‘Mountain Stage’ host Larry Groce says programming sends positive messages Justice should want

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Gov. Jim Justice’s proposed budget goes heavy on taxes and small on cuts, but he’s already getting pushback over some of the cuts.

Under particular scrutiny is a proposed $4.6 million cut to the Educational Broadcasting Authority, the agency responsible for West Virginia Public Broadcasting, Mountain Stage and other programming.

Justice’s cut would zero out state funding for the agency. Although the agency receives some funding from other sources such as foundations and donations, it stands to lose matching grants if it doesn’t have the state funding.

Because Justice recommends only $26.6 million in total cuts, some observers have questioned why the Educational Broadcasting’s budget was among the targets. A National Public Radio story last fall described Justice as the nation’s top mine safety delinquent because of his coal mine companies’ unpaid fines.

In a conversation with reporters last week, Justice was asked specifically about the cut to Educational Broadcasting, although his response didn’t directly address the agency.

“I’ll tell you what I tried to do; I didn’t like that either. And it’s almost insignificant isn’t it? In the scope of everything, we’re going to wipe out $25 million or $30 million or something. And those services are important to us,” Justice said in a conversation with reporters last week.

“I tried to come up with a few things that we could possibly maybe, maybe get by without having. I didn’t like it either. I keep saying the same thing, and I want everybody to hear it: We’re better than this. We don’t need to continue to strangle ourselves into oblivion.”

“Mountain Stage,” the long-running and nationally-syndicated music program originating from West Virginia, is one of the programs that could be affected.

“That would damage West Virginia Public Broadcasting, and it would probably put Mountain Stage off the air,” said Larry Groce, its host.

“It’s about 45 percent of the budget but it would actually hurt even more because those dollars are matched as the other part of the budget. So it would be a huge blow, a crippling blow to West Virginia Public Broadcasting. And frankly, if it stays like it is, Mountain Stage will be off the air probably by the end of this June.”

Public expressions of support emerged quickly, Groce said. Now supporters are trying to formulate a strategy.

“None of us knew, this came out of the blue. We’re beginning to hear from a lot of people who say ‘We don’t understand this.’ Now we’re on kind of a fact-finding mode to figure out what’s going on.”

Justice has talked a lot about improving West Virginia’s image nationally. Groce said that’s in line with what Mountain Stage and other programs at West Virginia Public Broadcasting try to do.

“One of the things we’re doing is helping to elevate the image of West Virginia, which is a tricky thing. It’s difficult to do,” Groce said. “We have a lot of bad publicity; that’s easy to get. But we don’t have a lot of good publicity.

“Every week, we’re on 200 stations, Mountain Stage is. And we’re projecting out an image of good things happening here and fun things happening here. We know we attract tourists. And every week we have a couple hundred thousand people listening on the radio and online.”

Groce said programs receiving money from the state are aware of the tough budget climate, but being singled out to lose all funding seems extreme to him.

“Like anybody else, we’re not above taking a cut. We understand that. This is tough times. Everybody in the state is taking a cut. We’ll certainly do that. But a hundred percent is pretty severe.”

West Virginia Public Broadcasting has received support through e-mails, letters and phone calls.

The new secretary for Education and the Arts, Gayle Manchin, met with other Justice administration officials late last week.

One possibility being discussed, rather than zeroing out state funding all at once, would be to step down funding over a period of years, with public broadcasting eventually receiving payment for the services it provides directly to state government, such as broadcasting the State of the State address.

The long-term possibility could include transferring the license for West Virginia Public Broadcasting to another nonprofit sponsor or university sponsor.

A special meeting of the Educational Broadcasting Authority will be at 10 a.m. Tuesday.

Friends of Public Broadcasting, immediately after Justice’s State of the State address, put out a statement taking issue with the proposed cut.

“We believe this would be unwise and irresponsible. We understand the state needs to save money, but such a drastic and immediate cut threatens the very existence of our state’s PBS and NPR stations,” wrote Susan Hogan, chairwoman of Friends of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, and Ted Armbrecht, chairman of West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation.

They estimated that the funding cut would result in layoffs of 75 percent of staff, endangering West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s ability to operate.

“These proposed cuts are even more damaging because the Justice Administration did not consult anyone at West Virginia Public Broadcasting for advice. Currently, there is no transition plan for WVPB,” Hogan and Armbrecht wrote.

Jeff Jenkins contributed to this story.

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