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BUDGET CUTS THREATEN ALASKA'S RADIO LIFELINE

Corey Flintoff's voice reaches the remote corners of the nation's largest and most sparsely populated state every weekday, delivering the world's news from his desk in the nation's capital.

As a newscaster for National Public Radio, Flintoff is heard in many out-of-the-way places, but none so isolated as the Yupik Eskimo villages of southwest Alaska.In these tiny communities, where children still learn their native language before English and families subsist on fish, game and berries gathered near their homes, public radio is a lifeline, not just to the nation's capital but to family and neighbors.

Personal messages like birth announcements and grocery lists are commonly heard on Alaska's far-flung public radio stations. So are the latest commercial fishing openings and the occasional tsunami warning. And weather, always the weather.

These small stations are more essential to their communities than the average university station in the lower 48 states, said Flintoff, who started his career in Alaska public radio.

"It plays a central role," he said. "That's the beauty of it."

But it is a lifeline that may be cut. Across Alaska, more than two dozen public radio stations are bracing for budget reductions that threaten to end their broadcasts, which are especially cherished in the rural areas where the residents are few and mainly native Alaskans.

The conservative mood that swept the nation in November also took hold in this politically independent state, giving the Republican Party control of both houses of the Alaska Legislature for the first time since the 1960s.

Promising to shrink a state budget viewed as out of control, the majority is taking its knife to every program deemed a frill. Public broadcasting is one of those.

Last week, the state House of Representatives approved a spending plan that cut the Alaska Public Broadcasting Commission's $6 million budget in half. The leadership informed the broadcasting agency it intended to end support for the state's four public television stations and drastically reduce financing for radio in communities that have a commercial radio station.

Senate budget writers have made similar reductions, taking less from radio but entirely eliminating the broadcasting commission, which distributes the funds. The differences will be worked out in a conference committee.

Rep. Vic Kohring, chairman of the House committee that oversaw the public broadcasting budget, said he was merely carrying out the majority's pledge to reduce state spending by $70 million next year.

Alaska's budget is $2.5 billion this year and the state faces annual deficits of $500 million for the next several years because of a continuing long-term decline in oil and gas royalties paid to the state. A decline in prices and production dates from the 1980s.

"I personally enjoy public radio and TV," said Kohring, a freshman Republican from Wasilla. "It gets down to basic and raw economics. We don't have enough dollars to fund everything."

Kohring's list of essential services includes roads, schools and programs for the elderly, but he all but eliminated state money for the arts.

Alaska broadcasters and legislative Democrats view the cuts as copycat politics, a mean-spirited, local version of the Contract With America in Congress.

They said a state with a $15 billion savings account - the Alaska Permanent Fund - and no state income or sales tax does not need to cripple its information delivery system.

The fund, financed by gas and oil revenues, provides dividends of almost $1,000 a resident a year and is considered politically untouchable.

"What's happening in Alaska is the Republicans are trying to copy what the Republicans are doing nationally, what Newt Gingrich is doing," said Sen. Jim Duncan, Democrat of Juneau. "I think it's a step back into the Dark Ages."

Alaska natives see the reductions as an attack on a group with no voice in a Legislature now controlled by conservative, urban Alaskans.

"People are really scared out here," said Russell Nelson, who lives in the Bristol Bay community of Dillingham. "If they can take away the statewide news and weather forecast that people use on a day-to-day basis, what else can they take away?"