Prairie Public adjusts to budget cuts, changing media landscape

FARGO--Prairie Public Broadcasting has been buffeted by budget cuts, declining membership, and consumers' shifting habits in a media marketplace that is increasingly varied and fragmented.

FARGO-Prairie Public Broadcasting has been buffeted by budget cuts, declining membership, and consumers' shifting habits in a media marketplace that is increasingly varied and fragmented.

Prairie Public finished its 2017 fiscal year with a deficit of $315,818 and its radio service was $534,139 in the red. Similar numbers are expected for fiscal 2018, which ended Sept. 30, said John Harris, Prairie Public's president and chief executive officer.

Although its annual report shows a deficit for 2017, Prairie Public actually ended the year financially in the "black" if money set aside to replace equipment isn't factored in, he said.

"Funding's always a challenge, probably for every nonprofit," he said. "It's a challenge year in and year out."

Membership support is the largest contributor to Prairie Public, which just concluded its fall radio pledge drive. Members provide 30 percent of the radio budget and 23 percent of the television budget.

Although membership numbers have dipped in recent years, donations have increased, contributing $1.4 million to television and $545,370 to radio in 2017. The next largest funding source is the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which gave $1.3 million, or 21 percent, to television and $187,279, or 10 percent, to radio.

Declining support from the state of North Dakota, which had been struggling with slumping revenues, has frayed Prairie Public's finances. In 2015, the state provided 15 percent of radio revenues and 10 percent of television revenues. By last year, the state's share had slid to 11 percent of radio revenues and 8 percent of television funds.

More state cuts could be coming. Prairie Public, as with other state agencies and programs, has been told to prepare for cuts in the next two-year budget of 5 percent to 10 percent, with another 3 percent contingency cut possible.

In response to the state cuts, Prairie Public trimmed its budget. Thirteen positions had hours reduced or were eliminated, Harris said. Also, some minor programs were cut, but mainstays remain.

"We're an important resource to our region," he said. "We just hope the state buys into that."

Also, Prairie Public has been forced to reduce its outreach to K-12 schools around the state and professional development for educators.

A federal program that helps public broadcasting services buy new equipment was eliminated several years ago, forcing Prairie Public to set aside reserves to replace equipment. In terms of operations, it does better than break even.

"Basically we balance our budget every year," said John Gast, Prairie Public's director of finance.

Public media, just like other forms of media, are competing in an increasingly diverse and fragmented landscape, where consumers have ever more options for programming and ways to receive news and information, Harris said.

"The future's still bright, but it's a struggle and we have to make choices," he said.