Monday, March 30, 2009

The NPR Pledge Drive Fuss

Nothing stirs the public radio pot like a conversation about NPR raising money directly from listeners. So when the Washington Post printed an article saying that NPR was considering a pledge drive to battle budget shortfalls, reactions were swift and strong. has a good summary of the article and some related links here. NPR CEO Vivian Schiller sent an email to stations stating NPR was not pursuing the pledge drive option. Aaron Read, who frequently posts to this blog, commented on the topic on his Fried Bagels blog.

As someone who has worked at stations, for stations as a researcher and fundraising consultant, and at NPR as a researcher and provider of fundraising service to stations, all I can say is this:

The industry is losing money each year by not allowing NPR to raise money directly from listeners.

Whether the issue is fundraising or audience growth, public radio chronically suffers from the belief that its pie can't get any bigger. People believed that 20 years ago. They believed it 10 years ago.

But static-pie thinking views the future through an Either/Or lens. It can't see the Both/And possibilites.

We know from past research that listeners to two stations will support both stations and give average or above average gifts. They have room in their budgets to do both . Even now. Even in this economy. In fact, the best way to raise more money in a down economy is to ask more often and in more ways. Many listeners would gladly support their station and NPR if given the opportunity.

The issue here shouldn't be whether or not NPR should be allowed to raise money directly from listeners. The issue should be how NPR and stations can work together to grow the revenue pie with stations and NPR making appeals.

Making this work starts with understanding that raising money from listeners and how stations pay for programming are related but separate issues. NPR raising money directly from listeners without sharing revenues and/or reducing station fees wouldn't be fair. A central piece of any direct fundraising effort has to focus on how the money is distributed and how NPR charges stations for programming.

Everyone could have more money to spend, if only public radio can get past its belief that the pie can't get any bigger.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

It's Not Just for FM Anymore

The survey of listeners and donors to the Best of Public Radio 2008 special showed that the more ways listeners accessed public radio content -- multiple stations, the web, podcasts -- the more likely they were to donate to their favorite station.*

This is an important lesson. Using more public radio content, even if not on their favorite station, has a positive impact on giving to that station.

This shouldn't be a surprise. Past studies have shown that the more listeners use public radio, even when using more than one station, the more likely they are to donate.

Listeners' conception of what public radio is today has changed. It's much broader than the industry's conception of itself.

Public radio is radio plus podcasts plus streaming plus printed information on the web. It is a local station plus plus the This American Life site plus whatever.

Live in Baltimore and want to hear All Thing Considered at 8pm? Stream KPBS. You still wake up and drive to work listening to Morning Edition on WYPR and catch Diane Rehm during the day. If you miss Wait Wait Don't Tell Me at 11a on Saturday, you can still hear it over the weekend at your convenience on your computer or iPod. And you still donate to WYPR.

A public radio station's path to better audience service and greater financial security doesn't begin with hoping listeners won't use public radio on the web or through a podcast. It begins with great programming and an understanding of how listeners now conceive public radio.

It's not just for FM anymore.

* You can see some of the survey results beginning on page 24 of the BOPR 2008 project report.

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Cliches R Us

"During these tough economic times, more than ever, you are the public in public radio, which is why your gift matters because, at the end of the day in a tough economy, more than ever, you need public radio and we need you and remember every dollar makes a difference... during these tough economic times."

Really folks, we can do better than this...

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Friday, March 06, 2009

Not All Public Radio Stations Control Their Destinies

It’s time for many public radio managers to address this critical question.

Is my public radio station worth saving if most or all of the subsidies went away?

The reality is that as many as half of all public radio stations probably couldn’t survive the loss of all state, university, and federal support. In essence, these stations do not have control of their destinies. Many of them could be wiped out with the single stroke of a pen, as happened to WMUB in Ohio. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Since its inception, DEI’s Benchmarks for Public Radio has tracked a metric called the Community Financial Support Index (CFSI).
CFSI measures a station’s ability to cover its operating budget, minus direct fundraising costs, with net fundraising revenue. An index of 100 means a station could fund is current operating budget on net revenue from individual giving, underwriting, event revenue, etc.

Every year, DEI Benchmarks show the median station CFSI is around 65. That is, the typical station could cover just about two-thirds of its operating budget, not including fundraising costs, with community financial support. Put another way, the typical station would have to cut up to a third of its budget to survive the loss of subsides.

Most stations probably could not survive cuts that deep if they happened all at once. But many of these stations could survive if their dependence on subsidies were gradually reduced.

History shows that more listeners will step up and give more money when subsidies go away. Stations such as KUNC in Greeley and WYPR in Baltimore (formerly WJHU) effectively turned independence from university control into significantly greater levels of listener support.

Once heavily dependent on university subsidies, these stations were forced to take control of their own destinies. They accomplished that through improvements in fundraising results an, sd spending practices. Losing their remaining subsidies today would be very difficult, but like other high-performing stations, they are positioned to adjust and survive.

KUNC and WYPR, along with WRNI in Providence, are rich with lessons on how public radio stations can become more important to and sustained by the communities they serve.

Unfortunately, the public radio industry treats these success stories as anomalies to be avoided. Greater independence from tax dollars and greater long-range security for the station’s core service are shunned in favor of maintaining the status quo.

If public radio has learned anything over the past 6 to 10 months it’s that economic change is here and the status quo won’t cut it anymore.

Is your public radio station worth saving if most or all of the subsidies went away? Assuming the answer is “yes,” then it is time to take control of your destiny and start planning on greater self-sufficiency.

Jay Clayton contributed to this article.

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