By Peter Nieckarz • Guest Columnist
The Trump administration in mid-February unveiled its proposed federal budget for 2019. The proposal calls for the total elimination of federal appropriations for public broadcasting. The present level of funding to public broadcasting ($445 million) represents a microscopic portion of federal spending, but the impact this proposed cut will have on public broadcasting will be anything but small, particularly for public radio and the countless communities served by it. Federal budgets may seem abstract and not immediately relevant to us, but as the old saying goes, “All politics is local.” With respect to this, it is important for us in Western North Carolina consider the impact that a defunded public radio could have for our region.
Many rural Americans who voted for Donald Trump last November did so based on his promise to cut the federal deficit and rein in spending. When he announced his preliminary budget proposal March 16, however, Democrats and Republicans alike were shocked at the extent of proposed cuts to programs that serve some of the nation’s poorest rural communities.
A protracted tug-of-war over the 95.3 FM radio frequency is finally over, setting the stage for Western Carolina University’s campus-run radio station to expand its reach well beyond Jackson County’s borders.
A new FM radio station in Western North Carolina means more than 108,000 people living in the region might not be able to pick up their local National Public Radio station anymore.
That’s because the frequency involved, 95.3 FM, currently serves as a translator for WCQS, serving residents in much of Haywood and Jackson counties. It’s been in service for two decades.
Though there remain a number of other frequencies public-radio fans can tune into west of Buncombe County if they want to listen to WCQS, it will be hit and miss in many mountain valleys — the station comes in on four different frequencies depending on your area — once a new radio station takes over the frequency.
“It is, unfortunately, a challenging situation for us,” said Jody Evans, who has been the executive director of WCQS for about a year. “I think this is a loss for the community, but we are going to do what we can, within the guidelines of the FCC, to get public radio to the people of Western North Carolina.”
Evans was careful to emphasize that The Canary Coalition, who won tentative rights to the frequency, is not at fault; and nor is Western Carolina University, she said, which is fighting the environmental group for rights to 95.3. Rather, WCQS simply isn’t considered “local” under FCC regulations, though the radio station does serve the entire region.
“We can stay on the air until someone builds a station,” Evans said.
In its application with the FCC for rights to the frequency, WCU made the argument that the federal agency should give it 95.3, in part, because the university had plans to help out public radio. Evans deferred any comment on those possible plans to the university.
Granted, public radio will no longer be picked up via 95.3 once another entity takes over the frequency, whether it is WCU or The Canary Coalition, WCU noted in its FCC filings. But “much of this proposed loss area would be avoided, however, by transfer of WCU’s current facilities (WWCU and WWCU-FM1 to WNC Public Radio) … If an applicant other than WCU were to be awarded the Dillsboro allotment, it is virtually guaranteed that the public will lose this source (i.e., the programming of FM Translator W237AR) of noncommercial service upon which it has relied for nearly 20 years.”