The Southeast public radio consortium CoastAlaska will acquire Wrangell’s local station, KSTK. The move is an effort by both parties to keep the station healthy in the face of increased funding challenges on both the state and national level.
To receive federal funding, community broadcasters like KSTK have to bring in a certain amount of local, grant and state monies. But in the past few years, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has made it a little harder for stations to secure that money. It raised the threshold to $300,000. And KSTK has been short the past two years.
“The thing that’s challenging in Alaska is that our communities are small and a lot of our service is very local, and robust locally, but it doesn’t scale to large stations across the nation,” says Executive Director of CoastAlaska Mollie Kabler.
“The Idea from CPB was that if you weren’t not raising a significant amount of money from non-federal sources you might not be valued by the people using your service,” Kabler says.
The CPB contributes about one-third of KSTK’s annual revenue — $120,000. Like all other public radio, the rest comes from the state and from local support, like memberships, pledge drives, and underwriting. For a small station like Wrangell’s, it can be hard to expect a community of less than 3,000 people to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. And state funding is not making up the difference. Along with most public spending in Alaska, there have been consistent cuts to public broadcasting. Since 2015, KSTK’s state funding has dropped 40 percent to $80,000 a year.
KSTK leadership considered many options to keep the station afloat.
One was to merge with KFSK in Petersburg. But KSTK General Manager Cindy Sweat says that would ultimately be a hit to both stations.
“There would be a little less local here and a little less local there,” Sweat says. “They don’t want to listen to our community calendar necessarily, and we don’t want to listen to their assembly meetings necessarily.”
Sweat also says that consolidating the two stations would result in just one CPB and state grant for the two communities.
Part of the answer was already in place: Both KSTK and KFSK are founding members of CoastAlaska, which handles their payroll and business administration, and does the same for public stations in Juneau, Ketchikan, and Sitka.
It was Kabler who suggested that CoastAlaska acquire KSTK. KSTK could run the station as it currently does, but it could also count on Coast’s non-federal funds to help meet the CPB benchmark. In some ways, the move felt like the best way to protect KSTK’s future, and to preserve its independent sound.
“Coast is a collaboration around the business, and the support around fundraising and engineering,” Kabler says. “But it’s not a collaboration of content per say. Each station chooses the programming on the station that best serves their community. Over years we’ve learned to share content, especially in news. But in terms of the shows that are run on a station day to day is chosen by local station.”
So, is that going to change once KSTK is absorbed by CoastAlaska, rather than being just a member?
“For the listener or the user of the website it’s not going to change. Nobody’s going to notice anything different,” Sweat says. “It’s not going to be like one day we own it and it sounds this way and the next day someone else owns it and we sound another way. That’s not going to be the case.”
But there will be changes in management. While two people from Wrangell will continue to sit on the CoastAlaska board as usual, KSTK’s local board will no longer make decisions for the station.
Instead they will help with fundraising and community engagement for the station, says KSTK Board President Angie Flickinger.
“Even though we won’t be [Sweat’s] boss anymore, we can still kind of tap in where she needs us because we’ve filled that role before.”
Transfer is pending FCC approval, which is expected for next month.