Public broadcasting budget cuts threaten emergency services in Oregon

by Steven Bass, Salem Statesman-Journal

Imagine firefighters rushing to a burning building and having the structure’s blueprints transmitted directly to their fire truck. Or, a severe storm knocks out power on the coast of Oregon — but emergency alerts are still sent directly to your cell phone. Or, picture training rural doctors and nurses on a bio-terrorism threat by relaying critical information to their computers on a moment’s notice.

Such vital emergency and life-saving alert systems for the public and emergency responders isn’t science fiction. The technology is available today and could be employed throughout our state on Oregon’s only state-wide television network, Oregon Public Broadcasting. As president of Oregon Public Broadcasting, I want OPB to play this key role in making Oregon’s citizens safer and better prepared. But the widespread installation of this emergency system hinges on public funding and without the support in this year’s state budget, it may be impossible.

OPB’s new digital television broadcast system can distribute more than pictures to TV sets; we can also send over the airwaves video, multimedia, audio, text, pictures and large data files to computers around the state using our extensive network of digital translators — the same digital translators which broadcast Sesame Street, Oregon Field Guide and The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.

Building on OPB’s current role as the backbone of the state’s emergency and child abduction alert system, a new generation of services could be provided to rural and urban residents alike. For example, a tsunami warning system along the coast using OPB’s digital translators could send evacuation instructions directly to televisions, radios, computers, cell phones and other handheld devices. Distance learning for K-12 and higher education, workforce training and many other services could also be provided using this system. The possibilities are virtually endless.

Unfortunately, these life-saving services could be lost for everyone in Oregon if OPB does not receive the essential funding it needs to convert its extensive network of analog translators to digital by Feb. 17, 2009 in compliance with a federal mandate. On this date, all analog transmitters will be permanently shut down — which means if we do not convert our network throughout the state, we will not only lose the quality programming of OPB, but also this important technology.

Thanks to many forward-looking Oregon legislators and some special funding in 2001, OPB already has what we need to meet the new federal standards in Portland, Bend, Corvallis, Eugene and La Grande. But unless new funding is allocated to OPB, the rest of the state will lose access to public television and this critical system in less than two years.

OPB estimates the cost of the upgrade to be $5.5 million, with the federal government picking up half the tab — far too much for OPB to handle without state support. Gov. Ted Kulongoski recognizes the big benefits of this relatively small investment and has included $2.75 million in one-time capital funding and a $1 million operating appropriation for OPB in his CHAMP (culture, history, arts, movies and preservation) budget initiative that is now before the legislature.

As it stands now, however, the budget at the state capital would reduce the funding recommended by the governor to $500,000, not nearly enough to support the required changes.

The transition and funding of Oregon’s rural broadcasting infrastructure is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ensure access to public television services, and to provide a new generation of services designed to save lives. I hope my fellow Oregonians will join me in asking their legislators to back the governor’s CHAMP initiative and support life-saving technology.

Steven Bass of Lake Oswego is the president and CEO of Oregon Public Broadcasting.

article originally published at

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey