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BILL STRICKLAND: Public radio pledge drive's a hard sell

OPINION: Public radio is worthy of donations, but its pledge drives leave much to be desired

Bill Strickland

Bill Strickland

I’m a fan of public radio. I think their news programs are big on actual information and small on editorializing. I generally prefer to pick my own music to play, so I don’t listen to public radio’s music programs very often, but when I do, I think they’re excellent. Other content, including humor, business, interview, travel, etc., all is good — some is excellent.

I think if somebody wants to contribute to a worthy cause, public radio is a good cause to choose.

Now, here are my problems with the pledge drives for public radio. (In fact, these comments generally apply to both public radio and public television.)

  1. Insufficient transparency of budget. It’s fairly rare that you hear something like: “We pay x dollars per year for this program, y for that program, z for non-program expenses, etc., and we get j dollars per year from source A, which only leaves listener support, so we need k dollars from you, etc.” I understand that specifics aren’t possible as the programming selections and costs can change without warning, underwriting can shift, etc. However, it’s not a good idea to say, basically, don’t worry about the specifics; just contribute.
  2. No quid pro quo. There was a time in which Georgia Public Broadcasting let you become “a member” for a year for something like $35. If you contributed that amount or more, you got a monthly magazine that included broadcast schedules, etc. I’m sure that expense just got to be too great, so it was dropped years ago. But from the donor’s point of view, that was something tangible — physical, solid — they got for their donation.

Another — to me, very big — reward was based on there being one pledge drive during the year. In a way, you were donating to be left alone for 12 months, which was the subscription period of the magazine. But pledge drives went to twice a year, with occasional “mini-drives” thrown in here and there. Again, I understand the need for them; I’m just saying the “quid pro quo” has thereby been further diminished. “Didn’t I just give a year of donation? Why am I hearing another pledge drive?”

Some years ago, I pledged (admittedly, a rather small amount) when the drive asked pledgers what program they liked most. Because of my long commute (40 miles one-way, up to 10 times weekly), I listened daily to “Fresh Air,” an excellent program. That was the program I listened to, and that was why I was pledging. However, following the pledge drive, they stopped carrying “Fresh Air.” They did not offer to refund my contribution. Were they already planning to drop Fresh Air (which is back now, by the way)? Could they have said, “‘Fresh Air’ costs X dollars; contribute a total of X dollars in ‘Fresh Air’-related pledges and it will stay on the air”? I don’t know.

Subsequently, something similar happened with “The Woodwright’s Shop” on GPTV. I supported because of it, but then they stopped carrying it.

  1. Non-commercial claims. This is, admittedly, a minor issue. In the past, it was common for pledge drive volunteers to harp on there being no commercials on public radio. To the layman — including me — something like “This program is supported in part by a grant from Archer-Daniels-Midland. ADM … Supermarket to the World” is an ad, although it’s defended as “corporate underwriting.” Now, I don’t mind this corporate underwriting. I don’t even mind the little ad-like sentences that brag about how great the corporate underwriter is. What I mind is (was) the frequent denial by pledge volunteers that ads have sullied their broadcasts.

I admit I hear far less of that sort of thing nowadays, and I’m glad of it.

  1. Implication of the listener’s responsibility. This, too, has been far more severe in the past than it is now, and it generally is overdone still by pledge drive volunteers.

The idea is that if you consume the product (i.e., listen to the programming), you incur an obligation to financially support its source.

Here’s the thing: There is a specific “amount” of broadcast spectrum for radio. Those “airwaves” belong to the public. On the FM broadcast band, what gets transmitted belongs to whoever tunes it in, because the channel/frequency being used is public property. It works this way because the entity doing the transmitting has been granted exclusive use of that frequency within a certain geographic area by the FCC. They are legally protected by that licensing. In exchange, they are allowed to broadcast pretty much what they want to (obviously, some things can’t be legally broadcast in this way, but you get my point).

If you have an FM radio, you can listen to anything you can pick up and you don’t owe anything to anybody for it, because the FM broadcast spectrum is public property.

That point may seem a little obscure to many people, but it’s significant to me, especially when I occasionally pick up during a pledge drive the notion — unspoken, usually, but still apparent — that if I don’t want to support the station, I must either (1) stop listening to it or (2) feel ashamed.

I would suggest the apparently radical idea that a broadcaster is repaid by people listening to what he’s broadcasting; that is the appropriate dynamic.

Again, I think that there are a number of worthy recipients of any donations I might contribute. Personally, I would rank them approximately in this order: church/missions/helping the poor; blood donations/helping the sick/helping the injured, etc.; helping the public in general.

I consider a donation to public broadcasting a donation to the good of the public in general. I don’t particularly consider it a payment for my listening to it. But the good of the public is an important good, one worth donating to. I just wish that’s the way they sold it during pledge drives.

Bill Strickland is I.T. director at The Albany Herald and a former journalist.