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Lawmakers Push Back On VPR's COVID Relief Request

Scott Finn speaks with a group at the Bennington Museum as part of the Tell Me More Tour on July 18.
Ty Robertson
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VPR File
VPR CEO Scott Finn recently asked a legislative panel for $874,000 to support programming and equipment needs.

A legislative committee has trimmed Vermont Public Radio's request for a piece of federal COVID relief funds, from nearly $900,000 to $100,000.

The House Energy and Technology Committee had initially included $1 million apiece for VPR and Vermont PBS as part of a multi-million plan to expand remote learning and boost broadband internet in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In response, both broadcast networks gave lawmakers extensive wish lists of projects they'd like funded.

The committee Wednesday significantly pared back VPR’s funding request, one of the few times in the broadcaster's history that it's asked the Legislature for money.

Even before the pandemic hit, the House Energy and Technology Committee was intensely focused on improving broadband in Vermont. Last year, the panel pushed a bill that provided grants and state-backed loans to communities and internet service providers.

Committee Chairman Tim Briglin, D-Thetford, says the COVID crisis has highlighted even more the need for universal, affordable high speed broadband.

“I think what we’re seeing now is Vermonters who cannot access, or who can’t afford broadband connectivity. Many of them are in rural areas. And those inequities have never been bigger in our state,” he said.

"The guidance that we're getting from the federal government... is there are real constraints in supporting any kind of infrastructure work. This money is to be used very specifically for COVID-related programs.” — Rep. Tim Briglin, House Energy and Technology Committee chairman

The committee has drafted a plan to spend $43 million in federal COVID relief funds on connectivity efforts and to help low-income Vermonters pay for high-speed connections and utility services. The federal money comes with two significant strings attached. One, it must be spent on costs and programs that are COVID-related. Second, it must be spent by the end of this year.

“The hope is, I think, in two or three weeks we will have an appropriations bill on the governor’s desk that recommends how these federal stimulus dollars be spent,” Briglin said.

While the panel's main focus is on broadband, the committee also wants to help public broadcasters and community TV services respond to the COVID crisis.

Although they didn’t ask for the money, the chief executives of both VPR and Vermont PBS eagerly responded.

A person holds a microphone.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR File
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VPR File
House Committee on Energy and Technology chair Rep. Tim Briglin.

VPR CEO Scott Finn pitched a proposal to spend $874,000 to cover new programming and equipment costs. Finn told the committee last week that the station has spent money to equip staff and studios for remote work. VPR has also partnered with the state Agency of Education to expand “But Why,” a podcast and program geared for children.

Finn added that the station's broadcast network also needs upgrades.

“As of today we receive no state funding to support that network. But the network is extremely expensive to maintain,” he said. “For example, we must this year do an upgrade to our transmitter at 107.9 FM in Mount Mansfield. And we’ll have to do it no matter what. But one of the reasons we’re doing it now is because we want to make sure we don’t lose service during the coronavirus.”

During the hearing, St. Johnsbury Democrat Scott Campbell reminded Finn that the federal money can only be spent on COVID-related costs.

“And I’m putting myself in the shoes of a federal bureaucrat who’s going to say, ‘Well, this isn’t related to that.’  I’m just wondering if you might be able to do the same thing and tell us what on this list is really easy to make the case for?” Campbell asked.

Finn responded that the money for infrastructure projects like the Mt. Mansfield transmitter could be justified under the funding guidelines because it's needed to keep the station on the air during the crisis.

“And by receiving federal funding I won’t have to do other awful things in my organization like lay off people, or you know, try to find loan funding that we have to pay back some time in the future,” he said.

But unlike many Vermont media organizations hit hard by declining ad revenues, VPR has not been forced to cut staff during the pandemic. Both VPR and Vermont PBS, in fact, are in good financial shape. VPR has a $9.5 million budget; it has cash on hand and almost $2 million in reserves available. VPR also obtained a $960,000 federal paycheck protection program loan to keep employees on the job. The loan is likely to be forgiven if people stay employed.

"VPR has been providing a really necessary service. And I think we do and should look for any money in all different places, in any place we can go. Our members are feeling the strain. Our underwriters have been feeling the strain. And we don't know what the future holds." — VPR CEO Scott Finn

The station also enjoys broad support among Vermonters. A recent $10 million capital campaign paid for a new building and state of the art performance studio.

In an interview, Finn said he and the VPR board are trying to prepare for the financial uncertainties that lie ahead.

“VPR has been providing a really necessary service. And I think we do and should look for any money in all different places, in any place we can go,” he said. “Our members are feeling the strain. Our underwriters have been feeling the strain. And we don’t know what the future holds.”

The last time Vermont lawmakers gave money to VPR was in 1995. Back then, the station got a one-time appropriation of $50,000 to help renovate a building at Fort Ethan Allen in Colchester for its studio and headquarters.

Finn said he’s not worried that VPR’s journalism would be compromised if it receives state support.

“VPR receives money from many different interests. It receives money from multiple underwriters. It receives money from the federal government every single year. It receives money from major donors,” he said. “And yet, I have seen over and over again, our journalists cover those entities without fear, and to tell the truth, regardless.”

More from VPR: Vermont Public Radio Asks Legislature For Coronavirus Relief Funds

Journalism professor David Mindich agreed that state funding should not affect VPR’s journalistic mission. Mindich is the former chair of the journalism department at St. Michaels College and now has the same role at Temple University in Philadelphia. He noted that NPR and VPR get funding from diverse sources, including large corporations, government funders, and foundations.

“So I think that the best way to go about it is to say both on the air and on the web page that you’ve gotten money from a particular source if there is even the appearance of a conflict,” he said.

But there’s always competing needs for taxpayer dollars. What if other publicly funded programs – such as housing assistance or anti-hunger programs – arguably need the federal dollars more than well-heeled news organizations? Mindich said the watchdog role of journalism is also worthy of funding, although maybe should not be the top priority.

“You could argue, and I would argue this myself, that food shelves are more important than anything,” he said. “Without the proper administration of all this money that’s going to the state you could have bad practices or corruption and that’s where Vermont Public Radio or other news organizations come in.”

"You could argue, and I would argue this myself, that food shelves are more important than anything. Without the proper administration of all this money that's going to the state you could have bad practices or corruption, and that's where Vermont Public Radio or other news organizations come in." — David Mindich, Temple University journalism department chair

At Vermont PBS, CEO Holly Groschner takes a similar view as VPR's Finn. She said the station stepped up in recent months with more educational programming for students stuck at home.

“We worked with teachers to develop the curriculum for it and it was available for parents for distance learning,” she said.

Vermont PBS has $40 to $45 million on hand from selling off one of its broadcast licenses a few years ago. Despite that wealth, Groschner says it could use the COVID funds from the Legislature for both infrastructure improvements and to develop more programs for kids. She said Vermont PBS wants to hold on to its large pot of money for future investments.

“We have to be careful. We are slating that money to be there for a long time," she said. "And if we spend it all right now, we risk not being sustained as a public media service into the future."

A woman talks in front of a Vermont PBS screen.
Credit Taylor Dobbs / VPR File
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VPR File
Vermont PBS President and CEO Holly Groschner.

But the committee did not buy the public broadcasters' full funding pitch. The panel's latest proposal would send $100,000 each to VPR and Vermont PBS. The committee’s bill said the funds should cover only "unplanned and unbudgeted" education programming expenses incurred by the pandemic.

Chairman Briglin said it’s tough to argue that projects such as the Mt. Mansfield transmitter could be covered by the COVID funds.

“The guidance that we’re getting from the federal government, not only related to things like Vermont Public Television or VPR but related to broadband as well, is there are real constraints in supporting any kind of infrastructure work,” he said. “This money is to be used very specifically for COVID-related programs.”

A note from VPR Assistant News Director Mark Davis.

Last week, after we reported that VPR was seeking nearly $900,000 in coronavirus relief funds from the state legislature, I promised that we would cover this story with “independence and integrity,” and “continue to be transparent about this legislative request, and our coverage plans.”

To reiterate, the decision to seek this funding did not involve the newsroom, and we reported the information to the public as soon as we learned of it. In an effort to further separate our coverage of this issue, reporter John Dillon and I – who were the only VPR employees involved in the reporting and editing of this story - avoided an internal meeting to discuss the funding request this week.

We will continue to follow this story, and to subject VPR to the same scrutiny we would apply to any other organization in a similar position. Thanks for listening/reading.

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