Station coffers gain from advances in the pledging arts

Research-informed techniques bring sophistication to on-air pitches; spring drives show increases again

By Karen Everhart Bedford

For the second year in a row, spring pledge revenues are up for public broadcasting stations around the country.The gains are a welcome relief to fundraisers throughout the system, who face the challenge of improving revenues from all other sources as federal funding declines. Development professionals from both television and radio say their recent successes are largely due to good programming and the increasing sophistication with which stations conduct on-air campaigns.Propelled in part by a sleeper special “Les Miserables in Concert,” public TV’s drive set a dramatic new record of more than $50 million raised nationally.

1992 1994 1996
Dollars pledged $39.5 million $38.3 million $50.2 million
Number of pledges 598,150 525,082 603,724
Average pledge $66.14 $73.03 $83.14
Break minutes 291,374 331.357 340,795
Dollars per minute $135.78 $115.73 $147.28
Stations reporting 133 135 155
Source: PBS
 

Tallies aren’t available for public radio, but stations generally report results that kept pace with or bested the inflation rate. While many stations set new records, the gains were mostly modest compared to last year’s, when congressional threats to public broadcasting’s federal funding spurred donations. Big stations around the country set aggressive goals based on last year’s results, and fell short.

“We were down a little bit from last year, but if you take out ’95 as sort of an anomaly because of the big-time press that the federal funding issue was getting, we’re right in line with standard increases from year to year,” said Kay Tuttle, development director for WAMU-FM, Washington.

Still, fundraising gains are hard-won nowadays, and every station is looking for ways to make drives more predictable and efficient, to deliver a pitch or schedule a program that sets off a chorus of telephone bells.

“Doing fundraising on the air is both and art and science,” said Peter Dominowski of Market Trends Research, a consultant who specializes in public radio fundraising and programming. “More stations are realizing that what they say and how they present their case in fundraising terms makes a difference in the response they get.”

Public broadcasters increasingly consult researchers to design their pledge drives, scripting pitches for audience demographics. On many television stations, talent is selected to match those demos, and premiums are strategically priced to get viewers to the phones. Public radio fundraisers also are designing premium packages to spur contributions.

“We’re having every drive get better and better,” said Terrel Cass, president of WLIW-TV, Long Island. Using many of these techniques, his station raised a record $801,000 in 26-day drive that featured, not “Les Mis,” but repeat runs of a happy-history documentary about Brooklyn and a community profile, “Little Italy.”

Many in public radio credit the national On-Air Fundraising Partnership with improving the production values of pledge drives and spreading research-informed techniques. Stations rely less on anecdotal information about “what worked in Spokane” and stick to fundamental principles of on-air fundraising that have been tested with focus groups.

TRAC Media Services, the Tucson-based audience research consortium, is conducting research that leads public TV on-air drives in a similar direction. PledgeTRAC, a computerized system for analyzing the effectiveness of pledge breaks and gathering demographic information about contributors, has received major backing from CPB’s Television Future Fund, sources confirmed.

“Pledge and how it’s structured has dramatically changed in last five years,” said David LeRoy, TRAC codirector. During pledge, stations’ cumulative audiences stay steady, but they see drops in rating points–which measure how many viewers actually stick with the programs. “What goes into the schedule are just those programs that make the phones ring. That’s what stations in our consortium have become masters of.”

Less droning, more honing of the pitch

Since most public radio stations pledge around their regular schedules, the changes in their on-air techniques have come mainly in the production values and messages delivered during breaks.

“If you take on-air fundraising back to 1989, most stations came on the air with stream-of-consciousness fundraising,” recalled Al Bartholet, development director for WKSU, Kent, Ohio. His station helped initiate today’s new techniques in the late 1980s by testing pledge appeals for their effectiveness with focus groups.

“Of all the research we did at that time, listeners were turned off by fundraising drives,” he explained. They would either tune out or turn off their radios. “We had to find a way at least get the attention of listeners,” to make those five-minute pledge breaks “more engaging” and to improve their production so that they sounded more like the programs listeners tuned in for.

“Most stations have drastically improved their on-air fundraising,” said Dominowski, who worked with WKSU on its early research. “They’re doing a much better job of integrating national fundraising materials and local materials. Station programmers are doing a better job of creating that material.”

“More and more, we’re getting away from the stereotype of people droning on,” observed Steve Olson, president of Public Radio Program Directors Association. Now some stations hire executive producers to put together well-coordinated campaigns with scripted breaks.

On-air pitches are becoming demographics-based appeals that zoom in on “one idea or a couple of ideas, one membership level and a phone number,” added Olson. Messages are “listener-focussed,” with hosts telling listeners what they value about the radio service–not about the need for new cart machines and headphones.

Bartholet advocates taking this approach one step further, and appealling to listeners emotionally to get them to the phones. WKSU gathers testimonials from listeners as they call in pledges, and adds those comments to the mix of pitch. “Really it should be our listeners who are telling our story.” He wants spots with big-name NPR talent telling “awe-inspiring stories” that illustrate “what makes public radio important.”

“The whole pledging process is not necessarily an intellectual one, but an emotional one,” said Bartholet. “Those are the things that people relate to. Those are the production elements that we need to move more in that direction.”

Stations also are becoming more aggressive about seeking bigger contributions. “You’ve got to tell people how much you want,” said Olson. “You get what you ask for.”

He recalled a recent WAMU pledge drive in which he and a pitch partner asked for $120 contributions for a whole hour. Almost every pledge came in at that level, and the station raised $10,000. “You present it as a normal thing–‘Here’s how inexpensive and easy it is.’ ”

“If we ask for higher amounts, we tend to get them,” said Fred Hill, marketing director for Vermont Public Radio. The network recently increased its average gift by offering more high-end premiums. Following a successful capital campaign, the network also is encouraging listeners to stay in the habit of giving more by soliciting $750-and-up donors to join a Producers’ Circle group that is eligible for special member benefits.

Public radio’s audience can “easily afford membership to their local station,” said Olson. Because station employees tend to have modest salaries, they think $100 is a lot to ask for, “but it’s not to their listeners.”

WAMU has become “much more aggressive in pushing what we call ‘monthly giving,’ ” said Tuttle. The station encourages listeners to make large dollar commitments and now offers them the option of automatic monthly credit-card debits.

WKSU convinced listeners to give more this spring, boosting its average pledge $10 by offering enhanced premium packages for $90 and $150. “That made the difference in the drive,” said Bartholet. The station raised $227,000 in pledges, even though the number of listener calls dropped 5 percent.

Virtually all NPR-member stations use some of the techniques and materials developed though the On-Air Fundraising Partnership, and about three-quarters use the materials extensively, according to John Sutton, head of the partnership and NPR’s research director.

The CPB-funded partnership began in 1992 “with the objective of improving the effectiveness and sound of on-air fundraising,” said Sutton. It gathered information about how radio stations conducted pledge drives, tested which techniques were most effective with focus groups, and disseminated its findings in a workbook and training seminars.

The partnership now offers stations several products and services to help plan and conduct their drives: the “pitch-break channel,” an interactive, fundraising version of Morning Edition offered to stations during coordinated pledge weeks; a production service that creates thematic spots for different NPR programs; and a script service that is available on computer disc and from NPR’s member service website.

“We have seen very, very powerful results,” Sutton said, though it’s impossible to pin-point how much money the partnership has brought in to the system. “[T]here are so many things that change from fundraiser to fundraiser,” he explained. “All it takes is Rudy Giuliani moving to sell off WNYC or Newt Gingrich threatening to zero-out CPB to skew any research on how the partnership has affected stations’ dollars.”

Stations that used partnership materials extensively found their listeners were less likely to tune out and better able to recall specific pledge messages, said Sutton. However, research showed that those stations saw their pledge income increase at the same average as the rest of the system, he added.

“The partnership added a lot in couple of ways,” said Roger Gomoll, membership activities manager for Minnesota Public Radio. “It lets the people who do on-air fundraising talk to each other as individuals, not as stations. It has given out a lot of tools and has focussed NPR’s resources towards helping stations do good fundraising. In my opinion, it marked a big turning point in how fundraising is done.”

Cassettes’ premium power

On-air fundraising for public TV differs from radio’s in many obvious ways. Regularly scheduled primetime programs are the engine driving radio’s pledge, but most go out the window for TV’s three drives a year.

Because viewers can more easily surf around pledge breaks, stations have become more creative about what they say and do on the air, according to Jim Scalem, PBS v.p. of fundraising programming. “We just have to work harder at it. It is not as easy as it was in the early days of the ’60s and ’70s to raise that kind of money.”

In Cleveland, WVIZ holds cook-a-thons featuring appearances by viewers with the best recipes for pasta, appetizers or cookies; pledgers receive a cookbook that compiles the best local recipes. KQED, San Francisco, airs video montages with clips from favorite programs set to music by Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Louis Armstrong. Stations everywhere bring in special guests–master gardener Jerry Baker, duct-tape wizard Steve Smith of the Red Green Show, and singer Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary, to name a few.

Public TV stations increasingly keep their pledge schedules flexible, looking for that one magic program that resonates with viewers–beit “Les Mis,” the Three Tenors, the Grateful Dead, or the Eagles. Once it does, stations everywhere play it over and over and over.

“We can schedule and reschedule a program and the audience will find it,” said Jon Abbott, PBS senior v.p. for development.

Stations also are relying more and more on premiums, and especially videotapes, to spur giving.

The success of ‘Les Mis’ was a “quintessential case of having a premium that everybody wanted,” said Pat Harris, research director for WGBH, Boston. When stations offer videos at $100-120, “the money adds up quickly.”

Fortunately for public TV, viewers can’t pick up copies of “Les Miz” at their nearby Blockbuster video store, according to Scalem. Viewer demand for the tapes, available exclusively through public TV, drove up the average pledge amount almost 12 percent nationally, according to PBS figures.

“Videos of a program are the top premiums, there is no comparison,” said Scalem. If a program doesn’t have an accompanying home video for stations to pitch, “we probably won’t offer it as a pledge program.”

Stations are strategically putting together premium packages that go for $250, said Scalem. For musical programs, they offer tickets to local performances by John Tesh, Yanni, or Peter, Paul & Mary.

Through his work with the PledgeTRAC consortium, Wisconsin PTV’s Malcolm Brett said he is “able to confirm what everybody in the system already knows: when we talk about premiums, the phones start working.” He’s discovered a “class of transactional members” who call in for what’s being offered, not the philanthropy of supporting their local station. Stations that go after these donors shouldn’t hesitate to ask for more, Brett advises. These callers, will “only come once,” and station efforts to renew their memberships will cost money.

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