Public radio is in another
cycle of conducting shorter on-air pledge drives.
The latest cycle
started at North Country Public Radio (NCPR) in upstate New York. Last fall, NCPR produced what it called a
Warp Drive, allowing it to meet its $325,000 campaign goal with just 3 hours of
traditional on-air fundraising. The typical NCPR drive was five days full of
NCPR achieved this through
weeks of more aggressive off-air fundraising (email, direct mail, social media)
supported by short on-air announcements that didn’t interrupt the
programming. Several stations have
followed NCPR’s lead and have been able to cut their drives from more than a
week to mere days, even hours. Vermont
Public Radio managed to meet its $350,000 goal without having to interrupt
programming at all.
The “less on-air
fundraising” movement isn’t new to public radio. There was a lot of
experimentation in the mid-1990s. We helped WBUR in Boston cut a drive from 10
days to 3 hours with More News, Less On-air Fundraising. The station managed to
keep drives very short for a little more than a year. WKSU in Kent, OH pioneered All the Money in
Half the Time. Many stations tried variations of these ideas throughout
the 90s with good results.
In the early 2000s,
WUWM in Milwaukee eliminated its entire Fall drive for 3 or 4 years in a row
using strategies similar to NCPR’s Warp Drive.
Around the same time, WSKG in Binghamton, NY invented the 1-Day pledge
Sonja Lee, who is part
of our firm Sutton & Lee, helped perfect the 1-Day drive concept while she
was at KBBI in Homer, AK. She helped us create a 1-Day drive kit and consulting
package used by more than a dozen stations. A few of those stations have
been doing nothing but 1-Day pledge drives for years, including five straight
years for Northwest Public Radio in Pullman, WA.
Shorter drives, by
themselves, provide no long-term fundraising benefit. The real fundraising
benefit of shortening drives is the leverage it provides when trying to get
more sustaining members and direct mail givers. These types of donors have
greater long-term value to the station. The promise of shortening or
eliminating drives helps change their giving behavior.
It should come as no
surprise then that drive shortening efforts tend to work best at stations with
under-developed off-air fundraising programs.
There’s more financial opportunity.
Really short drives
don’t last long at most stations. There are several reasons including:
- Failing to upgrade
off-air fundraising efforts or maintain them at the highest level. After a few
big successes, pledge drives get longer again in order to capture lapsed donors
and lost off-air revenue.
- Increased revenue demands.
Stations increase their spending over time more than they can improve their
off-air fundraising results. Then the pledge
drive creep begins.
- Novelty. Short drives
are at their most efficient the first go-around. The actual on-air part of
shorter drives make less money over time as listeners get used to them. The
first few drives bring in lots of additional gifts as current members reward
the station for doing less fundraising. The novelty wears off and the
additional gifts go away.
This is where NCPR has
made an important innovation. Almost every past approach to less on-air
fundraising had a "pre-drive" that helped shorten the drive. NCPR
flips that and says that the weeks leading up to the on-air pitching *are* the
drive. The on-air part is merely clean-up. That's a very good message. It
redefines the drive and might help create future additional gift opportunities
when the novelty wears off. Whether that pans out remains to be seen.
Acquiring new members
can be an issue over time but it is not initially a problem for most stations.
At first, stations sees a spike in renewal rates and lapsed donors coming back.
So even when new member counts are down, the donor database grows through
better retention and reacquisition. This can last as long as two or three years
if the off-air fundraising efforts are firing on all cylinders.
Will this cycle of shorter
drives lead to a lasting change in how public radio conducts on-air
fundraising? Probably not.
NCPR repeated its Warp
Drive approach this Spring and needed 2.5 days of traditional fundraising to
meet its campaign goal. While that’s a
lot more than the 3 hours it required in the Fall, it is still a great
success. It’s half as much fundraising
as the station used to do. That’s good
fundraising and good stewardship of the airwaves.
And, as with every
past cycle to shorten drives, this one is helping public radio learn new things
about fundraising that will make more stations stronger in a future where
traditional pledge drives could be as much of a liability as an asset.