Trump's deep public broadcasting cuts will hurt his rural, low-income voters most

As President Donald Trump bashed the Affordable Care Act and the media in Nashville on Wednesday night, Tennesseans 150 miles into the hills and farmland to the west of the rally watched the president's remarks over their TV antennas. 

In Martin, Tennessee, in the state's northwest corner, WLJT provides three television stations for free to 285,000 people across 16 counties, according to Monica Reese, the station's general manager. Commercial TV and radio stations don't consistently reach that rural, impoverished stretch near the Kentucky and Missouri borders, so WLJT constitutes the only broadcast outlet for people who cannot pay a cable bill.

"We bring them the unbiased news they're looking for, trusted by viewers in west Tennessee," Reese said. "This is how a lot of our viewers will receive their news."

If the president has his way, WLJT's signal could go dark — along with a host of other rural public broadcasters that serve populations that voted in droves for Donald Trump.

Trump's first budget blueprint features double-digit cuts to most federal departments and the elimination of funds to dozens of agencies, including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The agency that brings viewers PBS News Hour, Sesame Street and local programming across the country would see all its federal support disappear under Trump's budget. 

The recipient of $445 million in federal funds in 2016, CPB gives 70% of its money directly to local radio and television stations. In 2013, these grants constituted 13% of an average public TV station's revenue. But for rural stations, that support can be much more essential.

WLJT, West Virginia Public Broadcasting, WVUT in Vincennes, Indiana, and hundreds of other public media stations provide people with free news, entertainment and information programming in conservative, rural America.

Some viewers are factory workers and other listeners are coal miners — a demographic Trump budget director Mick Mulvaney believes should not pay for public media.

"We can ask them to pay for defense, and we will, but we can't ask them to continue to pay for the Corporation of Public Broadcasting," Mulvaney said in a Thursday morning interview

Yet nearly three-quarters of Americans oppose cutting federal funding for public television.

West Virginia Public Broadcasting is already planning a 20% cut — laying off 15 staff members — after West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice said, in the interest of budget cuts, the state had little choice but to eliminate its support for public media. A loss of more than $200,000 in federal funding to the station could force further layoffs. These are but a fraction of the more than 19,500 people working in public media nationwide who would potentially face layoffs if CPB funding was cut.

In southwest Indiana, Nichole Carie has been general manager of WVUT since 2009. The radio and television station is housed on the campus of Vincennes University, in a county where over 71% of voters supported Trump. Carie and her 16 staff members work with university students to produce news coverage about an area of hundreds of square miles where access to commercial television or a major newspaper can be tough to find. 

"We provide comprehensive news coverage on stories that won't receive air time in the market north or south of us," Carie said, adding it would "drastically affect" her station in a town of 18,000 people. Without federal support, about a fifth of WVUT's revenue would evaporate. 

A 2012 report commissioned by CPB said a total loss of federal funding "would severely diminish, if not destroy, public broadcasting service in the United States." Fifty-four public television stations and 76 public radio stations would be in immediate danger of closing. Seventy-eight of those stations serve predominantly rural communities.

CPB echoed that finding in a statement on Thursday. Public broadcasting "is especially critical for those living in small towns and in rural and underserved areas," said Patricia Harrison, president and CEO of CPB.

Eric Hyyppa knows well the struggle of servicing a large area with few dollars. As the director and general manager of Montana PBS, Hyyppa oversees 32 employees who reach 80% of the state over the airwaves. A fifth of the budget for the only statewide television program comes from CPB, Hyyppa said — more than a million dollars

"Federal money has helped us build this service in a state that can't really support it," Hyyppa said. 

Montana PBS produces documentaries and state government news that commercial televisions ignores. Hyyppa added that without federal funding, it would be difficult for any public media to survive — large or small. CPB dollars support the production of programs aired by public radio and TV across the country, creating a domino effect if those funds are cut. "It's a big house of cards," he said. 

Just south of the Kentucky border, in a county where 9,008 of the 12,062 voters supported Trump, WLJT reaches many households that send their children to Title I schools, a term that denotes the use of federal funds to support school districts that serve a high percentage of low-income families.

The educational programming broadcast by WLJT is the only option for younger Tennesseans whose parents cannot pay a cable or satellite bill, Reese said. WLJT produces 100 hours of local programming annually with two production staff.

"These children that are going to be at home because the parents are out trying to work or mom and dad can't make the cable payment, we're the only way that they receive this educational piece," Reese said.