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April 02, 2004

Duncan Lively's lively comments

In a response to an earlier blog, Duncan Lively, "ex-pubradio denizen," gave his insider's perspective of how management at some Public Radio stations approach on-air fundraising.

If you like your opinions hot, spicy, and lively ... then, Duncan Lively has a few words for you.

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.

"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

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Comments

He (Lively) managed an NPR affiliate in California (KAZU, Pacific Grove) for two-and-a-half years. In that time, the station has gone through four Morning Edition hosts during his tenure there... I worked there for several months and noticed that he had some personality problems fairly early on, almost like Aspergers Disease.

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