Monday, October 30, 2006

Corporate Sponsors 2010

It’s only a matter of time when corporate support will be more important to the public radio industry than listener support.

That time has already come for numerous stations where gross underwriting revenue is the primary source of income. At many other stations, listener contributions appear to be the largest source of income but are not after subtracting the cost of fundraising. NPR has already had fiscal years when underwriting sales income exceeded station dues and fees.

The influence of these business dollars is being felt today, if not in news coverage then in how public radio conducts its business.

NPR turned down underwriting for the controversial film “Death of a President” because it was concerned listeners might think its news coverage of the film was influenced by taking the money. While that might be the right thing to do, it raises questions about what makes the film different than Wal-Mart. Both are controversial. Both are covered by NPR News. To the outside observer, it might not make sense why the network finds it okay to take money from one but not the other.

Many stations are getting push back on the phrase “non-commercial” radio because of the quantity and qualities of today’s underwriting credits. Everywhere I go listeners, pledge volunteers, staff, and board members chuckle when they hear the phrase “non-commercial.” Then they rattle off examples of underwriters and underwriting language that they deem to be commercial. It’s at the point where saying public radio is “non-commercial” might be costing us credibility with listeners.

Recently, a cable company and corporate underwriter threatened to pull its contract with a station because of on-air fundraising pitches that positioned supporting public radio as a better investment than cable TV fees. The pitches also reminded listeners about what they like about public radio news and don’t like about television.

The offending scripts won’t be used again, and their absence probably won’t hurt overall pledge results, but the incident shows that current and potential underwriters can have influence over how a station markets itself to listeners.

We’ve seen variations of this show up at other stations, where premiums and sweepstakes are used not because they are good for membership fundraising, but because they help sell underwriting. It's product placement in public radio. It's an interesting problem because these stations now have news hosts pitching a premium because an underwriter paid for its placement and not because it’s the best possible fundraising tactic at the moment. It’s a backdoor way for businesses to buy the credibility of public radio’s hosts and journalists. And some stations are willingly selling it using the rationale that it is fundraising, not news.

That’s just a partial list of things happening right now that suggest public radio will find itself increasingly answering to business supporters before listeners or listener-contributors. From where I sit, it looks like an inevitable future. Let’s start figuring out now how to manage it while keeping public radio’s reputation as a “trusted space” intact.

Friday, October 27, 2006

All the Money, More New Members: Half the Time

A follow-up on the Valuing Listeners' Time post.

WLRN in Miami just finished its "All the Money, Half the Time" fund drive campaign. Last fall the station raised $709,000 in pledges and challenges. The on-air drive generated 1,990 new members. This year, the station raised $800,000 in pledges and challenges with half as many days of on-air fundraising. The on-air drive generated more than 3,250 new members.

The All the Money, Half the Time idea is not right for every station. But it does show that respecting listeners' time and relationship with the station's programming pays.

And it demonstrates that doing less on-air fundraising doesn't mean fewer new members. Properly implemented, it means more.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006


Someday the Internet will be a mainstream option for getting radio and video just about anywhere. I don't think that will happen until wireless access is ubiquitous, cheap, and as reliable as a radio station.

I still experience dropped cell phone calls a few times per week. Wireless web connections drop out fairly frequently. Listeners wouldn't tolerate a radio station that goes off the air several times per week. They won't tolerate it for audio streaming over the wireless web.

And the pricing for Internet services is a bit strange. I've been on the road a lot over the last month and I'm pretty certain that the following is true: The more expensive the hotel room, the more likely you will have to pay for an Internet connection.

Then there were the two hotels in major markets (different chains) that didn't have high-speed Internet in my room. In one case, the outlet was broken. In the other, I was told that the only option was dial-up and the hotel would reimburse my connection costs. Huh?

I'm sure broadband will someday provide serious competition for radio. But based on the obstacles I experienced in the last month, and that most consumers face today, there is still a long way to go.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Gallery Place-Chinatown

My wife and I had dinner last night at Rosa Mexicano, right across the street from the Verizon Center where the Washington Capitals were losing a hockey game to Tampa Bay.

Rosa Mexicano was one of dozens of restaurants at which we could have dined. We could have shopped at quite a few retail outlets too. Parking ranged from $15 - $20 for the evening. The hundreds of people we saw walking by came from all ages, races, and socio-economic backgrounds. Most of them were just visiting, but an increasing number live in the neighborhood or nearby.

The neighborhood was nothing like this when NPR moved in back in 1994. Outside of some excellent Chinese restaurants, you could count the number of good places to eat on one hand. Street parking was plentiful if you were willing to risk it. In short, it was a neighborhood in the tail end of a decline.

I realized last night that NPR had a lot to do with the revitalization of this area.

For certain, the creation of the sports arena and the rebuilding of the convention center had a much bigger economic impact than NPR. Still, I can't help but think that NPR's early investment in the community made a statement about its importance and potential.

That's something the entire NPR system can be proud of.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The More They Give...

... the more they will give.

One of the most powerful concepts in fundraising is that people who just gave you money are among the most likely to give you money again, right now. This point was reinforced again for me just a few minutes ago.

I'm helping WSHU in Fairfield, CT with its pledge drive and this morning they received two generous contributions from listeners who just returned from a WSHU-sponsored trip to Italy.

Before you think the magic here is fresh pasta and authentic gelato, these multiple gifts aren't the product of arranging a vacation for some listeners. They are the result of the public service WSHU provides to these listeners and its community. And they are the result of WSHU establishing and maintaining genuine relationships with people who love public radio.

You have listeners such as these tuned to your station. Are you building relationships with them or just marketing to them?

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

What's in a Number?

The national audience numbers are beginning to surface from the public radio networks. Yesterday, NPR released its estimates for its network programs.

They operative phrase here is “its estimates.”

Arbitron does not provide audience estimates for national programs. NPR and other radio networks create their own numbers from the Arbitron data they buy.

It appears the process the networks use to crunch their own numbers overstates the size of their weekly audiences. There is strong evidence that the National Public Radio network Cume is overstated by as much as 15 percent.

The problem may not be limited to public radio as most commercial radio networks use the same process for calculating for their national audience estimates. There are not enough publicly available data to know.

Network audience estimates can come from several sources of Arbitron audience data. This article focuses on two of those sources: the National Regional Database (NRD) and the network version of Nationwide.

When Cume audience estimates for the exact same public radio network line-up of stations are created in each database, the Nationwide produces an estimate that is 15 percent larger than the estimate from the NRD.

Here’s how that happens.

The networks buy Arbitron’s Nationwide database, license software to analyze it, and add up the audiences for the network stations.

Here's where it gets tricky.

Some people listen to more than one station in the network. In public radio, some people listen to the same network program (Morning Edition or Car Talk, for example) on more than one station. In the network version of Nationwide, these listeners get counted twice when they should be counted just once.

This creates the need to erase the double counting. The audience estimate software providers work very hard to create algorithms that account for listener duplication. The problem is that the algorithms don’t erase enough of that duplication, at least for public radio stations.

Arbitron’s NRD software is designed to eliminate the double counting problem from the outset. That’s one of its most important features. The NRD produces a lower Cume audience estimate than Nationwide for the exact same line-up of public radio stations.

Still, the public radio networks use the higher Nationwide numbers.

The networks justify this because the software used to analyze Nationwide is easy to use and is an important part of the “currency” in network advertising sales. The networks use the bigger number because they fear that switching to the NRD estimates would cause them to lose millions in sales revenues to competitors using overstated numbers. And I was recently told by one public radio network executive that, “everyone knows about this is okay with it.”

Not everyone, apparently.

Shortly after I started researching this topic, Arbitron announced it was working with its clients and vendors to develop a process for conforming all audience estimates across its databases and products.

Good for them for responding. Sometime in the next year, NRD and Nationwide will deliver the same Cume estimate for the same line-up of stations. You can expect a few million “listeners” to disappear from the public radio networks’ audiences when that happens.

But Arbitron’s fix addresses just part of the issue.

Today, there is a high level of transparency and accountability in radio station audience estimates. Anyone can buy the book and look up a station’s numbers. Arbitron, correctly so, is looking to increase that accountability with its new Portable People Meter (PPM).

That same level of accountability does not exist for network audience estimates created through the Nationwide. It is a world built on the concept of “trust, but don’t verify.”

That has to change. It just makes sense that what’s good for individual station audience estimates would apply to network audience estimates.

I’ll start the campaign for an independent, objective source of national network audience estimates.

Allowing radio networks to control the conversation about the size of their audiences is unacceptable in this age of shrinking audiences, greater competition for ad revenue, and higher expectations for transparency and accountability.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Valuing Listeners' Time

Nearly 20 years ago, WFAE experimented with raising $5,000 in 5-minutes. 10-years later that idea was played out over an entire hour at WBUR, where the Car Guys raised $74,000 in 60-minutes. What is now known as the "Power Hour" was born. KJZZ has done them for about 10 years, proving they are a sustainable strategy.

Now dozens of stations use Power Hours to start their pledge drives and leverage their direct mail and email results so they can do less on-air fundraising. Some stations "buy back" pledge days by encouraging giving through the mail. Wyoming Public Radio employs all of the above to run some of the shortest, most-efficient pledge drives in public radio.

On Friday the 13th, KBBI in Homer, Alaska met its entire fund drive goal in one day. They were following the lead of WSKG in Binghamton, NY, which reduced its multi-day drives to one day last year.

And over the past several years WUWM Milwaukee has used a combination of mail, email, and very short on-air announcements to completely eliminate its fall fund drive.

These are great fundraising success stories not only because a lot of money is being made. They are great fundraising success stories because these stations are signaling to listeners that their time is appreciated and valued.

The listeners' time is one of the costs of fundraising. Spending it wisely is not only good fundraising, it is also good public service.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Fantasy Pledge Drive League

I’m thinking about starting a Fantasy Pledge Drive League. It would work kind of like those baseball and football Fantasy leagues; only it would be for the amusement and entertainment of public radio professionals.

Your team would consist of on-air pitchers and stations of different formats. We’d hold a draft. Each team owner would get two picks from each category. Example:

Pitchers: Scott Williams, KJZZ and Sonja Lee, KBBI
News Station: WFAE and KPBS
Music Station: WNCW and KBAQ
Mixed Format Station: WSHU and WBHM

You get 10 pledge drive days to play. You must play each of your picks at least three times so you can't just pick first and last days. Points are awarded for money raised and new members joined, relative to the audience for each station. So it’s not how big your audience is, it’s what you do with it.

Bonus points are given for stations that raise 60% of their listener support off-air (mail, e-mail, etc) and still have efficient pledge drives.

Points are deducted if anyone at one of your station picks makes the following statements:

- “Sure we missed our goal, but our average gift is WAY up.”
- “My market is different.” (Exemption for Homer, Alaska only)
- “Our listeners love it when our GM sings her alma mater’s fight song every time we get a $100 pledge. That really gets the phones ringing.”
- “Pledge drives are a good time for the community to get to know everyone at the station, even the chief engineer.”
- “We don’t need a consultant.”

Okay. That last one was a joke.

Each team owner would also get to pick two Power Hours from three different stations. These are for the playoffs. The four teams would face off in a semi-final round by pitting Power Hours against each other. The two winners would square off for the championship.

Our co-commissioners, The Car Guys and Dan Schorr, would settle all disputes. Tom and Ray count as one person.

Whatcha’ think? Wanna play?

Saturday, October 07, 2006

New Arbitron Survey, Same Results (mostly)

The new national audience estimates for public radio are coming out. The overall Average Quater-Hour (AQH) audience remains in decline. That's the average audeince. So is overall Share of audience.

Once again, the decline is not large but it continues a downward trend from Spring 2003. The Cume (weekly) audience is up a bit.

The temptation will be to take encouragement from the increase in Cume and ignore the drop in AQH and Share. But this combination over numbers points to another drop in Loyalty. That would not be good.

All indications remain that the decrease in listening to public radio is not because of satellite radio or podcasting or some other new media.

The loss of Share means public radio is losing ground in the radio marketplace. A decline in Loyalty, if further analysis shows that's the case, means that public radio listeners are still using the radio but choosing to spend an increasing amount of the radio listening time with commercial broadcasters.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Sacred Space

Fred Rogers treated the three feet or so between the TV set and his viewers as sacred space. It was one of the many ways he respected the individuals who watched his program.

Public radio is at its best when that sacred space exists between the radio and the listener's ears.
As pledge drive season kicks into top gear, those of us in fundraising would do well to remember the importance of honoring that sacred space.

Monday, October 02, 2006

E-mail and On-Air Fundraising

Not long ago a prospective client asked me how many e-mail blasts should be sent during a pledge drive.

E-mail has become a powerful tool during pledge drives because the station can send listeners special offers and notifications of matching grants and get their immediate response. It's not unusual for medium-sized stations to earn a half-day's pledges from one e-mail blast.

So I was a bit surprised when the station balked at my suggestion to send 3 e-mails over the course of its 9-day pledge drive. They argued that three e-mail appeals would be intrusive, offensive, and disrespectful of the listener.

But interrupting the programming for 9 days was not.

What makes the listener's mailbox holier ground than his radio?