Montana Public Radio is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. We’re also celebrating the listeners and contributors who have been our partners in building and sustaining this uniquely local public radio station. We’ve come a long way together since our early days as a tiny 10-watt station on the University of Montana campus. We are forever grateful for the community’s loyalty and support.

But amidst the celebrations, MTPR also finds itself at a crossroads. After a long arc of steady financial growth, MTPR has moved into deficit.

The station’s state and federal funding has eroded, diminishing two of the three traditional sources of support. To sustain MTPR, an increasingly larger share of the support must come from listeners and businesses in Montana. Right now we see two options: one is transformational cuts and changes to the very core of the service; the second requires substantial growth in listener support for current needs and long-term sustainability.

We will not, and cannot, resolve this dilemma alone. Thousands of listeners and supporters will decide if MTPR will attain the financial support that keeps the service thriving. Public financial support and involvement has never been more important.

Over the winter, MTPR’s senior staff went on a listening tour to meet with our constituents in Helena, Kalispell, Butte, Great Falls, Hamilton and Missoula. One of the things we learned is that there is very little awareness that the station is facing any financial pressures. I acknowledge that we should have done a better job at communicating our situation to our audience and donors.

MTPR will end this fiscal year in June in deficit. To balance the budget in the coming year we must increase donor support by an additional $300,000, moving from $1.2 million to $1.5 million. That’s a big challenge but we must reverse this trend that started about two years ago with permanent budget reductions from the University of Montana. Last spring our pledge drive fell significantly short of the goal. Corporate support is still recovering from the recession. A federal grant program, which covered 75 percent of the cost for infrastructure projects, has been cancelled. At the same time we must build our capability online to be relevant and accessible to a new generation of listeners.

To begin to address these challenges we made programming changes and personnel cuts last fall. We’ve received lots of feedback from listeners that the program changes came as a surprise and deeply affected their relationship with the station. MTPR fans cherish our eclectic mix of news and hand-picked local music programming. They delight in our children’s shows, and the ritual of “Pet Wars” that ends our spring pledge drive. MTPR’s diverse format is uniquely Montanan, and rare among public radio stations. The goal is to keep it that way.

The staff at MTPR trusts that our community knows how to come together to save what we all value.

The path to sustainability begins with the spring pledge drive. We’ll be spending next week making our very best case for your support. I hope you’ll join us.

William Marcus is director of the University of Montana Broadcast Media Center and general manager of Montana Public Radio. 

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