A few years ago, Ira Glass created some classic on-air fundraising spots based on the idea that public radio could make money from product placement. The joke was that public radio could earn more income by having its news people slip mentions of products or services into their stories and analyses.
As always, Ira's bits were funny and effective. Lots of listeners pledged. A few, not getting the joke, called stations to express their outrage over the idea that public radio would even think about product placements. It was so "not" public radio.
Or is it?
One of the new fundraising practices in public radio is selling sweepstakes opportunities to potential underwriters. The package includes the usual sweepstakes stuff -- lots of on-air promotion, a direct mail piece that could just as easily be from Publisher's Clearing House, web banner ads, and point-of-purchase entry boxes.
What makes all of this new are "Reporter Perspective" pieces that feature the sweepstakes prize.
An example of this is WBUR's Mercedes giveaway. A WBUR news producer visits the dealership, test drives the car, and along with the Mercedes salesman give the car glowing reviews.
It's everything an underwriting acknowledgement cannot be. That's the "value-added" for the underwriter. It is a blatant effort to skirt the rules about qualitative language.
In that way, these Reporter Perspectives are not really product placement, even though the sponsor paid to participate, because there is nothing subtle about them. They are an obvious sales pitch for the car. They are not exactly infomericals either.
They are somewhere between those two sales tactics and those faux news pieces put out by businesses and the White House. They are produced by news people, introduced like a news piece, and run in a news program. Each is designed to sound like a public radio story -- execpt it is pure PR.
Those advocating this type of fundraising position it as progressive and "new school." But there is nothing new about blurring the line between sales and news. Our listeners can find that just about anywhere else on the radio, TV, or the Internet. They come to public radio because they want to know that the people writing, reporting, and delivering the news aren't trying to sell them something. Sales tactics such as this undermine that trust.
To see and hear for yourself:UPDATE: Monday 8/29/2005 -- WBUR password-protected these and all other links to its "Promotions" page this afternoon. Promotions, in this instance, refers to opportunities for businesses to market their name, products, or services to station listeners during pledge drives.The Mercedes Benz promotion is here
. Click on Audio, then listen to the four Reporter Perspectives. If you get a chance, go to the Land Rover promotion
and click on Audio where you will learn that the station aired the Reporter Perspectives 35 times over 9 days.