KQED reward to early donors: the power to ‘turn pledge off’

Creating incentives for listeners to donate early and often is a preoccupation among station fundraisers, but San Francisco’s KQED-FM is putting a new twist on it for this month’s pledge drive.

The pubcaster will offer a “pledge-free stream,” accessible to every listener who contributes $45 or more through KQED.org before May 5, when its next fundraiser goes on-air. 

Each donor who pays for the pledge-free experience will get a personalized code to gain access to a stream of uninterrupted KQED Radio programming, using as many as four web-enabled devices such as computers, smartphones and tablets.

While some stations reward all of their listeners for strong pledging, shortening their drives when donors hit goals ahead of time, KQED will reward the donors directly, giving back their regular program schedules.

Separate teams of announcers and producers in two studios will produce versions of the schedule with and without pledge breaks.

Loyal listeners will appreciate the respite. The news station typically airs three 16-day pledge campaigns a year, according to Don Derheim, c.o.o. When the campaign hits its $2.3 million goal, the drive ends.

In the first five days after KQED unveiled the stream and began promoting it April 21, it had received 510 donations totaling more than $81,000 — somewhat less than an average day of pledging on the air.

“The impetus for this is many-fold,” Derheim said. “The main thing is recognizing that we have to continue to evolve our fundraising effort.”

Some 80,000-plus KQED donors were the first to receive email offers of the pledge-free stream. As the campaign progresses, Derheim and his team are watching to see how many non-member listeners — the people who tune out during pledge without contributing — will pay for the service. “Here’s an opportunity for them to support the station without being annoyed by pledge,” Derheim said. “We’re going to find out what the market is for this benefit.”

The experiment has great potential to convert more listeners to donors. Many KQED listeners already tune in with computers and mobile devices, so online giving is just a click away. KQED had nearly 186,000 unique online streaming users in March, according to Sawmill Icecast data. 

Public radio listeners increasingly tune to Internet streams, leaving pubradio fundraisers as well as producers the challenge of engaging them online, where thousands of enticing listening choices are on offer.

The third annual Public Radio Technology Survey, a national web poll of listeners conducted in November, found that 40 percent of survey participants listen to web streams at least once a week — a 17 percent increase over the rate for 2009. And the audience is moving rapidly to smartphones, which typically enable them to hear webcasts. The survey found that more than a third of pubradio listeners now have smartphones.

‘Always . . . trolling for the next thing’

KQED’s track record in pushing the envelope with fundraising techniques goes back to its startup in 1955, when Jonathan Rice, KQED’s late co-founder and p.d., invented the live on-air auction for public TV. 

In 2009, the pubcaster was one of a handful of public media outlets to try soliciting donations via text messaging. This February it offered half-price memberships via social-media marketer Groupon.

“We have to always be trolling for the next thing that will make us better in the minds of public radio listeners,” Derheim said.

KQED Radio’s May fundraiser will be its second experiment with creating a pledge-free listening experience for its members. It had a trial run two years ago in May 2009. “We discovered the biggest hurdle was not the technology, it was the human power,” Derheim said. “We are good at taking a feed, covering it up, and putting pledge over the top of it; but taking a feed and not covering it up and not pledging — we had to get our heads around how to do that.” 

The expensive part isn’t the technical system to deliver the alternative stream; it’s the extra on-air talent and staff to anchor and produce regular breaks, Derheim said. “We want it to be of the quality that meets the high expectations of what you’re going to get when listening to KQED Public Radio.”

The station can’t be deterred by the “fear factor” of diverging from fundraising practices proven successful over decades, he said. “We believe the world is changing so fast, and we’re going to get out there and try this. We will have learned a lot from it.”

John Sutton, a fundraising consultant to KQED not involved in the project, praised the pledge-free trial and said its success depends on whether it brings in more donors and raises more net revenue before the on-air campaign launches. 

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