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Montana House Committee Hears Bill Barring State Funding for Radio

Disclosure: This report covers proposed policy that could impact the funding for this radio station. We’re airing it as part of our ongoing coverage of the 67th Montana legislature.

HELENA — Lawmakers on the House Energy, Technology and Federal Relations committee heard public testimony on a bill that would bar state funds from supporting radio stations.

Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, sponsored the House Bill 542 and was the only supporter at the hearing. Skees said he sponsored the bill because he doesn’t see a reason to support some radio stations and not others.

“I don’t think it’s good policy in Montana to take taxpayer money and put it into one small segment of a market,” Skees said, “and not support the other components in the market.”

Opponents to the bill said removing state funding would be detrimental to public radio programming. Noelle Huser is the general manager at KBGA, the University of Montana’s college radio station, which receives some of its funding from the state.

“Our operation, our funding, would certainly be in jeopardy,” Huser said ”We are on a shoestring budget as is.”

Other opponents said removing state funding would eliminate an outlet for people to hear stories they otherwise wouldn’t.

Mikyla Veis spoke on behalf of the Zootown Arts Center in Missoula.

“I live in an urban area, and I’m lucky enough to be able to have a newspaper delivered to my home every day,” Veis said. “But many folks in rural parts of the state have no other access to a local news source other than public radio.”

Eighteen opponents spoke against the bill, many of them highlighting the educational, community-based and cultural programming on public radio stations, which are subject to rules commercial broadcasters are not.

Skees said opponent arguments demonstrated why his bill actually wouldn’t harm public radio -- that it already has enough support.

“NPR would survive just fine without taxpayer money because the people that love the programming and the information on it would do everything they can to make sure it remains funded through philanthropy,” Skees said.

NPR, National Public Radio, does not receive funding from the state of Montana. Montana Public Radio and Yellowstone Public Radio are NPR affiliate stations that do receive some funding from the state. For example, Yellowstone Public Radio receives 6% of its operating budget from state appropriations, according to a 2019 year-end report from the station.

One of the opponents to the bill was the Montana Broadcasters Association, which is a sponsor of the UM Legislative News Service, an independent news service provided to all broadcasters in the state and produced by students from the University of Montana School of Journalism.

The committee did not take immediate action on the bill.

James Bradley is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Montana Newspaper Association and the Greater Montana Foundation.