Lawmakers on Thursday considered the consequences of privatizing public radio and television in New Jersey.
A 10-member panel heard testimony at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey on a proposal to cut state funding to the New Jersey Network's public radio and television.
But after the second of three hearings, it was clear that neither lawmakers nor NJN executives had a solid strategy about turning the broadcaster into a money-maker.
"People are covering things, but not the way we do with arts, culture and diversity programming," said Janice Selinger, acting executive director of NJN Public Television. "We've gone with the assumption that the Legislature and the governor would come up with the plan. I'm investigating what models in other states have been successful."
Among the proposals was one in which NJN would sell its eight public radio stations to focus on television.
NJN writer and producer Bob Szuter suggested the broadcaster remain a public institution, similar to a utility.
"This plan will require a continued investment by the state in the short term. That initial investment will retool NJN's efficiency, giving it the time to update its equipment and make NJN sustainable and attractive to private funding," he said.
Szuter said the station offers local coverage, unlike many other public networks or even commercial stations that focus largely on metropolitan areas.
"NJN is an anomaly. It's in the geography. Nowhere have so many residents been so underserved by the media market," he said.
New Jersey's media market is largely dominated by TV and radio stations based in Philadelphia and New York. Southern New Jersey is home to Linwood-based WMGM-TV40.
NJN offers nightly news, public-policy programs and live coverage of statewide debates, speeches and legislative hearings.
The network's news broadcasters covered Thursday's hearings.
State Sen. Jeff Van Drew,
D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, defended NJN, saying it was important "to have a Jersey-centric media that gets our message out from Sussex County to Cape May."
He serves on the bipartisan Legislative Task Force on Public Broadcasting, which will make its recommendations to Gov. Chris Christie next month. A third and final hearing is scheduled for Sept. 23 in Montclair, Essex County.
"We get it. We understand it," Van Drew said. "But the bottom line is we don't have money. But we are in uniquely and unbelievably difficult fiscal times."
The Foundation for New Jersey Public Broadcasting, the nonprofit fundraising arm, is raising less money for NJN's operating expenses in the recession, union spokesman Dudley Burdge said.
The foundation typically raised $9 million to $10 million per year. But in 2009, that amount dropped to $6 million and fell to just $2 million in the first six months of 2010, Burdge said.
The foundation's last available tax returns - filed in 2008 - indicate the nonprofit received about $8 million in public support and $1 million in government support in 2007.
"You are dying a slow and crippling and agonizing death because of a lack of state funds," said Assemblyman Louis Greenwald, D-Camden.
"I am frustrated. We know why we're here. We have to figure out how we go forward to keep the (network's) mission and vision alive."
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