This morning you traveled the world. You learned about its problems and sympathized with its people. This afternoon you’ll plant a seed, launch a rocket, and listen to presidential candidates voice frustrations. Tomorrow you’ll swoon to the sultry sounds of Garrison Keillor, as he makes you laugh with stories from the north. And you’ve done it all from the comfort of your living room.
Whether listening to The World, All Things Considered, Prairie Home Companion, or Flash Backs and Fresh Tracks, listeners near and far are touched daily by public radio. But in a small town like Skagway, it’s one of the few lifelines connecting us to the outside.
That lifeline is being threatened by legislative budget cuts. With the deficit approaching $4 billion dollars, the state is looking to cut anywhere they can. Public radio is no exception.
The program is facing proposed cuts of 27 percent from the state-broadcasting budget, a figure that would impact every station across the board.
Public radio is a partnership. One station produces content and another buys it. Every show, whether streamed from National Public Radio or Alaska Public Radio Network, if not created in the KHNS station, is paid for.
Last year at 23 percent, KHNS lost $30,000 of their funding from budgetary cuts. If the proposed cuts are approved for FY2017, it will mean an additional loss of $20,000 to $30,000.
KHNS General Manager Kay Clements said the station has a budget of $400,000 per year, which is financed by listeners, random grants, support from local municipalities and a federal grant of $120,000, which they could lose at any time.
Prior to cuts, the station received $135,000 in state funding, more than a quarter of their budget. Last year it went down to $104,000, and if more cuts are implemented, KHNS could see as little as $74,000 from the state.
“At a certain point, if they take away too much state funding, then the question is, can we raise this money any other way,” Clements said. “Given our demographics and ruralness, the answer is most likely no.”
Funding for public radio has gone up and down along with the heydays of Alaska, but Clements said it’s never been this bad.
Should the funding be cut, the station’s ability to provide local programming will be at stake. At some point they will lose staffing, the ability to respond to emergencies quickly and the supply of efficient news coverage that listeners have come to expect.
Clements described the cuts as a domino effect, what affects one station will affect them all. She said they are disproportionate to other state programs.
Local DJ Dustin Stone, better known by listeners as Trainwreck, has been with the station for three years. He hosts Rock School on Saturday nights, and has served on the station’s board of directors for the past year.
Stone said radio plays a much larger role in Alaska than in the Lower 48.
“I love when I get on the radio and hear that someone needs a ride to the airport,” he said. “In a place where our communities can be disconnected and we have people living in the outskirts in rural areas, it’s way to bring people together.”
Stone lived on Prince of Whales Island prior to coming to Skagway, working at a fishing lodge. He said, while beautiful, the island was very remote. Without Internet, television or a cell phone, radio was his one tie to civilization.
“[Public radio] is something that’s very much ours, and I think it’s something that’s worth protecting,” Stone said.
To support KHNS and all public radio, Clements and Stone recommend listeners make a call to their local legislators and voice their support for the program.
Board of directors member Tekla Helgason spoke to Skagway’s Borough Assembly on Feb. 4 and asked that they adopt a resolution requesting the Governor to lessen the cuts to public radio.
“This is like having roads, having post. This is something very important for our community. Once we lose that, we’re not going to be making a lot of ground,” she said.
The request was not on the meeting agenda and so was not addressed, but in a phone interview Mayor Mark Schaefer said he assumes the resolution will come to the table in the near future.
Like everyone, the program will struggle as the legislature continues to cut, he said. But he agreed that Skagway depends on the link to the outside.
“We will scrimp until there is nothing left to scrimp. We are already working on pretty slim bones,” Clements said.
Alaska Marine Highway System also threatened by FY2017 cuts
The Alaska Marine Highway is also being threatened by cuts.
Under Governor Bill Walker’s proposed FY2017 budget, AMHS will see a $4.5 million reduction, along with the $11.1 million reduction from last year.
Though last year’s budget cuts were significant, fuel triggers and other one-time funding was allocated to ensure the summer service continue as advertised. But those funds will not be available in 2017.
Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities spokesperson Jeremy Woodrow said AMHS is currently looking at 320 weeks of service, the lowest the department has seen in 10 years. When service is cut, the system not only feels the sting from the lack of government funding, but from a loss of revenue, too.
In an attempt to absorb some of the cuts, the department increased all tariffs by five percent starting Jan. 1.
“We are doing our best to work with the legislature and administration to move those numbers around to be able to minimize the impacts to Alaskans and the services we provide,” Woodrow said.
In a press release, ADOT&PF shared a report from the McDowell Group, which found that AMHS generates a return of more than $2 for every $1 invested.
The reports found two-thirds of AMHS users to be Alaskan residents, and the state’s general fund investment of $117 million in 2014 resulted in a total return on the investment of $273 million. Non-resident AMHS travelers spend an average of $1,300 per person while in the state.
In 2014, AMHS carried 319,000 passengers, 108,000 vehicles and almost 4,000 container vans.
“The ferry system provides a critical link for many communities,” Governor Bill Walker said in the release. “But I was surprised to learn just how widespread the economic impacts are, accounting for 1,700 Alaska jobs and more than $100 million in wages and benefits.”
In an interview, Representative Sam Kito III said he is working with the department and finance committee to find some type of stable plan. While there are still decisions to be made, he said the legislature should be able to support the governor’s proposed marine highway budget.