First time around, in the 1980s, when it took some public TV stations by storm, it was called "Pledge-Free," "Pledge Lite," "Quiet Drives" and "Days for Dollars."
Now it's spreading through public radio: "Buy Back," "Thon Buster," and "More News, Less Fundraising."
These schemes share the enticement of reduced on-air pledging. Listeners and viewers appreciate it, newspaper editorialists admire it, and station staffers love it to bits.
At first, anyway. As usual, somebody finds drawbacks to anything that feels so good. Skeptics, particularly in public TV, say that minimizing pledge also minimizes new member recruitment. And badmouthing pledge undercuts a major revenue source.
But pubcasters may choose to face or overcome these risks because pledging remains such a major turnoff to listeners and viewers--a literal turnoff. Fifty-two percent of listeners said in a recent survey that they reduce or cease listening to public radio during pledge drives. The effect was more pronounced among station members (62 percent) than nonmembers (47 percent). Researchers in public radio's Audience 98 project were just about blown away by those survey results, says spokeswoman Leslie Peters.
Pubcasters know this audience discontent has been building for years as pledge drives grow longer. Now they're devising ways to cut back on the old necessary evil.
Development officers at public radio stations say they can significantly cut the length of their pledge drives without losing revenue by combining pre-drive mail and phone solicitations and short reminder spots on-air, with every known gimmick during the remaining pledge hours on the air.
WJHU, Baltimore, pulled more calls than ever before, even though it shortened its fall drive by one-third, says fundraising consultant John Sutton. And Wyoming Public Radio slightly beat its fall 1996 proceeds with 40 percent less on-air pledging.
In one of the most aggressive instances, Boston's WBUR cut its pledge drive from 14 days to 14 hours in October, and raised $300,000 more than last fall.
Some stations even go pledge-free, briefly. North Carolina's WUNC eliminated its usual three-day summer drive this year and raised 30 percent more than usual, says Regina Yeager, development director.
Other stations make an explicit bargain with listeners. WNYC-AM/FM, New York, offered this deal: for every $100,000 donated before the on-air drive, the station would eliminate a day of pledging. With $240,000 in hand by Oct. 18, WNYC knocked two days off its nine-day drive. By the end, it had raised $350,000, says Ted Manekin, director of membership. What it lost were the slow days in the middle.
In the much smaller Eugene, Ore., market, KLCC revved up its pre-drive "Thon Buster" mailings with premium offers that were available only to mail donors, says Gail Chisholm, marketing director. The station was able to dispense with the heavy on-air promotion of premiums that made past pledge drives sound like a shopping list. The outcome: KLCC's two pledge drives are down to six or eight days instead of 14; they reached goal, and they brought in about as many new members as they used to.
If cutting days in advance sounds too risky, a station can still invoke the less-pledging motivation by promising to quit early if it reaches goal. WDET did that in Detroit last month and raised a record $407,000 in its shortest-ever fall drive, eight-and-a-half days.
Not the best for listeners
WBUR and consultant John Sutton, a former NPR research director, have become leading apostles of the Less Fundraising word, and are now selling a how-to guide and WBUR's mail copy and scripts for $750 to $1,500 per package.
WBUR shifted gears last fall when station execs sensed that listeners were getting seriously tired of drives that often lasted 14 days--sometimes as long as 19. And a Boston Globe editorial underlined the view: fund drives had gotten out of hand.
Over the years, WBUR counted on pledging to provide all of its growth in membership income, says Sutton, and lengthened its drives as required. "That's not the best strategy for listeners," he observes. "Given that listeners don't like on-air fundraising, you should do as little as possible."
When he worked at NPR, Sutton had wanted to try an ambitious nationwide drive--$1 million in one hour--and proposed a local version with a scaled-down goal for WBUR. In talking with WBUR Marketing Director Jay Clayton and President Jane Christo, the idea evolved into "blockbuster" hours.
Spring 1997: To ease public disregard for pledge drives, WBUR announced a "kinder, gentler" fundraiser in March. Pledge hosts spoke with "less of a scolding tone, more of an appreciative tone," says Clayton. Ringing phones were toned down.
But the key experiment was three intense blockbuster hours, one during Car Talk and two during Morning Edition on different days. The hour of Car Talk, with the Magliozzi Brothers, drew $74,000, about three times what the station had ever raised before in an hour--a single hour of pledging had drawn as much support as a whole day. Clayton and Christo wondered how far they could go with this, Sutton recalls, while he advised a less risky approach. "They prevailed, and I'm glad they did. We know a whole lot more as a result." And the Globe wrote another editorial--this time, cheering about the survival of public broadcasting.
Summer: Emboldened by the spring results, the station risked its smallest drive of the year, cutting its length from 10 days to three hours and still passing its $300,000 goal.
Fall: WBUR took the next step, risking the bigtime, reducing the usual 14-day drive to 14 hours--just 7 percent of its previous length.
It was a matter of motivating people. "The people are out there in the audience earlier in the week," says Sutton. "They just don't choose to call, for whatever reason. Our goal is to get those calls sooner." To that end, the station piled on many of the proven techniques of pledgemanship, most notably high-stakes and open-ended challenge grants.
The on-air hours were more remunerative than usual--$37,700 an hour, for a total of $528,000. Standing alone, each would have been a record-breaker for WBUR. The drive's on-air take was smaller, of course, but the proceeds from mailings and telemarketing boomed in, bringing the total proceeds to $1.4 million, exceeding last fall's $1.1 million and nearly reaching goal of $1.5 million.
"If you're responsive to your listeners, your listeners will respond in kind," says Clayton, with the assurance of someone who figured right.
But you're still asking!
Flash back to Boston, 14 years earlier. WGBH-TV is discovering the same eternal discontents in focus groups: "I contribute to you, but you don't go away, you're still there asking for money."
That's the complaint that Lo Hartnett remembers vividly. She was development director at WGBH at the time and now holds the same position at sister station WGBY in Springfield, Mass.
WGBH's answer was a cleverly crafted pledge-free campaign, starting in March 1983. Results were great in the first year but petered out in the second year, Harnett recalls. WGBH concluded that pledge-free was "a strategy you can take out once in a while." In the meantime, the idea caught on elsewhere.
"It sort of swept the country as the flavor of the month," says Cynthia Dwyer, who used the strategy at WNED in Buffalo and is now development director at WCET in Cincinnati. WCET picked up the pledge-free scheme in August 1987 and found it so successful that it canceled pledging in December as well, remembers Station Manager Scott Elliott, who was then working in development. But WCET began bringing back pledging in December 1990 and returned to full on-air drives in 1993.
Though pledge-free could bring in impressive donations, Elliott found, it was not bringing in new recruits to replenish WCET's membership file. Member fundraising dived into a downward spiral and did long-term damage to WCET, says Dwyer.
WBUR's Clayton is not deterred by the warnings from the TV side. In its 14-hour mini-drive this fall, his station signed up 3,960 new members--about as many as during the much longer drive in fall 1996. And 45 percent of pledgers this fall were new recruits, up from the usual 33 percent. New recruits also came through in Baltimore, where WJHU drew a record number of new members this fall even though it cut pledging hours by one-third, according to Sutton.
It actually may be safer for public radio stations to shorten their pledge drives than for TV stations, Sutton speculates. Radio's potential donors are in its audience more often and for longer periods of time, while public TV is drawing many of its new recruits from a stream of less frequent viewers who are drawn by Yanni and other marketing events that have little to do with normal PBS programming. TV needs a bigger net to catch its newcomers.
Still, there's an image problem in saying or even implying that pledge is a drag.
"In the long run, it's probably not worth the risk to ever do it," says Scott Elliott. "You reinforce the perception in the public's eye that pledge is bad."
Reduced pledging conflicts with the evangelistic image of station and audience working together, says Patty Starkey, development director of KSPS-TV in Spokane. "You are telling your members: 'If you work harder, we won't work as hard getting new members to help you.'"
"We never apologize for our on-air membership campaigns," says Starkey. "They're not something to be looked at as less than desirable. They're a part of the business."
Yes, but the station can acknowledge that people would rather have their favorite programs, says WNYC's Ted Manekin. "You want to do the best programming you can, all the time," he says. "Pledge drives, even if palatable, are still not the best programming. The listeners know, we know it." WNYC and its listeners are on the same team, the pledge hosts say, and now the listeners have the power to improve the situation.
Even the advocates of reduced pledging recommend moderation in moderation: it's not the right choice for every drive, forever. Sutton suggests using shortened drives until the results falter. "Don't give up the strategy before the audience gets tired of it."
For a station to even consider the strategy, the audience has to be asking for relief, says Lo Hartnett. "You have to keep a cool head and look at the big picture." The station can't merely heed the complaints of a board member or its own staff.
"Pledge-free was never developed to be an ongoing strategy," Hartnett observes. "It was developed to give your members a break."
Web page posted Dec. 1, 1997, revised May 9, 1998
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