State funding for public radio on chopping block in proposed bill

HB542 could jeopardize stations on “shoestring” budgets, opponents say

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Radio listeners and staffers warned the House Energy, Technology and Federal Relations committee this week that legislation to end state support for Montana Public Radio, Yellowstone Public Radio and any number of other college and public radio stations in the state could be a serious detriment to small media organizations on tight budgets.

House Bill 542 would prohibit the state from giving any funds toward private or public radio stations, whether in the form of regular appropriations or in-kind donations.

Taking that money away could jeopardize stations that are often the only widely-available, free resource for news and community connection, especially in rural Montana, and especially during the pandemic, opponents said.

“It connects communities, it connects people,” testified Josh Butterfly, a formerly incarcerated person who works with a re-entry organization in Great Falls. “It provides vital information to keep communities informed. You take this away, you’re taking away the community’s voice.”

Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, the bill’s sponsor, said he himself listens to public radio, but that he believes stations like MTPR or YPR should “survive by their own efforts.”

“What’s the compelling reason for the state to subsidize any radio station?” Skees asked. “I don’t care its content. I love (Your Network of Praise, a Christian radio station), why doesn’t the state support them?”

He said his bill was a way of “defending the entire market of radio.” However, he said he didn’t know exactly how much money the state was actually spending to support radio in the state — it’s less about moving pots of money around and more about the principle of public support, he added.

According to 2019 financial records, Montana Public Radio received more than $381,000 in state appropriation, that year, down from $408,000 the year prior. That $381,000 is out of a total $1 million in operating revenues, plus an additional $1.8 million in private gifts. Yellowstone Public Radio reported that 6 percent of its budget came from state appropriations the same year.

The bill would also remove state support for college radio stations, which rely on state-owned facilities and public funding for their operations.

“We’re on a shoestring budget as is,” said Noelle Huser with KBGA, a University of Montana radio station. “Our station at KBGA certainly would be jeopardized. As stated, we are on university property.”

Skees’ proposal leaves intact funding for state public service announcements, one of several types of programming that opponents of the bill worried would disappear if passed.

Others also pointed out that the kind of “eclectic” programming on public radio — whether storytelling, kids shows, or live-streamed local concerts — would be difficult to sustain in a commercial setting

“Public radio airs programming that is not viable for commercial broadcasters to provide,” said Dewey Bruce, who heads the Montana Broadcasters Association.

The committee did not take action on the bill during its Wednesday hearing.