KEET steps up membership efforts to hold on to federal funding

By Dru Sefton

KEET-TV, one of the smallest PBS member stations, has grown its membership by 40 percent and raised more than $600,000 over the past six months in an effort to keep its federal Community Service Grant.

Local businesses in Eureka, Calif., have posted banners pushing “The Power of One,” the motto of KEET’s campaign. Website pop-ups show viewers holding signs with titles of their favorite public TV shows. A local utility provider is pitching in, donating a portion of each paid petroleum bill to the station.

Viewers are getting involved with KEET-TV’s campaign to double its membership, posing for ads counting down the 2,200 goal. A local photographer is helping by shooting the ads for free.

Viewers are getting involved with KEET-TV’s campaign to double its membership, posing for ads counting down the 2,200 goal. A local photographer is helping by shooting the ads for free.

At issue is KEET’s inability to meet the $800,000 minimum in nonfederal financial support that CPB requires of CSG grantees, which the station has never done in its 45-year history. CPB has provided KEET with multiple waivers over the years based on the station’s rural location and limited resources.

As Executive Director Ron Schoenherr said, “We don’t have any Fortune 500 companies around here.” The station’s signal covers an area of about 59,000 households around Humboldt County, Calif., known mainly for its picturesque mountain ranges and quaint Victorian homes. Its audience is among the smallest of all public TV stations.

KEET will find out by October whether its fundraising efforts will pay off and merit a waiver to receive its 2015 CSG. The possible CSG amount has not yet been determined, but the station received $599,502 in fiscal 2014, more than a third of its total budget of $1.5 million.

According to CPB, seven stations were granted NFFS waivers in fiscal 2013; in FY14, five stations received them. CPB has yet to determine which stations will receive waivers for fiscal 2015.

“Our goal is to support local stations that are financially stable and sustainable and able to provide essential media services,” said CPB spokesperson Kelly Broadway. “In the case of KEET-TV, CPB conducted two extensive reviews of its finances and operations (2012 and 2013) that produced significant data and recommended action steps towards sustainability.”

She added that CPB “has seen improvement in several of the stations we granted waivers and provided guidance to.”

Early last year, the corporation put KEET on notice. Instead of routinely giving out passes on NFFS minimums, CPB was working to help stations become more fiscally stable, which included cutting station operating costs by encouraging collaborations and mergers.

So KEET and KIXE-TV in Redding, Calif., considered merging. KIXE was also struggling to meet its NFFS threshold, and both boards agreed to explore joining forces. But that strategy proved to be impractical, Schoenherr said: Due to geography and the 150-mile distance between the stations, the fiber connection to join them would actually cost more than $88,000 a year.

By September 2013, CPB had agreed to waive KEET’s NFFS requirement for its 2014 CSG. But it also warned that the station “must meet the minimum NFFS eligibility criteria to qualify for an FY2015 TV CSG or demonstrate by the end of CPB’s fiscal year 2014 that it has improved its long-term financial sustainability.”

The KEET staff and board set an ambitious goal: Drive up revenue by doubling the station’s membership. That peaked at 5,600 in the mid-’90s and dropped to 2,200 when the station lost a translator. “It’s been pretty flat, until this new campaign,” said Karen Barnes, director of programming and content.

Local firm CoxRasmussen & Co. Marketing and Advertising developed the plan of attack, which launched in March. In addition to banners on local businesses, it’s using radio and local cable TV spots, newspaper advertising and web ads.

Telemarketers dialed up former members. “Our message to them was, we need you back; here’s what we’re facing,” Schoenherr said. Callers suggested a $5-per-month sustainer agreement but would take any amount.

Schoenherr and a board member co-wrote two op-ed pieces in the local Times-Standard newspaper; after the most recent ran Aug. 6, 15 more members signed up. Last month, the editor called to donate advertising space for the campaign.

“It’s interesting in that not only did we get a lot of new members but we also increased almost every category in development, such as additional gifts,” Schoenherr said. “People are telling us they really want to help, they want to keep their locally operated television station.” So far, more than 900 members have signed up.

That community spirit also prompted petroleum supplier Mike Renner to step forward in a big way, Barnes said. “He came to us with a proposal we just couldn’t refuse.” Renner Petroleum clients can indicate on their bills that they’d like to support KEET, and the business will provide a portion of revenue up to $1,000 a month to the station, capping out at $12,000 annually. Renner is also placing notices atop petroleum pumps urging support.

Renner “has really come on board,” Barnes added, noting that Renner Petroleum also is now the local underwriter for Doc Martin.

Phase two of the campaign is rolling out now and concludes at the end of November, Barnes said. It will feature well-known civic leaders posing with posters of their favorite shows.

Schoenherr hopes that the progress in fundraising and membership numbers will convince CPB to provide KEET’s 2015 support. “I think CPB needs to be more realistic about what small stations can achieve,” he said. “We own our property outright, we have an endowment at a local foundation. So we’re actually doing better than some other stations.”

“As long as we can demonstrate that doing different things, we’re raising money, we’re raising membership, I think we deserve another waiver.”

If KEET didn’t get a CSG, “we would have to develop a Plan B,” Schoenherr said. “But we’re not going out of business.”

Questions, comments, tips? sefton@current.org

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