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Public Servant Attacks Public Radio

By David Norlin
Advocacy | April 17, 2011

SALINA, Kan. - Growing up in a small town near Hays, I thought I lived in Western Kansas -- that is, until I came to teach at Garden City Community College. Driving west through Great Bend, my wife complained softly of the distance: another hour to grain-elevator Kalvesta; yet another to big-town Garden City, pop. 13,254 (now 27,000 plus).

Wide-open spaces seemed wider yet as I worked my summer job with the Soil Conservation Service.  Most days, nearly an hour's drive was our minimum to reach Finney County farmers.  Plains stretched from horizon to horizon, interrupted only by the occasional farmstead, tree, tractor, or cattle herd. Isolation was easy to come by and difficult to overcome.

There was no public radio.

That is, until two young, ambitious Garden City grads, Quentin Hope and Malcolm Smith, came back with high hopes and a big idea -- creating an area public radio station.

Fundraisers were held. Community petitions circulated. Local engineering volunteers were enlisted (See slide show: here).

And a few short years after I arrived, High Plains Public Radio (HPPR) was born. (See first program schedule: pdf)

Suddenly, we heard daily not only from our neighbors in Ulysses, Sublette, Dodge City, Syracuse, and Scott City.

We also heard, live from every corner of the state, country, and globe, news on All Things Considered and Morning Edition. (See map of HPPR's current coverage area in Kansas: pdf)

While the area and community rallied to make HPPR happen, it would have been impossible without federal funding and assistance.

This is Representative Tim Huelskamp's home district (KS-01). Without public radio, he and his neighbors would gain information only through useful, but short-sighted commercial radio, whose primary purpose is profit.

By contrast, citizen-owned public radio's primary purpose is the public good.

So, how does one explain Rep. Huelskamp's vote to deal a death blow to this vital enterprise? Why vote to suck such crucial local support into the government's maw and marrow?

It makes no sense. Unless you consider that Huelskamp is indeed a Representative -- but not, first and foremost, for his constituents.

His recent response to letters requesting he vote for, not against, NPR contained only one simple excuse: "We can't afford it." What bunk.

National public broadcasting is remarkably cost effective, providing local news and information, free of charge, for millions of viewers while only receiving about .0001 percent of the federal budget.

Such attacks on public broadcasting would eliminate all federal funds to some 1,300 public radio and public TV stations around the country.

Some rural stations, the only source of local and national news and information, depend on federal funding for up to 30% or even more of their budget. The vast majority of money from the federal government goes to support local stations - not NPR - and those stations match each dollar with six more. These kinds of stations are the ones Huelskamp assigned to the guillotine.

In so doing, he voted to slice away public radio's independent reporting.

Take Daniel Zwerdling, for example. Keeping an eye on the sparrow -- that is, on small individual lives -- Zwerdling clarifies significant public policy issues. His reporting will ease awarding soldiers with traumatic brain injury the Purple Heart. Many of them come from towns like Fowler, Huelskamp's home.

Other Zwerdling reports: the secrets around the doomed 1986 Challenger space shuttle; dangers posed by the plant pesticide Chlordane (eventually banned by another Huelskamp target, the EPA); and the Corps of Engineers' failure to maintain New Orleans dikes and dams.

Missing such news makes us vulnerable and uninformed. As Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Texas said, constituents "want fact-based, not Fox-based news coverage."

But our loss is not just news. Think Garrison Keillor. Krista Tippett. Ira Glass. Think Car Talk, for the hidden humorist and grease monkey in all of us.

Even if one ignores the loss of independent reporting and excellent programming, Huelskamp also voted to eliminate more than 20,000 local jobs - the engineers, writers, radio hosts and reporters who are the backbone of local public radio.

His vote ignores 69 percent of the public, including more than half the Republican faithful, who oppose attempts to gut federal funding for public media. Even Senator Saxby Chambliss, Republican from Georgia, says it's unwise to eliminate their federal funds, because "they provide a valuable service."

As Oscar Wilde might say, Huelskamp seems to know the price of everything -- and the value of nothing.

In a world where wealth and large corporations can buy all the influence they want, mostly through commercial media, we, the people, need our voice as well. NPR, though not perfect, is one place for it.

You should have fewer tea parties, Rep. Huelskamp, and more time to wake up and smell the coffee.


2 Comments

I think what NPR needs is a little better PR. The idea is that NPR represents the granola eating, democrat voting, far left with programming that reflects that is common and not totally without merit. The other view is that even among NPR's supporters have to admit, it's kind of boring. I listen to it on my morning drive and for the weekend puzzletime show on Sunday mornings but otherwise switch to someplace else. Usually the classic rock station.

Sometimes I really wonder what goes on in the minds of NPR management. One of their best shows, Car Talk, is on in the evenings but who listens to the radio at night? If they want listener support they need to bring in more listeners.


First of all, I have to say Brad is right, Car Talk is great. Hueslkamp's vote isn't surprising. Unfortunately, the way Congress works, a new guy like him is being told how to vote on a lot of issues. I love NPR. I'm actually lucky because I live around Kansas City. If I don't want to listen to KPR in Lawrence, I can switch to KCUR at UMKC. For me lack of federal funding will mean little. It is stations like HPPR that would suffer, and that would be a tragedy for America's rural communities.


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