WARNING: BAD AIR AHEAD

NPR, IN A SLASH-AND-BURN MODE, CUTS E-TOWN ADRIFT.

Nick Forster, the man behind the Boulder-based radio program E-Town, no longer has to follow every twist and turn of the debate over whether federal funding for public broadcasting should be cut or eliminated. That's because E-Town, a music-and-environmental-news show that's been a National Public Radio staple for years, already has been given the ax. The program fell victim to NPR cost-cutting intended to help control damage caused by current and future budget downsizing--but the service's vaunted cultural-programming package (of which E-Town was a part) has been reduced to a whisper. As Forster puts it, "There are a lot of people who feel that the package is no longer very cultural, period."

Clearly, NPR is not as multifaceted as it once was. Of the twenty shows that had been under the cultural-programming umbrella, nine will have been eliminated as of January 1, 1996, including such favorites as Afropop Worldwide (set to be distributed by an alternative service, Public Radio International) and Bluestage (which will fold up shop entirely). Moreover, the vast majority of the series that have been scheduled for next year are concerned with either classical music or jazz--examples include Jazz Profiles, Making the Music, With Wynton Marsalis and Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center. In fact, Thistle and Shamrock, a Celtic-music showcase, and the popular nuts-and-bolts chatfest Car Talk are the only surviving offerings that don't focus on the classical or jazz genres.

Forster does his best not to seem bitter about the cancellation of his creation; he's more intent on emphasizing that the decision hasn't yet spelled E-Town's doom. He and his staff intend to keep the program afloat by raising the approximately $66,000 that NPR had committed to it annually (a campaign for this purpose was kicked off at a Peter, Paul and Mary concert last week). In addition, Forster has hired Greg Hils, former program director for WNCW-FM radio in North Carolina, to aggressively market E-Town to the more than 100 public stations on which it currently airs, as well as to college, community and commercial outlets that previously were off-limits because of the program's NPR agreement.

"It's an expense that's a challenge for us, because it's something we didn't budget for," Forster says about the impending shortfall. "But on the other side of the coin, we can now expand our audience. The bottom line is that in nine months or a year, this will probably be better for us than if we'd stayed with NPR. It's just a matter of getting through those nine months."

It won't be easy. NPR stations that picked up the complete cultural-programming package got E-Town at no extra charge; such outlets will now have to allot more money to keep it at a time when public-broadcasting dollars are tighter than ever. Fortunately, stations that ordered programs from the package a la carte may actually save money by paying E-Town directly for its product.

KGNU-FM in Boulder has taken the latter course in regard to E-Town; as a result, says station manager Marty Durlin, "the change in affiliation will make absolutely no difference to us whatsoever. But it's still too bad about the stuff NPR has dropped. Everybody in public radio is obviously looking at ways to cut costs and become more efficient. The question is, what is your mission and what are you willing to sacrifice? I guess they've decided that it's in their best interest to focus on classical and jazz and information programming, but my feeling is that the human person is wider and deeper than that. It makes everything less rich."

"I think it's a real shame," agrees Dottie Talmage, station manager for KVNF-FM in Paonia. "Cutting programs like this limits the diversity for smaller rural stations that are trying to provide good programming for our listeners."

Surprisingly, Sandra Rattley-Lewis, NPR's senior vice president for cultural programming (and the woman who decided which programs to cut), echoes many of these sentiments. She heaps praise upon Forster and E-Town and calls the decision to jettison it and the other shows "very painful for me personally, and for the institution as a whole. The diversity that we've offered over the years has been one of our trademarks, and now we don't have as much diversity as we did. But rather than being reactive to budget cuts, we're trying to be preventative. We want to get ready for the future and what we see as the inevitable economic crunch ahead."

Rattley-Lewis claims that NPR's budget has already been slashed by between 10 and 20 percent, and given the present political climate, she fears that Congress could authorize deeper cuts in the future. In an effort to prepare for this possibility, she goes on, NPR surveyed member stations across the country to determine which pieces of the cultural-programming package they found most valuable. The largest number voted in favor of classical and jazz because those styles' audiences tend to come from upper-income brackets and respond favorably to fundraising beg-a-thons. Still, Rattley-Lewis insists that NPR isn't satisfied with this state of affairs. "Our full intent is to wait and see how the changes we're going to have to learn to live with affect us," she says, "and then, if we can, build our diversity back up again."

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