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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Anonymous Anonymous said...


Thank you, and thank you again, for injecting some intelligence into this damaging either/or debate.

11:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The pie is bigger argument is great, but how does this affect the support message delivered by stations? The "we pay NPR money" line seems to make the case for a lot of supporters. How does this change if you can cut out the middle person? Letting NPR do direct fundraising is a little different from letting a station across town do it in that respect, isn't it?

10:37 AM  
Blogger Aaron Read said...

FWIW, John I actually agree with you here. I certainly think that NPR has far more resources and abilities to bring to a national fundraiser, and I doubt it would take much revenue-sharing on their part for WEOS to end up with a lot more money than we'd have otherwise.

BUT...and there's always a "but", isn't there?...I think your next to last paragraph touches on the central issue: stations don't trust NPR to be fair with them.

I'm pretty new to this game, but I'm not convinced stations should trust NPR in this aspect, either. No matter how you slice it, money is power, and this is a power-sharing arrangement. And if a station gives up power, that could mean an ugly situation down the road when NPR wants to go in one direction, but the station feels it must go in another...who wins? Right now, it's always the station who wins that battle...but if NPR has de facto control over some of the station's budget (in many cases, no doubt it would rapidly become a very large part of the station's budget) then that question is no longer a foregone conclusion.

For example, if NPR has de facto control of even 10% of WGBH's and WBUR's budget via national fundraising and revenue sharing...wouldn't NPR want WGBH and WBUR to stop the (arguably) needless duplication of Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Marketplace, Weekend Edition, etc on both stations? WGBH and WBUR might not consider it needless, though...and if NPR says no revenue-sharing for you unless you toe the line, can either station afford to lose 10% of their budget?

Yes, yes, of course you can draft contracts to prevent this kind of "abuse" but I think it's dangerously naive to assume that a contract alone will stop a large entity from throwing its weight around when it really wants to.

I'm not sure there really a universal answer to this trust problem, but I am sure that any trust that was there was seriously damaged by the Post article. I'm seeing posts on various listservs from station managers that are howling in protest and don't buy Vivian's explanation one bit. Right or wrong, this episode has not been good for station relations.

11:20 AM  
Blogger Aaron Read said...

Oh, one other thing...on a greater scope I think seeking a waiver from the FCC on the "you can only fundraise for yourself" rule for non-commercial broadcasters could be disastrous for radio broadcasting as a medium.

I think that if a waiver is granted for NPR, the pressure will be enormous on the FCC to grant waivers to other stations for other reasons as well...if not to do away with the rule entirely.

Were that to happen, NPR would no doubt quickly lose several of its affiliates, as cash-strapped colleges & universities that own the licenses would assert primacy and demand that the stations become part of the overall college's fundraising effort. That would become a tremendous conflict of interest, but its one the college would ultimately win since they hold the license...and not every college administrator is willing or able to see the destructive possibilities by going down that road. It would truly be a "road to hell is paved with good intentions" situation as administrators, desperate to find revenue anywhere they can, would insist the station "just do a little bit for the college, or else we can't afford to keep the station anymore".

You can see where that'd go...

And that's just the more benign side. If all NCE's can fundraise for a national entity, what's to stop a far slimier institution from going on a buying spree? Snatching up licenses from the aforementioned cash-strapped colleges or other owners with the explicit goal of building a national network of fundraising outlets?

11:54 AM  
Blogger RadioSutton said...

A couple of responses... the trust issue is addressed in a new posting.

NPR can raise plenty of money directly from listeners without ever going on air. Direct mail and on-line fundraising should be explored before taking away programming from listeners to raise money. Off-air fundraising requires no FCC waiver.

There are a lot of messaging opportunities to raise money. Yes, "we pay NPR is powerful." But if station fundraising collapses without that message then the argument that "local is our future" holds no water.

7:01 PM  
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4:59 AM  

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