Corporate Sponsors 2010
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.