Alaska public broadcasters fear funding cuts under Trump administration

Alaskans in rural villages are worried about the future of public broadcasting, and especially survival information and Indigenous language-broadcasting in a Trump administration, which has pledged cuts.

Report says Trump administration planning to cut Corporation for Public Broadcasting

Alaska's KYUK station features world news in Yup'ik translated by John Active. Station manager Shane Iverson says a rumoured cut to the Public Broadcasting Corporation 'would be extremely damaging and would endanger the survival of public information.' (KYUK / Facebook)

As a new federal administration prepares to take office, rural communities in Alaska are worried about the suddenly murky future of public broadcasting.

A report published Thursday in the D.C. newspaper The Hill says the Trump administration wants to eliminate funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. 

Those cuts could especially affect Alaska, where communities are served by 26 public radio stations and four public television stations which provide survival information and Indigenous language programming.

The umbrella group of Alaska Public Media employs 218 people across Alaska in public radio broadcasting as well as 72 in public-broadcast television. The local stations, like this one in Juneau, also welcome about 1,300 volunteers. (KTOO)

'Survival information' and Indigenous-language news

Shane Iverson manages Alaska's KYUK station in the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta. The station has three daily newscasts in Yup'ik and daily hours of bilingual programming.

The station's annual budget is about $1.6 million, of which the Corporation for Public Broadcasting provides more than $900,000. 

"It's the most important portion of our budget. A cut to that would be extremely damaging and would endanger the survival of public information," Iverson says.

The station broadcasts on AM radio and has 10 full time staff and 10 part time staff, as well as six people who work on fundraising activities like bingo. One recent fundraising contest was a raffle for a half-cord of wood. 

Iverson says KYUK provides vital survival information.

"It's a roadless area with all transportation by airplane or snowmobile in the winter," he says. "The trails can disappear in a heartbeat. We are continually updating our weather 365 days a year. Weather hazards do occur and they're deadly."

He adds that KYUK is alone in its market — a zone "the size of Oregon," he says.

"Internet rates are extremely expensive here. It's not something everyone can afford, and there's no one else broadcasting," Iverson says. 

Newscasters Jenifer Canfield and Christina Apathy relay the day's news from a KTOO studio in Juneau Alaska. (KTOO )

'Critical to maintain service' 

KYUK isn't the only station worried. 

Alaska Public Media employs 218 people in public radio broadcasting, as well as 72 people in public-broadcast television. The local stations are also kept running thanks to 1,300 volunteers. 

Bill Legere is president and general manager at one of the larger stations: KTOO, in Juneau. He's worked at the public radio and television station for 30 years. 

He says the Corporation for Public Broadcasting represents about one third of that station's total funding.  The rest is provided by public donations, charitable foundations, sponsors and other sources which are more available in larger centres. 

"The federal part is important (to us), but it's more important in small communities where the public radio station serves maybe 500 or 1000 people and there's no other media source," he says. "It's much more critical to maintain service in the smallest rural communities than it is here in Juneau."

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting provides baseline funding and also grants for special reporting projects. 

In 2015, it awarded a $775,000 grant for Alaska Public Media in Anchorage, KTOO Public Media in Juneau and KUCB in Unalaska to dedicate people to cover oil, pipeline and other energy-related stories to be shared across Alaska media.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is the largest funder of public media in the U.S. Alaskans say it's especially important for stations in rural regions. (Corporation for Public Broadcasting)

'No other service available' 

Legere says it's still too early to know what will happen.

With the new president's inaguration Friday, so far there has been no official word on public broadcasting from president-elect Trump. 

There's also no word yet from Alaska's representatives at the state level. 

Legere calls U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski a "staunch supporter of funding" for public broadcasting and notes that Alaska's member of the House of Representatives, Congressman Don Young, leads the public broadcasting caucus there. 

A promotion for KYUK features a quote from intern reporter Jackie Williams. The station provides coverage in the remote region outside Bethel, Alaska. (KYUK / Facebook)

"They know how important it is with these rural communities that have no other service available," Legere says. 

Today, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting issued a statement defending its existence. 

It argues the service is "one of America's best investments. It is not a large investment compared to most of what government does – just about $1.35 per citizen per year – but it pays huge dividends in education, public safety and civic leadership to millions of Americans and their families." 

The yearly national federal allocation for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is about $445.5 million a year, which would account for about one hundredth of one percent of the U.S. federal government's total annual expenses.