Most local TV stations have a community relations department. Few are quite as proactive as the staffers of PBS affiliate WCTE-TV in Cookeville, Tenn., where station manager Becky Magura recently climbed a tree to adjust the antenna for two elderly sisters who rely on WCTE as their primary source of news, information and entertainment.
For thousands of viewers in the Appalachian region known as Upper Cumberland, WCTE is not a luxury — it’s a lifeline. “When an emergency comes, we’re the ones that tell them,” Magura says. “We are part of the backbone of public safety around here.”
WCTE is among the dozens of public TV and radio stations around the country that could go off the air if the Trump administration succeeds in defunding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The budget proposal submitted to Congress last week by President Trump calls for eliminating federal funding of the CPB, which received about $445 million a year during the Obama administration. About two-thirds of CPB’s budget is distributed to local TV and radio stations.
CPB money accounts for 40% of WCTE’s annual operating budget, which is a little less than $2 million. The foundational support provided by the CPB greatly enables the station’s fundraising efforts and grant solicitations, Magura says.
WCTE is the only local TV station that the majority of the 343,430 residents of the 14 small counties that comprise Upper Cumberland can receive with an off-air antenna. Those who have an MVPD subscription can watch local stations in Nashville and Knoxville. But there are a great many people in Upper Cumberland who cannot afford a monthly cable bill. And there are still remote areas in the region where cable and broadband service simply doesn’t exist, Magura says.
“I know it’s hard for people who are sitting in Washington and urban areas to comprehend that people still need an antenna to be able to receive only one station, but it’s a fact,” Magura says.
WCTE launched as a PBS affiliate in 1978 specifically to address the black hole of TV service. Magura, a lifelong Upper Cumberland resident, came to the station as its first student intern in 1980, and she never left. She’s been CEO for the past 10 years.
WCTE carries a wide range of PBS-provided programming. But it also covers area sports, parades, county fairs, music festivals (of which there are many), agricultural issues, local and state government, and “all the things that really enrich a rural region,” Magura says.
Two WCTE-produced shows that are distributed nationally by PBS are “Bluegrass Underground,” which features roots music acts performing in local caves; and “Jammin’ at Hippie Jack’s,” another Americana music showcase.
“I see us as a curator of our culture,” Magura says. “We have a strong commitment to show the pride in our region. We hear from our viewers about what it means to them all the time.”
Educational outreach is also a big priority. The station is a recipient of a CPB Ready to Learn grant, which provides teachers and educational resources for local school systems, extending the station’s existing outreach efforts.
Trump administration officials defended the CPB defunding effort by arguing that taxpayers should not be forced to support public media and other CPB initiatives. Magura sees that as misguided given the miniscule yearly cost to individuals (around $1.35 per person) and the impact that stations like WCTE have on viewers young and old.
“I really wish I could talk to President Trump,” Magura says. “I really wish he would let me show him where we live. I wish he could see the difference this station makes in the lives of the people we serve. Maybe he would see that funding differently.”
Most of the Upper Cumberland counties supported Trump in the presidential election by a better than 45% margin. Magura has heard residents endorse the administration’s focus on cutting federal spending on many programs, but when she explains that zeroing-out the CPB means WCTE likely going off the air, the response changes quickly to “Oh no, we don’t want that,” Magura says. “We’ve got to make sure that is very clear: as public media we are not a network, we are public servants.”
If approved, the end of CPB funding would come in the 50th anniversary year of the founding of PBS and CPB.
“You couldn’t recreate what we have built in these last 50 years for $1.35 per citizen, but you can protect it for that much,” Magura says. “To take this (public TV) infrastructure down would just be a sad day in this country.”
When Magura made her house call to sisters Patricia and Frankie, the PBS Kids’ cartoon “Curious George” popped onto the screen as she turned the antenna this way and that to restore the signal. Magura then explained to the sisters that WCTE now offers three channels of programming, and they might find something more interesting by surfing around. But Frankie was adamant.
” ‘No, no, no, I love that little Curious George — you leave it right there,’ ” Magura recalls Frankie saying. “How would you take that from them?”
(Pictured: WCTE CEO Becky Magura and an example of the station’s educational outreach efforts in local schools)