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March 31, 2004

Public Radio Pledge Drive Don’ts

I don't mean to go off on a rant here ... but while commuting to work this morning, I writhed in pain as I endured KUT-FM groveling on-air for donations from listeners. The groveling was almost as pathetic as I had experienced listening to vocal Lyndon Larouche supporters accosting passer-bys on the downtown streets of Seattle last weekend.

Below, I have outlined three Public Radio Pledge Drive Don'ts. (Feel free to share your pledge drive frustrations in the comments section of this blog.)

Don’t Play the Shame Game
During every pledge drive, public radio derides and shames freeloaders (those who listen but do not contribute) into making a donation. We’ve all heard this line during the pledge drive, “If you’ve been listening without contributing, then it’s your time to pay up for all the great programming you hear but haven’t paid for.” This guilt trip is old and played out.

The Shame Game has continuously failed Public Radio. How else can you explain that it takes seven years for the average Public Radio listener to stop freeloading and start contributing? (This “seven-year freeloading” stat was repeated over and over this morning on KUT-FM.)

Stop Begging for Dollars
Charity is donating money to a homeless person on the corner holding up a sign that reads, “Need Money for Food. God Bless.” Charity is not giving money to a pubic radio station that verbally begs and grovels with lines like, “We need your money. Without your financial support, expensive programming like The World may have to go away.”

Begging is not becoming of a brand that appeals to the highly educated and the highly paid. Public Radio needs to better communicate its overt benefit to listeners in a rationale and emotional manner that doesn’t succumb to unsophisticated begging.

It’s not radio. It’s NPR.
Public radio has more in common with the HBO business model than it does with the commercial broadcast radio station business model. HBO relies on monies from viewers (subscribers) and not from advertisers to finance their programming. Public Radio, like HBO, must appeal to listeners and not to advertisers for money to finance their operation.

HBO has proven that consumers will pay for quality programming. Both HBO and Public Radio focus on quality content that serves as water cooler fodder for the well-informed. However, you never hear or see HBO stoop to groveling for dollars from viewers. Take the high road Public Radio and learn from HBO on how to appeal to consumers willing to pay for quality programming. (Admittedly, there is a major difference in that public radio broadcasts its signal for anyone to receive while HBO is a television service available only to viewers who subscribe to receive HBO programming.)


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The posting below notes some good rules of thumb for Public Radio stations engaging in those ever-unpleasant pledge drives. Brand Autopsy: Public Radio Pledge Drive Don’ts Everyone in Public Radio is always looking for ways to make their "begathons" ... [Read More]


I agree the NPR pledge drive model is in dire need of assistance. Unfortunately, part of the problem stems from the stations' tendency to throw the local voice talent onto the airwaves with no scripting, ad libbing themselves in a downward spiral of inane comments like the ones you mention here -- "Stop freeloading!" "Please, please, please, we're in dire need!"

NPR first needs to understand who *is* donating. In the years I've donated to my local KCRW station, I've never once been asked a question like, "We're trying to understand how to better reach our core audience of subscribers. Would you mind answering some brief questions that will help us more efficiently approach other potential subscribers like you?" I can't imagine anyone saying no. It sounds like they may do some focus groups, but it's really the subscribers on the phone they need to speak with. If they don't want to tie up pledge workers' time, direct them to an online survey. Understanding their core constituency better would be a good first step in finding out why people are calling -- and you can bet it's not because they're feeling guilty or shamed or are moved to near tears by the plight of public radio.

The other thing they need to do is appeal to their listeners' good sense -- explain simply, "Good programming costs money. You count on your local NPR affiliate to bring you the latest news, out-of-the-mainstream music, and a diversity of views and thoughts that help you make informed decisions about what's going on in the world. Quality costs. If what we're providing to you has worth, please demonstrate that with a pledge of whatever you can manage. Capitalism is a democracy, and you vote with your dollar. Vote for us, so we can continue to provide you with the very best in radio." NPR listeners in general, but especially those who may be fence-sitting potential subscribers, are a smart bunch. They know in an era of Clear Channel and other media consolidation, their options for intelligent radio are dwindling. Enlisting them as partners in the fight against media mediocrity is one way to communicate why people need to open up their wallets for NPR.

Oh, and they shouldn't force popular talent into stringer jobs before big pledge drives.

There are ongoing efforts to make pledge drives better. You can read about one of them here.

"I'll drive your f***ing (average quarter hour audience and cumulative weekly audience) to ZERO if that's what it takes to make goal."

That's what a veteran public broadcasting executive in a medium-major market told me once when I advised him against extending a 10-day pledge drive that had entered a death spiral.

His comment offers a gateway into much of the thinking about on-air fundraising in public radio.

For every thought leader like John Sutton who is generous with his knowledge and experience, there are many more pubradio executives, managers and producers who insist on maintaining life support for a 25 year-old model that is irrelevant and broken.

There is an abundance of superb and actionable research about on-air fundraising. And there's a cadre of bright and effective pubradio executives, staffers and consultants who are guiding smart organizations to new heights in on-air fundraising.

Unfortunately, many public radio organizations are controlled by superannuated or downright dim decision-makers who cling to a fading structure of subsidy and a sense of entitlement. These folks often willfully -- even spitefully -- ignore the ‘pledge progressives’ and their demonstrable successes.

Of the five executives I worked for during my 11 years in public radio, only one truly understood and acted upon the maxim: 'good programming is good fundraising, good fundraising is good programming.' The others viewed 'pledge' either as a chore to be endured, or an opportunity to bludgeon non-givers into submission. These same executives failed to understand that the listener most likely had an 'off' button at his or her disposal.

Among NPR member stations, an evolutionary split is taking place. The first and most populous branch is comprised of underachievers. This branch has two subgroups. One is rife with underperforming executives who endure thanks to cozy relationships with insular, self-sustaining governing boards.

The other subgroup of this branch owes its existence to ossified institutional cultures that permit visionless, careerist administrators to preside over atrophy so long as they stay within budget and ignore the misbehavior of certain constituencies.

Despite their complaints about the fees they pay for acquired programming, the executives in both of these subgroups have survived thanks to the lucrative, hard-to-screw-up NPR News franchise they've been granted.

But in an ever-fragmenting media marketplace that offers listeners more choices, public radio’s underachievers are finding themselves hard-pressed to maintain internal capacity. In turn, they're finding it difficult or impossible to create distinctive local programming that makes a station relevant to its community and worthy of listener financial support. And, there’s a doubly whammy. Public radio’s superb national programming has trained listeners to expect a high level of craft and content. Absent capacity, underachieving stations can’t meet those expectations.

The second, emerging branch is where you’ll find success. This is the branch that has internalized a leading pubradio researcher's counsel that "Public support begets public service, public service begets public support." These are the organizations that make informed -- and sometimes surprising and controversial -- choices about meeting the listener’s needs. These are the stations where executives work hard with their staffs to promote an organization-wide understanding of mission and clarity of vision. These stations go the extra mile to invest in their employees and programming. They willingly serve as laboratories that invent the next, highest levels of success in public service programming and fundraising. Above all, they never take the listener for granted.

Is it any wonder that the dollars pour in when these overachievers do a skillful job of telling their story during 'pledge'?

Duncan Lively
ex-pubradio denizen

Those pledge drives are rigged--each time one takes place (at least in the Des Moines/Ames, Iowa area) they always end up raising a "record amount of money" after talking doom and gloom about how the local public radio station will founder unless the public steps in to help.

I've two questions: Do most public radio stations have an board comprised of members of the public which would advise the stations on how the money should be used? (I haven't heard of any representing the one in the Des Moines/Ames area.) Also, some performers such as Garrison Keillor and the Car Talk people have made lots of $$$ from books and recordings based on their public radio shows. If they don't already, why don't the public radio people lean on them to make some hefty donations to the institution that put them in business?

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