Less pledging: "a wave continuing to build" in public radio
Originally published in Current, May 4, 1998
By Jacqueline Conciatore
Public radio's experimentation with shorter on-air pledge drives--in some cases drastically shorter--continues into the spring season.
Several stations have reported record fundraising results from spring drives that combined telephone and direct-mail solicitation with on-air pitching that lured in dollars by making what were essentially anti-pledge-week pitches.
WNYC, New York, for example, surpassed its $1.1 million goal with a nine-day on-air drive, knocking off two days. In Tampa, WUSF was able to launch into its traditional pledge-end broadcast of Beethoven's Ninth four days early, when it reached it $300,000 goal.
The shorter drives are "a wave that's continuing to build," says Barbara Appleby, v.p. of the Minneapolis-based Development Exchange. But whether the shift is permanent remains to be seen, given concerns that shortened drives cut into gains of new memberships, and that their inherent appeal can last only as long as the concept is fresh.
Less-pledging as a fundraising strategy is not new, Appleby notes; public TV tried and rejected it during the 1980s partly for the reasons just mentioned. Public radio's current trend appears to have been set off by WBUR, Boston, working with fundraising consultant John Sutton. In summer 1997, the station cut its drive from 10 days to three hours and still passed its $300,000 goal. In fall 1997, it pulled in about $1.5 million with mailings, telemarketing efforts and an on-air drive that lasted only 14 hours.
Sutton says that about 15 stations have purchased the "More Programming, Less Fundraising" kits--a how-to guide with mail copy and scripts--that he offers with WBUR. These include WJHU, Baltimore: KJZZ, Phoenix: and KPLU, Tacoma/Seattle. Other stations have shortened drives without enrolling in the WBUR/Sutton program.
These "pioneering" stations are still trying to find the right combination of practices that will give listeners the reprieve they clearly want from lengthy on-air pledging, but without sacrificing new-member tallies, Sutton says. WKSU, Kent, followed WBUR's example with a big cutback, shrinking its drive from 10 days to 15 hours. Though the station has already surpassed its financial goal of $330,000 and money is still coming in, it fell 1,000 members short of its goal to reach 1,500 new members. "We probably took too large a leap, going from 10 days to 15 hours," says Allen Bartholet, development director. "We didn't have the frequency of announcements we needed to reach new contributors." To compensate, WKSU will have a short new-member campaign in June. Bartholet intends to have another shortened drive in the fall, though with a more moderate cut, probably to about four days, he says.
New Hampshire Public Radio failed to realize its new-member goal as well, acquiring 650 new members out of 1,800 total calls. It's not a bad tally, says General Manager Mark Handley, but it's shy of the station's usual 50 percent new-member rate. Of course, not all stations fell short of new-member goals. WJHU, Sutton says, will have between 20 and 25 percent new members when the year is out, and has cut its fundraising by more than half.
Appleby says that for most stations she simply can't endorse drastic leaps of the kind WKSU took. It's simply too risky, especially if stations haven't built strong off-air fundraising programs, she said. Sutton, who worked with WKSU on the latest drive, agrees there is a critical period of time stations must air pledge breaks to reach certain new-member and income goals. WKSU probably could have achieved its goals with an additional 30 hours, he says. But he cautions that there is no statistical evidence that shorter drives, per se, mean fewer new members. "This isn't, 'Shorter doesn't work.' The question is, 'How much shorter?'"
Sutton believes stations can determine the necessary number of pledging days by formula. Appleby generalizes that stations moving from 10-12-day drives to 7-8-day drives are probably making a good move that will result in greater efficiency.
The two agree that public radio stations generally need to build their off-air income bases. This is what WNYC has done since fall 1994, when it first offered listeners, in short on-air promos, the chance to "buy back" hours of programming by contributing early. With a nine-day winter drive shortened from 11 to 12 days, the station collected $1.22 million--$441,000 from buy-back. "The buyback is key," says WNYC spokesperson Virginia Gold. "As amusing as we try to make [pledge drives] and as intriguing as we try to make it. . . there are still people who don't respond to that approach and would rather send it in."
The Development Exchange suggests that on-air pledge revenue, as a rule, equal about one-third of station's membership income.
The other key to shortening drives successfully is on-air strategy, says Sutton. Drives must be specifically designed to bring in new members if that is the goal, with "actionable strategies"--perhaps lowering the suggested first-time gift, for example. "When you change fundraising tactics and focus on new members, you can accelerate the pace of new member giving," he says.
One final concern about abbreviating pledge drives has to do with their inherent appeal. After all, how many years can stations exploit that fact that they're giving listeners a break? "It's a gimmick, a short-term tactic," says Appleby. "Because you can't keep making them shorter. And you may eventually have make them longer." She and others express concern that anti-pledge rhetoric diverts attention from the important message about public radio's value to listeners. "The best pitching is really about ... how we meet your need for music and news," Appleby says. "And when you get on and do something that sounds more like extortion, to be extreme about it, it just flies in face of the case you're building."
On the other hand, shorter drives--regardless of their message--are clearly more pleasing to listeners. And if stations can only leverage the brevity for a fixed time period, some observers say, then perhaps they should use it as an irregular or intermittent tactic. Says Bartholet: "If you can take the appeal for shorter on-air fundraising and go with it for three years--I say that's a heck of a strategy."
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Earlier news: Public radio fundraisers pick up the banner of reduced pledging that was dropped in disappointment by public TV.
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