Mountain Stage could be in trouble. The two-hour radio show that broadcasts to over 170 NPR affiliates from West Virginia is facing a budget battle that could not only see the nearly 35-year-old music institution go off the air, but all other programing produced and distributed by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.
A recent budget proposal by West Virginia Governor Jim Justice proposes the elimination of all public funding for West Virginia Public Broadcasting, which relies on roughly 50% public funds to cover operating costs. This would not only doom Mountain Stage, but would take the West Virginia PBS station off the air, and force the company to lay off approximately 75% of its staff. And because the cuts would be immediate instead of phased in over time, they could trigger additional costs for West Virginia Public Broadcasting and the state to power down broadcast towers and break leases on land and equipment.
“This budget … eliminates all funding for WVPB’s Mountain Stage, West Virginia’s calling card to the world,” says Susan C. Hogan and Ted Armbrecht—Chairs of the Friends of West Virginia Public Broadcasting in an open letter. “More than 13,000 people attended a Mountain Stage concert in West Virginia last year, leading to more than $1 million in direct economic impact. What does the Governor’s proposed elimination of all funding for Mountain Stage save? $300,000 … We believe this would be unwise and irresponsible. We understand the state needs to save money, but such a drastic and immediate cut threatens the very existence of our state’s PBS and NPR stations.”
Mountain Stage is like the Austin City Limits of Appalachia. Each year the show produces 26 episodes at the Culture Center Theater in Charleston, West Virginia, though at times the Mountain Stage has moved to other locations, including the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas, Fairbanks, Alaska, and has also broadcast from Canada and Scotland. 27 live albums from the Mountain Stage series have been released. Along with showcasing some of the best regional talent in the bluegrass, country, and roots relms, the prestige of Mountain Stage has attracted national-recognized performers such as Phish, R.E.M., and Norah Jones in the past.
“These proposed cuts are even more damaging because the Justice Administration did not consult anyone at West Virginia Public Broadcasting for advice. Currently, there is no transition plan for WVPB,” says Friends of West Virginia Public Broadcasting. “Eliminating all state funding endangers our ability to provide PBS Kids programming to low-income children who need it the most … West Virginia Public Broadcasting operates a 27-tower network that reaches all corners of our state. These proposed cuts would force many of the towers to be turned off. Even that takes time and money to do — and not doing it properly will expose the state to multi-million dollar lawsuits.”
These budget battles often result in had wringing on both sides. Budget proposals have put Mountain Stage in peril before, with the show always eventually finding a way forward, but only after a public outcry from fans of programming like Mountain Stage.
Some have accused West Virginia governor Jim Justice—a Democrat and billionaire—of playing politics with public funding. As David Folkenflik—a NPR media corespondent points out—in 2016 a report by NPR exposed that Jim Justice owed $15 million in taxes and fines.