal to eliminate federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, or CPB.
“I really don’t know what I would listen to,” said Mohamed, a 57-year-old Trump voter who isn’t convinced the president will get enough support to go through with cuts that would hit Mississippi Public Broadcasting.
Mohamed, a nurse, spends some 20 hours a week with the voices on public radio. His attachment is apparent in the parody song he wrote about the do-what-makes-you-happy horticulturalist who hosts the gardening show, set to the tune of “The Ballad of Davy Crockett”: “Felder, Felder Rushing, prince of the plant frontier ...”
Some conservatives have salivated over the idea of cutting funding for public broadcasting, criticizing it as a bastion of elites waxing poetic about liberal politics. But the cuts wouldn’t be isolated to Washington or National Public Radio.
Officials at Mississippi Public Broadcasting say they do not know what would be cut if federal support for CPB disappears, so it’s unclear if the call-in shows with physicians, money managers and lawyers could see reduced airtime or be chopped entirely.
Mississippi Public Broadcasting already has been losing state support because of dwindling state tax collections. It gets about $1.9 million from CPB, and another $1 million from private donations, said executive director Ronnie Agnew. It was slated to receive about $6.9 million from the state this year but saw that slashed by $345,000 and stands to lose another $461,000 in state money for the next fiscal year.
Some Republicans say public broadcasting doesn’t serve an essential government function and shouldn’t get tax dollars, anyway, so it’s unlikely lawmakers in one of the nation’s poorest states would make up the loss.
Money from CPB typically represents 10 percent to 15 percent of a station’s budget. Stations serving rural and minority communities would likely be hit hardest because they don’t have a broad enough donor base to make up the difference, CPB’s president and chief executive officer, Patricia de Stacy Harrison, recently told Congress.
Congress last year put $445 million into CPB — a relatively tiny slice of the $4 trillion federal budget.
CPB says it gives financial support to 575 television or radio stations, and 248 of those serve rural areas.
Shelly Battista says it would be a personal loss if “Gestalt Gardener” disappears. The show helped her meet people and get involved with a master gardeners’ program when she moved a few years ago to Crystal Springs, a town of about 5,000 some 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of the capital of Jackson.
“My favorite thing to do is to turn on the show and listen to it while I’m in the garden,” Battista said. “I love Felder’s gardening philosophy. He’s open-minded and kind of funky.”
Education is a big part of public broadcasting’s mission, especially crucial in a state that consistently lags in national education rankings. There’s Ed, the puppet with spiky purple hair who teaches kids about nutrition on “Ed Said.” And not all of the money goes to radio and TV programs.
The network also gives literacy grants to preschools, including Agape Educational Center in Canton, a town of about 13,250 roughly 20 miles (about 32 kilometers) north of Jackson. One recent morning, 15 bouncy 4- and 5-year-olds were learning words that start with “R” and concepts like opposites — over/under, tall/short, do/don’t — by using “Between the Lions,” a TV show produced by Mississippi Public Broadcasting.
“I would hate to see this go away,” Margaret Chapman, the center’s executive director, said as a teacher asked the children to clap for each syllable in a series of words.
Back in Belzoni (bell-ZOH-nah) — a town of 2,100 residents that is about 75 miles (120 kilometers) northwest of Jackson — Terry Waller grew up watching “Sesame Street” and now his own youngsters, ages 4, 5 and 8, have their own favorite public TV shows. He spends his days serving soul food at The Lunch Basket, his restaurant with a buffet that features the local specialty — catfish, grown on nearby farms and processed at a local plant. Around downtown are 5-foot fiberglass catfish painted as Uncle Sam, a farmer, a nurse.
When he gets home, 45-year-old Waller likes to kick back on his couch and watch “NewsHour.”
“I love PBS,” said Waller, who voted for Hillary Clinton and disagrees with the proposed public broadcasting cuts. “I watch it just about every day.”