November 9, 2011; Source: Oregonian | We often hear about the impact of public sector funding cuts on the capacity of nonprofits to deliver essential services that in some cases backfill for what was once provided directly by the public sector. In suburban Portland, Oregon, these blurred boundaries between nonprofits and public entities are showing up in a new way, as leaders of a publicly owned community television station seek to reorganize as a nonprofit in order to survive. They’re not starting under the most auspicious of conditions.
The Willamette Falls Media Center is currently co-owned by two municipalities, West Linn and Oregon City, linked through an intergovernmental agreement. Each city contributes part of its cable franchise revenue to support televised content from public, government, and educational sources. Other communities in the region are not owners, but they do have contracts for specific local content.
After years of expressing concern about fiscal management, one of the owners, the City of West Linn, is withdrawing to join a larger regional consortium based in a neighboring county, through which it believes it can save money and have both public access and cable management services. The withdrawal will take effect at the end of the current fiscal year, June 30, 2012. At that point, Oregon City will be the sole owner of the Media Center, as a city-owned public access station that provides contract services to other cities.
Supporters of the station have formed Friends of the Willamette Falls Media Center, and are working to convert the organization into a nonprofit they refer to as “the people’s channel.” As a nonprofit, the expected major sources of revenue will continue to be contracts with cities and school districts in the surrounding region.
One could argue that by achieving nonprofit status, the host community can preserve a valuable tool for locally focused media in the face of increased pressures for regionalization. At the same time, one could argue that this is an example of a nonprofit structure substituting for what the public sector should fund on an ongoing basis as a public good. What do you think?—Kathi Jaworski