Rural farm

Cutting public media funding has been a rallying cry among conservatives for more than a generation. But in ruby red Montana, it is ranchers in the rural stretches of the state that are riding to public radio’s rescue. They have come out against a proposal that would cut state funding to public radio, and that has led to the bill being tabled in committee.

House Bill 524 is straight forward. It says state funds could not be spent on supporting a public or private radio station, either directly or indirectly, except for buying public service announcement ad time. The bill also would bar any in-kind support to a station. Republican Rep. Derek Skees said he has nothing against public radio and is among its listeners. But he believes they should be funded through listener donations and not the state.

“What’s the compelling reason for the state to subsidize any radio station – I don’t care [about] its content – but why should the taxpayers support a radio station,” said Skees during a hearing last week. “They can do just like any other radio station in the market and survive by their efforts.”

But Kevin Trevellyan, Yellowstone Public Radio’s statehouse reporter, said support from rural Montanans last week convinced two Republicans on the House Energy, Technology and Federal Relations Committee to join with Democrats and vote in favor of tabling the bill.

Democratic Rep. Denise Hayman told YPR that ranchers were “not happy campers” when they heard about the proposal. “This is one of their only options to get information, especially when they’re on their tractors and out in the fields," she said.

The Montana Broadcasters Association also came out against the bill. “There is a place for public radio in Montana to serve listeners across the state with news, weather and public safety. The MBA supports all broadcast stations. They are the first informers in your communities and the more voices that we have in our communities, the better the people of Montana are served,” said MBA President & CEO Dewey Bruce. “Public radio is also a training ground for traditional commercial stations’ future employees – we need to support the organizations that help to provide future people in our industry,” he said during the hearing.

Montana currently gives financial support to Yellowstone Public Radio and Montana Public Radio as well as the University of Montana’s adult alternative KBGA Missoula (89.9) and variety KGLT Bozeman (91.9). The proposed law would also block the state-run university system from signing licensing agreements with radio stations.

The Missoula Current reports six percent of Yellowstone Public Radio’s funding came from state funds in 2019. And about 14% of Montana Public Radio’s funding came from the state appropriations.

Should the bill succeed, KGBA General Manager Noelle Huser told the Missoula Current that her station is already operating on a “shoestring budget” and the station’s fate “would be jeopardized” if it lost state dollars.