Top prospects for expanding pubradio revenues examined at Public Media Futures Forum

By Karen Everhart

Public Media Futures (small logo)SEATTLE — When public media development consultants and station leaders gathered at the University of Washington’s Seattle campus on July 10 to discuss fundraising programs of the future, two ideas stirred up the most vigorous discussion: the potential for sustaining membership fundraising to reduce stations’ reliance on pledge drive revenues, and a text-giving program that would enable NPR to solicit donations directly from listeners.

Maryland-based consultant John Sutton dreamed up the latter idea over breakfast, and he proposed it during the forum as a way to open a new path for listener donations that would provide dues relief to local stations. Under Sutton’s plan, NPR would run text-giving campaigns twice a year soliciting $10 donations from listeners. The monies raised — he estimated $35 million in net revenues — would reduce the program dues that NPR charges stations. Stations wouldn’t have to worry about NPR cultivating their listeners as donors because the text gifts would be made anonymously.

“We all know if NPR could ask listeners for money directly, the number of donations to public radio overall would double,” Sutton said. Stations are struggling with the rising cost of NPR dues, which totaled some $70 million in 2011, he said. He believes they would agree to an arrangement with NPR that would reduce those financial pressures and allow them to invest more in local services.

Minnesota-based consultants Valerie Arganbright and Barbara Appleby advocated a different approach for boosting system revenue — one that stations can pursue on their own. They propose that stations redesign their membership programs to emphasize solicitation and cultivation of sustaining members — those who donate monthly by credit card with no set end date that has to be renewed. “You have to create a brand-new model” for membership, one that emphasizes membership as a loyalty program for listeners, not a one-time donation to a pledge drive, Arganbright said.

“I think pledge keeps us in a really old model,” said Arganbright. “No one pledges any more.” Listeners want to donate their hard-earned money because they are community-minded and want to support a service that they value.

Arganbright and Appleby co-authored a commentary on their approach for moving more stations to a sustaining membership business model in this week’s edition of Current.

The Forum, which was produced as a video stream by the Washington University’s Department  of Communications, also focused on the potential to expand and improve major giving programs at local stations, and an analysis of public media’s revenue growth since the mid-1990s by Mark Fuerst, director of strategic initiatives for Current.

The video stream is broken into three 90-minute segments, Part 1, featuring participant introductions and a general discussion; Part 2, focusing on challenges of major giving and tensions over local/national fundraising collaborations; and Part 3, dealing with sustaining member programs and Sutton’s proposal for an NPR text-giving campaign.

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