Wisconsin Public Television goes door-to-door amid cuts

Walker's proposed budget cuts would take from UW System, ECB, which fund public broadcasting

As the public television and radio shows one million Wisconsinites watch and listen to every year face an uncertain budget future, Wisconsin Public Television has started seeking door-to-door donations from “viewers like you.”

“That was planned a year ago,” WPT Director of Television James Steinbach said. “We are always looking for ways to make sure we can sustain the service, and we know that public funding is always going to be looked at.”

The “neighborhood canvassing program,” as WPT officials call the door-to-door drive, is already in its second month. It was planned well before Gov. Scott Walker proposed cutting the two agencies that partner to run public broadcasting.

“‘Sesame Street’ is not going away. We’re here. We’ll find a way to be here,” Steinbach said. “But we also do a lot of wonderful work for K-12 teachers in schools. We have programs with veterans telling their stories. And we tell the stories of the state with hometown stories. Those are the types of programs we have to look at now really hard.”

Under Walker’s proposal, about $2.5 million would be cut from the state’s Educational Communications Board and an unknown portion of the $150 million total proposed to be cut from the University of Wisconsin System. Together both budgets fund public broadcasting.

“The uncertainty is everything,” Steinbach said. “Really quite large and we don’t know how that’s going to turn out…So we don’t really know what the extent to public broadcasting is.”

Going door-to-door, public television canvasser Tom Letzing frequently gets questions if his presence is due to the budget cuts.

“That is an initial reaction. What we tell them is…we’ve been planning this initial door-to-door campaign for a year. And we’re in our second month. So we were going to do this, regardless,” Letzing said.

“Never had a door-to-door from PBS before,” a woman in the Cherokee Park neighborhood laughed, before deciding to become a new member and making a donation.

“Woohoo!” Letzing said as he left her home.

In the program’s first two months, Letzing said the new drive is exceeding expectations.

“And it’s been a positive response,” Letzing said. “We’re far ahead of our projections to build new memberships.”

“These things matter to people here,” Steinbach added. “And I just hope they matter to the legislature and the governor.”

In a statement, the governor’s press secretary, Laurel Patrick, reiterated an earlier statement on public broadcasting cuts, saying they could be made up through grants, gifts and private donations.