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Steering some of the millions of dollars spent by the federal government has been part of the effort in Washington this year to help broadcasters weather the impact of the pandemic. It is a mission that has attracted support from politicians on both sides of the aisle. The outreach has helped win approval for the creation of a new $75 million public education fund about vaccines.

The money will be spread out over five years, with $15 million earmarked for the fiscal years 2021 through 2025. It will be used to create a “national, evidence-based campaign” geared to increasing awareness of the safety and effectiveness and to combat “misinformation.” The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is specifically directing the dollars to radio and television, among other media, as part of the effort.

National Association of Broadcasters President Gordon Smith thanked Congress for creating the fund. "Policymakers recognize the important role of local broadcasters and other media in educating the public on issues of critical importance,” said Smith. “We commend appropriators for supporting local journalism and including provisions that urge government agencies to prioritize local media when placing advertising for public education campaigns to effectively raise awareness of government services and convey vital information to the public, such as vaccine effectiveness and availability,” he said in a statement.

The HHS allocation was included in the massive 5,593-page omnibus spending bill passed by Congress on Monday. The bill also included the $900 billion COVID relief package that featured changes to the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan program that will allow most local radio and TV stations to apply for aid.

Thousands Of Stations Eligible For PPP Loans

Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) said by her estimate the changes will mean 3,384 radio and TV stations and more than 2,000 newspapers nationwide will be newly eligible to tap into the $284.5 billion that Congress has set aside for PPP loans. She noted that for the loans to be forgiven, the local station must spend at least 60% of the loan funds on payroll in order to keep journalists, newsroom workers, and other essential employees on the job.

Cantwell said the money is critical since local broadcasters and newspapers must be able to communicate vital COVID-related information. “Local news is essential. It makes our communities – and our country – stronger by asking important questions, providing accurate facts, and countering misinformation and disinformation,” she said. “This bill will make more newspapers, TV and radio stations, and public broadcasters eligible for the Paycheck Protection Program so local reporters can keep us informed.”

Keith Shipman, President of the Washington State Association of Broadcasters, said stations across his state were grateful for Cantwell’s leadership and “tireless efforts” to now ensure local stations can access much needed PPP loans. “There is no greater advocate for our continued service to Washingtonians and the truly trusted, local and emergency information that we provide,” said Shipman.

In addition to PPP, the Small Business Administration will also be able to make microloans of up to $10 million to each station group. To qualify for the loans, a local station would have to fit within the Small Business Administration size standard for the broadcasting industry, which is a total of $41.5 million or less in annual revenue.

The funding for local media outlets drew praise by the Washington-based public interest group Public Knowledge. “As the coronavirus pandemic has swept across the country, citizens have turned to local journalism for the most authoritative and relevant information on how the pandemic has impacted their own communities,” said Lisa Macpherson, Senior Policy Fellow at Public Knowledge.

Meanwhile, other efforts to direct more federal ad spending to local outlets remain pending. The National Defense Authorization Act that is currently on President Trump’s desk includes $640 million to fund each military branch’s efforts to recruit and promote themselves. While Congress has trimmed the spending during the past few years, it still represents two-thirds of the roughly $1 billion that is spent on paid advertising by the federal government.

Some lawmakers want to see that go to local radio and TV. They said local media has been facing “challenges” because of the pandemic with ad revenue down 30% to 50% in many markets. In letters to congressional leaders, the group said funneling those recruitment ad dollars to local radio and TV stations and newspapers will “help ensure these important businesses are able to continue to operate throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and, at the same time, educate Americans across the country about the military services.”