Updated at 1 p.m. March 30, 2017

Three weeks ago, KPBS General Manager Tom Karlo and colleague Nancy Worlie had “face-to-face visits” in Washington with four San Diego members of Congress.

Nancy Worlie and Tom Karlo oversee KPBS and its news operations. Photo by Ken Stone
Nancy Worlie and Tom Karlo oversee KPBS and its news operations. Photo by Ken Stone

Democratic Reps. Susan Davis, Scott Peters and Juan Vargas, as well as Republican Darrell Issa, heard their pitch for continued federal support of public broadcasting.

But GOP Congressman Duncan Hunter didn’t respond to a meeting request. His office wouldn’t even slate a sit-down with a staffer, Karlo said.

Undaunted, the KPBS duo decided: “Let’s go to his office anyway, just to drop off the packet of information,” Karlo said.

So at 1:30 p.m. March 1 — during a break from meetings with a trade group they belong to — Karlo and Worlie found Hunter’s office in the *Rayburn Building.

The door was locked.

“So I knocked on the door, and somebody kind of opened it, and I said who I was,” Karlo told Times of San Diego. “He wanted to know if I had an appointment. I said, ‘No I don’t, but I just wanted to drop off a packet of information for Congressman Hunter to review.’”

On Thursday, Hunter spokesman Joe Kasper said the congressman was meeting with “maritime industry folks” that day, “so he was here.”

“Also, the only reason the door would be closed is if there was a meeting in the lobby. … And if it was locked, it was unintentional.”

Via email, Kasper said he had no idea who Karlo was.

For her part, Worlie said: “Glad to hear that it was unintentional. We look forward to meeting with Congressman Hunter and/or his staff in the near future.”

The packet’s fate is unknown, and so is the future of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — which accounts for as much as 13 percent of KPBS income. President Trump’s budget calls for totally defunding the 50-year-old CPB.

KPBS leaders Nancy Worlie and Tom Karlo have waged previous successful fights to avert funding cuts. Photo by Ken Stone
KPBS leaders Nancy Worlie and Tom Karlo have waged previous successful fights to avert funding cuts. Photo by Ken Stone

It’s old hat for KPBS, however. And Karlo and Worlie, associate general manager for content and communications, are hoping their 4-for-5 success in the nation’s capital is a harbinger.

But unlike previous “zero-out” threats under Presidents Richard Nixon and George W. Bush — as well as House Speaker Newt Gingrich in the early 1990s — the current budget ax seems sharper.

“Going through the whole process [over the decades], we have somehow survived,” Karlo said. “But this one — the dynamics are interesting.”

Station fans have signaled that “they’re very concerned,” said Karlo, a San Diego State graduate who’s been at KPBS for 44 years.

But nobody is pushing a panic button at the SDSU offices of KPBS. In fact, they haven’t installed one.

“Since this is a very long [legislative] process, we’re trying to take a little more marathon approach,” Karlo said. “I don’t want to cry wolf at this point because I don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s going to be a lot of pressure and lobbying.”

He’s not about to “shoot out of the gate too quickly and fizzle out,” he said in an hourlong interview.

KPBS, a pioneering public station in a large market, is more insulated from budget disaster than others. In small or rural markets, federal funding can be as much as 60 percent of a station’s revenues, Karlo said.

So Karlo, as a national board member of PBS, fears for his broadcasting brethren. Defunding, he said, would have a “devastating effect on PBS and NPR and the system as a whole.”

Recent press release from KPBS notes how public stations are top-rated for public trust. (PDF)
Recent press release from KPBS notes how public stations are top-rated for public trust. (PDF)

Helping Karlo stay calm for now is the fact CPB is funded two years in advance. KPBS gets something over $3 million a year from Washington. (KPBS annual operating revenues are about $24 million.)

“So the money we’re receiving right now in 2017 was appropriated in 2015,” said the La Mesan whose own salary is about $236,000. “As we are approaching the budget right now, it is really for 2019. If it’s zeroed out for 2019, we have a couple years to see how it would go.”

That assumes Congress doesn’t rescind previous spending plans and halt the twice-a-year payments to stations like KPBS.

“There are so many scenarios — I can’t give you a definitive answer of what we would do,” Karlo said. “The two biggest expenses we have are staff and content.”

And KPBS, with 45 people in its news-gathering operation (the second-biggest in San Diego after the Union-Tribune newsroom of 150), hopes not to face staff cuts.

In November 2013, KPBS staff voted to unionize for the first time in station history. News workers belong to a local of SAG-AFTRA, traditionally for actors.

Asked how the union contract would govern staffing cuts as a result of a federal budget blow, associate GM Worlie said: “We have a really good working relationship. … I’m confident that if we were faced with an extreme situation, they’d be willing to work with us.”

Said Karlo: “We have found them very nice and cooperative to work with.”

In any case, KPBS’s first labor deal expires in December and a new one will be negotiated this summer. (Union officials declined to comment for this story or provide a copy of the contract.)

If Congress looks close to defunding CPB, KPBS would call on some major donors to raise their voices on its behalf.

“I have a list of names I think I could call on, but I wouldn’t share those names until I got their approval,” Karlo said, because it “might compromise something else they were doing.”

Another lobbying effort is a national website called protectmypublicmedia.org — which grew out of an earlier one used to fend off cuts six years ago called 170millionamericans.org. After almost two years, 400,000 listeners are subscribed to the new site — with their names on a mailing list for rapid response.

Aside from hoping that rising ratings allow KPBS to charge its named-on-air underwriting sponsors more (don’t call them commercials, since the FCC has strict rules on what ads can say), KPBS relies on its 54,000-plus members.

The average gift is $33 — or $160 per donor, Worlie said. Members trend toward middle age and older — 18 percent are ages 25-44, 35 percent are 45-64 and 45 percent are 65 and older.

A potential revenue source is a former one — Sacramento.

Every year, Karlo says, the state’s 10 public stations go to members of the Legislature and ask: “Is there a possibility to re-establish funds for public broadcasting?”

With a few exceptions for special projects — earthquake preparedness or digital transition needs — lawmakers haven’t cut any checks to KPBS and sister stations since a recession ending in the early 1990s, Karlo said.

(KPBS radio is essentially owned by San Diego State, and KPBS TV is licensed to California State University regents. KPBS pays the SDSU Research Foundation to handle administrative chores like payroll, human resources and some accounting.)

Karlo and Worlie note that the most recent KPBS fund-raising campaign didn’t mention fears of Congress pulling the plug. But a recent press release from KPBS gives its argument to Congress, citing a national survey that “confirmed that PBS and its member stations are rated #1 in public trust among nationally known institutions.”

Karlo is quoted in the release.

“We are diligent in safeguarding the public’s trust by providing exceptional content across TV, radio and digital media,” he said. “The three new channel options we recently added help meet the growing demand for trusted and unique content for the entire family.”

One GOP argument for public-broadcasting defunding has eased in recent years, however.

The rise of MSNBC as a perceived left-wing news outlet has taken the pressure off NPR, PBS and its member stations, Karlo said.

“When you have MSNBC and CNN, sometimes I say ‘thank you.’ It puts us back into the middle” of the political spectrum, he said.

The KPBS newsroom at San Diego State University. Courtesy of the station
The KPBS newsroom at San Diego State University. Courtesy of the station

In any case, Karlo and Worlie defend KPBS from conservative critics.

“Everything we do is to be objective, unbiased, truthful, fact-based,” he said. “We won’t release a story unless we have substantial people to comment and back it. I’m not going to release a story that says ‘we have reliable sources.’”

Said Worlie, a 45-year-old El Cajon resident: “The best way to combat those criticisms is to do our jobs. And do them well. And strive for excellence in the newsroom in everything that we do.”

Karlo and Worlie get no argument from Jeff Light, editor of The San Diego Union-Tribune.

“I think they do a good job,” Light said. “I really enjoy the programming.”

What would it mean to San Diego if KPBS had to cut news staff?

“The number of reporters working in the U.S. has dropped by more than 25,000 since 2000,” he said via email. “That is a poisonous trend, and I deplore it.”

Former U-T radio and TV writer (late 1997 to 2005) Preston Turegano says he listens to KPBS “constantly” in his car and regards its news as fair and balanced.

“But it is not a 7/24 news operation,” he says. “If you have a breaking news story [tip], especially on a weekend, you have to leave a message!”

KPBS reporter Amita Sharma, the moderator, chats with audience before a 2016 governor debate. Photo by Ken Stone
KPBS reporter Amita Sharma, the moderator, chats with audience before a 2016 governor debate. Photo by Ken Stone

“But now that the U-T’s Op-Ed pages have become more center rather than right or left, I would agree at least politically KPBS is second only to the U-T,” says Turegano, who has never been a KPBS member, traced to his original stance of not wanting to have a conflict of interest in covering the station.

At San Diego Mesa College, political science professor Carl Luna partners with KPBS (and appears on its shows). The station also helps sponsor his Restoring Civility to Civic Dialogue conference.

The odds of Congress killing CPB?

“Low but higher than in the past,” Luna says. “Ultraconservatives see this as a chance, with a friendly president, to silence what they see as government funding of leftist-propaganda and check off one of their longtime wish-list items.”

More than likely, though, CPB will be protected in the Senate if defunding passes the House, he said.

“Heck, many members of Congress, if not most, get their news from NPR too.”

What worries Luna more is a move to privatize the nonprofit CPB and strip it and affiliates of bandwidth “and then sell that bandwidth to the private sector who can use it to play pop music and conservative talk.”

Luna says “that would be a fundamental step by one side of the political spectrum to silence a major source of dissent to their world view.”

Longtime local radio watcher Joe Nelson of sandiegoradio.org notes KPBS is the top-rated station in the market.

He chalks up the rise in KPBS listenership to “where we are today with all the Trump news.”

Nelson said he’s not worried “a bit” about KPBS amid threatened budget cuts.

“I do think it’s unlikely, but I believe it would be a serious dagger in the radio landscape,” he said. “I personally hope we never see a day like that.”

For Karlo, dark clouds in Washington haven’t dimmed his own future. The 64-year-old station chief says he loves his job and has no plans to retire.

“Almost everywhere I go in the community … people tell me how great it is,” he said. “I think our future is really bright. I think KPBS can grow even more. And I want to be a part of it.”

*Correction: The original version of this story said the KPBS pair tried to meet with Hunter at the Longworth Building. In fact, they went to Hunter’s office in the Rayburn Building.