Hey mister, can you spare a dime?

I listen to National Public Radio almost every morning. My alarm is set to play NPR when it goes off, and I leave it on while I get ready to face the day. This allows me a chance to get at least a reasonable overview of the news each morning. More often than not, I also listen to NPR in the car as I commute.

Recently, my local NPR station held its annual fund drive. As a result, as I attempted to listen to the news in the morning, I was treated to what likely amounts to roughly 25-50% of the on-air time, but which feels like an unrelenting deluge, taken up with various individuals trying to encourage, cajole, beg, threaten, and guilt me and other listeners into becoming “members”. By which they mean sending them money. This consists of people talking about how great NPR is, in particular about how much the current show (which they have, of course, interrupted) is an important and valuable part of my day, and endless, unceasing repetitions of the phone number anyone hearing the sound of their voices should call immediately to make a pledge.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think my local NPR station is great. I fully understand that they need to raise money in order to continue to provide me with the programming I enjoy every weekday morning. Clearly, running a radio station is not free. Certainly, buying the rights to air the BBC news is not inexpensive. To that end, I fully support the efforts of the station to raise the funds they need to remain in operation.

What really struck me during this year’s pledge drive, however, was how out of place it seemed with my expectations for how I interact with the media I consume. This entire approach to generating the revenue necessary to keep a media outlet running simply didn’t fit with my experience of other forms of media. I was left wondering if there was some other way that public radio could, or should, for that matter, consider approaching the issue of their revenue stream.

When I listen to commercial radio stations, watch television, read a magazine or a website, or even just walk or drive down the street, I am constantly inundated with advertising. Almost every place and activity in our lives is pervaded by marketing messages. In many ways, it doesn’t even register any more, as I have simply reached the point where I tune it all out. As I have discussed earlier on the Buffet, some marketers are struggling to find ways to make their messages more effective in an increasingly saturated environment.

Public radio takes a very different approach. Fifty-one weeks out of the year, they have virtually zero advertising at all. They do have brief “today’s sponsor is Acme Corp.” or “today’s show brought to you by Joe Smith, on behalf of his wife, Susan” messages, but no actual ads at all. This isn’t really noticeable while you are listening, though if you stop and compare this to what you’d be getting on any other station on the dial, the contrast is so sharp it’s almost shocking.

The beg-a-thons on NPR (not a polite term, but one in common usage) are considerably harder to just tune out than advertising on commercial radio stations. In part, I think, this is because they occupy a considerably greater proportion of the on-air time, and occupy much larger blocks of time at one stretch, with appeals for money ranging up to and including ten minutes apiece, while advertising interruptions on most radio stations are held to only three or four minutes in one go. On the other hand, only one week out of the year is a vanishingly small percentage of time actually spent in the pursuit of money when compared to other radio stations.

The part that really got my attention, though, was not actually particularly related to how public radio compares to commercial radio. What struck me was how the public radio model differs from other models I’m more familiar with from various Internet media sources. In particular, the fund raising model embraced by public radio is entirely non-responsive.

What I mean by this is that they make no change in their activities based on any action I do or do not take. When I visit any of a wide variety of web sites, I am often given the option of paying some fee (or making a donation, or any other way of couching this you might choose; the point remains that I am transferring money from my control to theirs). Having paid this consideration, I am given access to further content, faster download speeds, bypassing queues for files, or simply get some fancy icon next to my name when I post in the forums on that particular site.

I will freely admit that NPR fund drives often offer me some kind of merchandise in exchange for my money. They will send me a coffee mug, or a shirt, or a copy of a CD or some other item they feel I will enjoy, if only I donate to them a sum of money above some threshold first. However, I am not buying a mug from them. That is only a side issue. What I am doing is giving them money to run their radio station. However, once I do, no matter how soon I do so or in what extravagant amount, their pleas for my aid continue unabated. On a web site, I might be pestered that I am making use of free content with each and every click, at the top, middle, and bottom of every page. However, once I step up and provide my credit card number, those demands vanish instantly, not to return until the period for which I have paid expires.

I have been sufficiently conditioned by my interaction with these sorts of instantly responsive appeals for money that the idea I could send NPR a check for the national budget of Turkmenistan and still have to listen to another week of endless interruptions is an offense to my delicate sensibilities. The people running the fund raiser would obviously like people to donate as much as possible in the very early days, because it allows them to use their impressive preliminary numbers to more effectively guilt slower potential “members” to reach for their wallets. I, on the other hand, find that it does nothing but make me want to wait until the last possible second, so that I might try to fool myself into thinking that it was my donation that caused them to finally stop and go back to their regular programming.

With technology advancing at the rate that it is, I cannot imagine that we are far from the days that radio stations, like web sites and their streaming content, could adopt a more responsive fund raising model. In fact, many radio stations already offer streaming versions of their broadcasts via their websites. Might it be possible for NPR to allow me to log into their site and provide me with an uninterrupted stream if their records show I’ve already donated in the last year? Alternatively, with digital broadcast technology gaining popularity, and the combination of “HD” and satellite radio picking up traction, how long will it be before it is possible to tie a given radio to its owner, and from there to the records of who has sent in an annual donation?

Perhaps, though, this is not a reasonable request on my part. Am I the only one who finds this mechanism for accomplishing the absolutely vital task of generating operating revenue to be unsatisfying? Surely going fifty one weeks in a row without airing an advertisement is a laudable accomplishment. Or, if this is a reasonable complaint on my part, can anyone suggest a mechanism by which the experience could be more satisfying without depriving the station of badly needed funds?


23 Responses to Hey mister, can you spare a dime?

  1. Electra says:

    I think that AM/FM radio is not going to be developing the response you want any time soon if at all. Granted, their web-based content could shift depending on if you make a donation, but sometimes I doubt even that much. For example, other than BBC which is developed elsewhere, I wouldn’t be surprised if the shows on NPR actually cut back on content during beg-a-thon.

    Additionally, I’m not sure that your comparison to web-based content sites is an accurate comparison. Web-based businesses focus on unique visitors and traffic, whereas radio has no way of really registering who is listening and who isn’t. Even the other radio stations that have ads up the wazoo don’t get kickbacks from when a listener goes and buys a New Sofa For Only Five-Ninety-Nine plus tax whereas web-based affiliates do, because they can track statistics about who buys things because of a redirect.

    Further, when you -a user- are paying a membership fee for privaleged content, that relationship goes two ways. Just as you get to access the ad-free or speedier (etc.) content once you plug in your CC#, the website owners can watch how often your unique IP address combined with your account login accesses their site and what you click on and what you are interested in, and they can charge you individually and directly for services they grant. However, AM/FM does not have a two-way relationship. Just as you have no feedback if you donate money to public radio, they have no passive feedback as to whether you the listener are even listening. If they used active feedback (a.k.a. surveys of patrons), they could find out information about what shows you like, what recommendations you follow up on, and etc., but they don’t passively get anything from the relationship formed by you donating money to their fundraising activities. This is because the content of AM/FM radio is broadcast. It pretty much only goes outward. There aren’t any pings or trackbacks from AM/FM unless a listener goes out of their way to call or write to the station to report on their experiences.

    On a tangent, I was just as irritated by the week of shameless begging, but at the same time, I always considered it to be a point of prestige when I finally had a solid enough income to give money to public radio. It was going to be a point of pride that I was a patron, mug, T-shirt, CD, or nothing. (I’m not there yet.) However, there is no inherent prestige in forming a business relationship with a website in order to access greater content or less ads.

  2. Mark says:


    I am certainly aware of the inherent differences between the web and broadcast media. However, my point remains. Broadcast media is no longer the only form of media available to me (or anyone else, for that matter). As a result of my experiences with other forms of media, I find myself increasingly dissatisfied with the paradigm employed by NPR.

    I grant you that public radio has no direct means of determining consumption. However, neither does television. They have the ratings system, which is more automatic with the advent of the system now built into televisions. Still, they have no direct connection to an individual user. Nevertheless, these are all states that are changing with the advance of technologies that allow media providers to more directly connect with media consumers.

    My suggestion is not that public radio needs to suddenly be able to do things that the websites I frequent can manage. Clearly, with existing technology, they cannot. What I am suggesting is that given that we have now been exposed to other possibilities, the current state of affairs leaves, in me, something to be desired. My question is if others share this sense, and if so, if they have some suggestion as to what public radio stations might do to relieve that feeling in their patrons.

  3. Kevin says:


    You made me think of two things with your post.

    First, I just re-watched Minority Report in bed last night, so your complaint about limited interactivity immediately brought to mind the personalized ad system in that world. If you walk into The Gap, they know what your last purchase was, just by scanning your eyes. The end of privacy would certainly solve your problem, though I doubt that’s a solution anyone here wants to happen.

    Second, yes, I am incredibly frustrated by the annual pledge drive campaigns. In one of the more recent ones, I heard the program director of my local station say something along the lines of, “you should send us money because if you don’t, it’s like stealing.” That comment pissed me off so much that I will no longer listen to any pledge drive, ever, and if I end up in the St. Louis area permanently, I’m a lot more likely to donate to NPR nationally than to this station as long as that woman is running the show (I didn’t like her to begin with).

    I’m insulted because, first, you’d better not fucking call me a thief if you want me to give you money. You can beg, plead, whatever, I might put up with that, but say that I’m morally bankrupt and nope, sorry, we’re done. Also, it’s National Public Radio. The whole idea is that it serves the public interest; that’s why it gets subsidized, and that’s why it’s there. It’s not primarily an entertainment venue. Finally, broadcast radio is a public good. It’s just fundamentally non-excludable as regulated by the FCC. If you want every single person who listens to send you five bucks a month, put your programming exclusively on satellite radio and SHUT THE FUCK UP. If your business model for a non-excludable good is by donation, then you’d better not be insulting your potential donors. If you want a different business model, then switch to another medium.

    There. I’ve been holding that in for a few months now. /rant

    To answer your question more generally, I’d be dramatically less irritated by the fund drives if they didn’t effectively sequester content for a week or more at a time. If every hour at the top of the hour they gave their contact information, instead of a signficant chunk of several consecutive days, I’d be on board. As it sits now, I switch to my iPod when they do that and feel completely comfortable listening to podcasts of their stuff without the garbage in the middle.

    At the same time, I have no money – my wife is breaking her back to put me through college, so I’m lucky to get to eat out every now and then. So maybe my opinion is irrelevant.

  4. Electra says:


    I think in my argument, I wasn’t trying tosuggest that you were suggesting that the medium of radio should act like the medium of the web. Rather, I was saying that you are mistaken about the relationship between radio and websites. Maybe its because I’m used to websites which are either assumed to be entirely free (but quietly request donations via PayPal in the corner) or are a business-oriented site which will offer crippled free content but have an objective to make money. Have you experienced many sites which are primarily free but will offer extra layers to people who support it monetarily?
    Basically, I’m talking about a not-for-profit that benefits from donation vs. a business that needs to make money to make the site work or make the site worthwhile for the owners.
    NPR as radio is a not-for-profit that can mostly operate from subsidies/grants from the government, but needs donations to make up the difference. So are most other not-for-profits.
    It seems to me that you are wondering if NPR should switch from the not-for-profit model to a business model, so that you change from being a listener to being a consumer and can thus control personal content through your level of business interaction. To me, though, I’m happy with NPR remaining a radio broadcast medium (+ paralleling web content) but mostly I want it to remain a not-for-profit that uses listener/supporter donations to make up the difference in functioning but nevertheless makes its entire amount of full-quality content available to everyone (like me and Kevin who are poor and cannot afford to donate at this point in life).

  5. Electra says:


    In one of the more recent ones, I heard the program director of my local station say something along the lines of, “you should send us money because if you don’t, it’s like stealing.”

    If my observation above is correct than the program director is wrong. You’re not stealing public broadcasting if public broadcasting is freely given to the public. Maybe you are capitalizing on the fact that other people will donate and will support the thing that you enjoy using, but “stealing” is far, far too strong a term.

  6. Brando says:

    Capitalizing is a little too charitable for my taste. A correct term would be that one who does not pay for a public good (like NPR) while others do is ‘free-riding’. It’s kind of like when people are putting in money for pizza… and you try to be the last one to volunteer… so while everyone else puts in 5, you put in 3.50 – all that is left to pay for by the time you volunteer. Dirty NPR listening, pizza scarfing free-riding punks.

    Click the link for more on Free Rider problems. Also you could look up the classic book on the subject by Mancur Olson The Logic of Collective Action

  7. BBarron says:

    I used to be a devoted fan of (and faithful contributor to) my local NPR station. But I haven’t donated to my local NPR station in 10 years and I haven’t listened either, so I’m not guilty of stealing. NPR has sold out. I wake up (and contribute) to an independent FM station that carries BBC World News. This station’s main fare is classical music, and the early morning “DJ” (who has a very plummy British voice) often shocks me awake by playing rousing regiment marches at the crack of dawn. I give them $ anyway.

  8. Kevin says:

    Barbara: In what way has NPR “sold out?” I’m a recently converted NPR listener (2004ish), and I’m curious as to why you’d feel that way.

    Unrelatedly, I love how Brandon has a comprehensive knowledge of books I want to read…. 🙂

  9. B Barron says:

    I discovered NPR in Iowa (WOI in Ames), of all places, in 1973. It was a liberal voice that I hadn’t heard before. I continued to support NPR’s local stations as I moved along the way, and became an enthusiastic supporter of our local station when I moved here in 1985. I continued to donate to the local station (contributing enough $ to achieve attendance at their “special” luncheon events for elite donors at which NPR luminaries like Cokie Roberts spoke). But as time went on, the hype became more than the substance. Our local station became a heavy hitter on the donation scene, and focused more on collecting money than contributing to local programming. Then during the Bush administration, NPR became just like the other main-stream networks: parroting the party line. It is fair to ask me, “how do you know things haven’t changed, since you haven’t listened in 10 years?” Perhaps they have, but I have found other outlets for news and commentary.

  10. dajka says:

    I am a proud, card-carrying (or will be again as soon as my replacement arrives post-mugging) member of Minnesota Public Radio. Before that, I was a member of WKSU in Ohio. Before that, I’d given $20 to Chicago Public Radio. I love NPR, and I feel wonderful giving them my money to support programming that I so enjoy. (My love of NPR means that I went through the entire mid-term election season in Ohio without hearing/seeing a single political ad except for when I was at the laundromat or gym.)

    WKSU did something that you might appreciate. They sent out letters and made brief announcements on air for a few weeks before the pledge drive. The message was simple – if you pledge now online or by mail, it will shorten the period of time we spend doing the fund drive.

    It worked, too. They were able to cut it back from the normal 7-9 days to merely 4-5. Maybe you’ll want to contact your local station and mention this technique . . .

  11. Dana says:


    I think you may have hit on exactly the reason that those things are so annoying; there is no way to make them stop. I’ve got no real solutions, though.


    My NPR station has started doing that “shorten the fund drive by giving early!” thing, too, but I haven’t noticed it making the content during the fund drive any less worthless. I’m appreciative, I suppose, that it’s no longer for more than a week, but during the time the drive is going on, I simply cannot listen.


    The public TV station in Japan, NHK, takes that “if you aren’t giving your annual donation, you’re stealing” line. As far as I could tell, they didn’t do fund drives, though. They send enforcers, er, collectors around to every apartment in the neighborhood and ask if the people there have a TV, and then pressure you into paying your dues. Then they have all your information, and call you in the future. I don’t know that I think this is a better way of doing things, but they at least have a somewhat reasonable expectation that nearly everyone with a TV in Japan watches NHK at some point, whereas there are lots of people who don’t listen to NPR.

  12. Mark says:


    First of all, my condolences on your recent “donation” to your local criminal element. Next time, you should ask them to send you a card, too. You could show it to the next mugger, and point out that you’d already made your contribution for the year.

    I have experienced programs like the one you describe for WKSU, though the station near me where I live now has not embraced the idea. I grant you that they make the process less annoying, because they compress the time frame I have to listen to the begging. However, it doesn’t really address my more fundamental issue. It simply serves to make the experience less intense, but I’m still left feeling like there should be a better way, though I remain in a state where I’m not entirely positive what that might be.


    Kevin, I agree that you are not stealing a public resource. I grant that Brandon raises some valid points about free riders, but that doesn’t make you a thief. On the other hand, I’m not sure that what you suggest about distributing their fund raising efforts over the course of the year would really work. For one, they rely on volunteer labor to answer those phones, which would require them to have somebody volunteering to sit next to the phone all year long, or to hire somebody to do so.

    In addition, I suspect that even if the logistics of doing their fund raising in that manner were the same, it would be less effective. I think a big part of doing it the way they do is that there is a set time when they are collecting. If they are always collecting, it is much easier to say “well, I’ll donate next week” and then never send them a check. It also makes it easier for them to guilt you into donating if there is a set time when all of the “good people” are donating, and you need to as well, if you want to be on the “nice” list instead of the “naughty” one. This is part of my issue here, because I don’t want to deprive them of money by compromising the effectiveness of their efforts. I just want those efforts to better conform to my needs while continuing to fulfil their own.


    I’m sad to note that NPR no longer receives the bulk of its funding from the government. Their federal budget has been in steady decline for some time now, and they are increasingly relying on donors in order to meet their operating expenses. If they were entirely tax-funded, this would be a lot easier. I’d send them my “donation” in a few days (the 15th is fast approaching), and be done with it. As it stands, however, the Congress has beggared NPR, and they are trying to pick up the slack from the generosity of their listeners. Wikipedia states (and offers some links to verify, if you’re interested:

    Typically, NPR member stations raise about one-third of their budget through on-air pledge drives, one-third from corporate underwriting, and one-third from grants from state governments, university grants, and grants from the CPB itself.

    As to your question about “tiered content” web sites I make use of, the most common example would be web comics. Many, though certainly not all, offer some variety of additional content to readers who support the site with donations. They raise the bulk of their revenue from advertising on the site, but will allow donors to view sketches, see storyboards, download desktop images for their computers, etc. Other sites only allow members to post to forums, although anybody can read their content, or impose other variations in the level of access available to free visitors compared to paying customers. There are also numerous sites that allow you to pay them in exchange for removing advertising from the pages they serve you. In those cases, normal visitors have all of the same access, but see advertising on the tops and side bars of pages, while paying customers are spared the ads.

    Again, I don’t propose that NPR needs to suddenly interact with me in the same way that the web does. I’m just expressing that I find the manner that they have chosen to interact with me to be highly dissatisfying. My experience with other forms of media, including the web, suggests to me that there are a wide variety of ways for media providers to generate the revenue they need to operate. I’m hopeful that someone has a way that NPR can meet their own needs in a manner that is less unsatisfactory to me.

  13. Ellie says:

    I have also just been victimized by the local NPR’s “Fund Raising Festival.” Yes, they did at one point compare it to a big event in which fun would be had by all. No, nothing they did was fun, except maybe listening to the 5 o clock anouncer stumble over himself begging, erasing forever my vision of him wearing a conservative suit and tie and looking like Dan Rather in his prime. And no, I did not give them money. I feel the grasp of poverty hounding my footsteps, and I don’t want their coffee mug. And yes they implyed that I was a filthy immoral wretch freeloading off of those honest donators by listening to their program for free.

    I listen to NPR religiously while driving to and from work. And the fund begging is really really annoying. On the other hand, I challenge the assumption that there are better ways for NPR to do it. It’s a cliche that you have to spend money to make money, but there is a certain amount of truth to that. Advertising on conventional radio stations, for instance, is hardly cheap for the businesses availing themselves of that option. NPR has historically relied upon volunteers to man their phones or stamp their envelopes, and are probably severly curtailed in the uses they can put their public funding to. While it might be less annoying to us apathetic listeners if they just bought billboard space or took out newspaper adds, as a non-profit they lack the fundamental resources to carry that out and still expect it to pay off big. But I can totally see them starting up similar advertising things on their web space, particularly if their government funding keeps ebbing away.

    My parents claim NPR has sold out too. But they still listen to it. Very little fair and balanced news anywhere these days.

  14. Mark says:


    Well, of course there isn’t much Fair and Balanced news out there. Fox owns the trademark, and they’d sue anybody who tried. NPR still strikes me as a lot less partisan than the vast majority of media outlets available to me, and I appreciate that they don’t treat me like my IQ was a smaller number than my age.

    As I’ve said several times now, I certainly don’t know what the better plan than what they do now would be. I’m not even certain that a better mechanism actually exists. I cannot get over the feeling that it should exist, though, which is what prompted me to blog about it in the first place. Perhaps our culture has just socialized me to expect instant gratification, but I remain highly vexed that sending them money does not cause them to stop accusing me of having not done so.

  15. Mike says:

    Wait, Ellie. Do you have a crush on Dan Rather?

  16. Mike says:

    First, one quick point, in case anybody doesn’t know something I didn’t until a couple years ago: NPR is not synonymous with public radio. NPR is a content producer and distributor; Public Radio International and American Public Media are its big rivals; most public radio stations are NPR affiliates, in the way that your local TV station is a CBS affiliate owned by, say, Gannett.


    There’s a lot of awareness among public broadcasters that the pledge-drive business model is in trouble. The 10-year trend, from what I read, has been: more money, fewer donors.

    Last year, Portland’s NPR affiliate did an experimentally minimalist pledge drive, with just 5 minutes of begging every hour. Their manager later told me it did just as well as others had … but the next time around they were back to their old wall-to-wall ways. Apparently such gentler pledge drives are effective in the short run, but tend not to generate new memberships as effectively.

    One thing to consider: it’s possible that most public radio listeners are more like me — 2-3 times a week, seldom for more than 30 minutes — than they are like Mark. If that’s the case, it might be in the station’s interest to repeat its plea over and over in order to catch as many Mikes as possible.

    Another to consider: A tiered-content system wouldn’t merely undermine the stated missions of public radio stations; it might also deter their key donors. I’m sure that rich, educated donors draw a sense of charity from their public-radio donations, on the theory that they’re providing high-quality left-of-center news to the unwashed masses. Remove the masses, and it wouldn’t be as rewarding to contribute.

    More cynically: the pledge-drive model caters to the elite few who can contribute substantial sums of money. This is written into their business plan. Whatever might slip out of a thoughtless broadcaster’s mouth in the heat of a pledge drive, they’d be shocked if more than, oh, 20 percent of listeners contributed. Like Electra, I draw some pride from being in that 20 percent, but I certainly don’t resent anyone else for not being in it.

    Anyway, the public-radio model leads to content intended to appeal to highly educated people. Since most people on this blog are highly educated without being particularly wealthy, we may be among a relatively small group of unintended beneficiaries.

    And if I haven’t gone on long enough, here’s a question: Why is BBC content so good, despite being funded by a big regressive tax on British television sets? I suppose the political insulation that comes from the Brits’ elective dictatorship must be enough to protect it.

  17. Mark says:


    Doesn’t everybody have a crush on Dan Rather? He’s just so… delectable. Sorry. I’ll stop now.

    Yes, I am aware of the difference between NPR and my local radio station. However, I am prepared to admit that I have been somewhat lax in the specificity of my vocabulary on the subject. Sorry for any confusion that might have caused.

    Is the worry that with dollars up and donors down, the model isn’t sustainable, because they need to be getting “fresh blood” into the system in order to be sure that there will be enough people around to donate next year, or two, five, ten, or twenty years down the road? I certainly admit that a much more low-key drive would be less annoying, at any rate. I can see, however, how it would be considerably less effective at actually catching the attention of more casual, intermittent listeners.

    Even such a scheme, however, doesn’t really address my more fundamental dissatisfaction. The issue is not the total percentage of the time they spend annoying me with their begging. The issue is that I don’t feel like there is any feedback loop between their begging and my giving them the money they ask for.

    I’m certainly not advocating a tiered content scheme for public radio. I agree that it rather defeats the purpose of having public radio in the first place. I wasn’t advocating a move to such a system. I was simply pointing out several examples of systems which change their behavior once I give them money in response to Electra’s query on the subject. I hadn’t considered the psychology behind the donations public radio stations receive, particularly from large individual donors, but I agree that such an evaluation might argue strongly against this sort of system.

    I am all in favor of content geared towards highly educated people. This is, in particular, why I enjoy the BBC World Service so much. I find commercial radio in the United States to be, in large part, a brazen insult to my intelligence. I find public radio content produced in this country to be head and shoulders above that standard. However, the BBC, or at least the parts of it my local public radio station syndicates, are far and away the best of the bunch. Advertisers spend a lot of time pandering to my base instincts, and I can see the argument in favor of that. I don’t even mind when they do. By the same token, however, it’s nice to find someone who is willing to pander to my intelligence, and in this regard, the BBC receives very high marks indeed.

    I suspect that the climate that allows this to happen in the UK has less to do with the particular nature of the tax involved. The realities of a party-based, parliamentary government might well be much more telling.

  18. TheGnat says:

    It might be noted that the BBC is seen as stodgy, high-brow, and distant from the working man, so to speak, in Britain, at least so far as I’ve heard. It’s just a different perspective on the news than we get in the States, and has a tendency to spend more than two sound bites on not-Britain nations (might have something to do with your neighbors and therefore troubles not being an ocean away).

    As to NHK, it’s much more like the BBC than PBS or NPR. It’s government made and run, hence the collectors. Who can’t actually say anything about it if you say “No I don’t have a TV” even as they can both see and hear your tv blasting in the room behind you.

    Personally, I gave up on the news years ago. You can either get leftist or rightist news, but nothing that is neither. While I’m willing to accept bias as par for the course in anything that has a human hand involved, I’d prefer to have as little of it as possible, which at the moment, means avoiding the news.

    Mark, I have no idea what a broadcast system can do to alleviate your annoyance, fearsome though that emotion from you may be. Maybe they should say “and to everyone who hasn’t given us money yet!” so you can feel less accused. ^_-

  19. Mark says:

    Ms. Gnat,

    I don’t know how I feel about stodgy or disconnected, but I’m strongly in favor of high-brow. I’m also strongly in favor of a rich offering of international news. I find local news to be depressing. In particular, the “feel good” stories from the local news mostly make me depressed that I care if some local resident found their lost dog. I’d rather hear news that impacts my life, and in general, the politics of foreign nations does so to an extent not appreciated by many of my fellow Americans. It is for this reason that I am unwilling to give up on the news. It bears directly on my life, and that makes it something I don’t feel like I can afford to ignore, even if I must accept some bias in return.

    I grant you that specifying that they are only talking to those people who have not yet sent them money would fractionally reduce my irritation, but it still fails to address my more fundamental issue. Then again, I am still willing to consider the proposal that my underlying issue is unreasonable, and I should just get over myself and go back to listening to the radio.

  20. Electra says:


    The issue is that I don’t feel like there is any feedback loop between their begging and my giving them the money they ask for.

    Okay, so the thing that my mind has been subliminally poking at this whole time is that I think, in the end, your desire for your donation to have an effect on content is futile.


    A correct term would be that one who does not pay for a public good (like NPR) while others do is ‘free-riding’.

    I think this is actually incorrect. When one does not pay for or pays less for a communally funded good or service, then that’s freeloading. What I would call a public good is one that anyone can use no matter the relationship to what they put in.

    Okay, here’s my main thesis.
    NPR produces radio content that is not supported by advertising.
    NPR is supported by government funding, corporate underwriting, and public donation.
    A small portion of people who may or may not listen to NPR go on to donate to NPR.
    These three things are linked only by the fact that they have to do with NPR!

    to donate: (v with object) to present as a gift, grant, or contribution; make a donation of, as to a fund or cause

    When you give money to NPR or other non-profits that use mostly volunteer labor and funding, YOU ARE GIVING A GIFT! You are not paying for a service. You are not contributing to the payment for a service for which others should also contribute. You are not doling out your portion of payment (except through taxes by which the gov’t pays for its portion of NPR funding). THERE IS NO PAYMENT INVOLVED! Therefore, there is no process of [payment given -> service received]. Your generous gift conveniently adding to the operating budget of NPR does not directly alter its service, which is independent of where the funding comes from so long as there is funding.
    (Sorry for the “yelling”. I think Brando’s comment ticked me off.)
    sidenote: Also, Mike is incorrect in assuming I donate. I haven’t ever been financially able to donate to NPR much as I’d like to as soon as I am financially stable. I see NPR as a valuable public resource and I enjoy listening to it occasionally.

    My point, though, especially from the perspective of one who hasn’t ever donated but would like to, is that I am not free-loading on other’s generosity nor am I stealing. NPR freely offers content to anyone who is able to receive their broadcast. It is a free product. There are no strings attached.

    Given that disconnect between maintaining a service that is free for use by anyone at any time, regardless of whether they have or are or will ever contribute to its funding (which I think is vitally important), means that those people who do choose to donate will be acknowledged in ways that are not connected to content – e.g. mugs. I think that any attempt to link content or increased content to broadcast AM/FM radio would degrade a good thing.

    So I will disagree that your donating money should change the content you recieve in any way.

    However, I do agree that the Pledge-Week model may or may not value from rethinking, especially in light of the gentler pledge drive experiments that Mike talks about. Even so, note that the “pledge early, reduce our drive time!” systems focus on chunks of donations – every $100,000 raised cuts one day off the drive – which means that no single person’s donation (unless its a very wealthy donor) will influence content.

    Anyway, Mark, I think you are doomed to let NPR run pledge drives however they will and however long they will, regardless of the timing of your regular donation.

  21. Mark says:


    As I’ve pointed out before, I’m certainly not advocating that public radio switch to a tiered content model. Then again, I’m not certain that I would define “tiered” in the same way you would. If, for example, I want to be listening to the BBC World Service, I don’t know that it’s “tiered” if I get to listen to the entire broadcast from the BBC (which the station already paid them for, and which is being broadcast all over the world at the same time), rather than to have it interrupted by the begging. To be able to only interrupt the broadcast for those people who have not yet donated would make me happy, and it does not entitle me to content that isn’t already available to everyone else, though their most local broadcaster might be providing an interrupted version of it.

    I don’t see this as a payment for services model. I view it as a model in which they just try hard not to annoy people who have already given them what they wanted. Then again, I freely admit that with existing technology, there is no way to implement this kind of system over the radio. It could certainly be done in a streaming version of their content from their website, but that is another matter altogether, particularly as I can’t get streaming content in my car, anyway.

    I should also point out that I think the concept applies to everyone equally, regardless of the particular details of their donation habits (or lack thereof). I want to have the knowledge that if I donate, I will no longer be annoyed. Even if I choose not to donate during any given pledge drive, I would be much less annoyed by it if I knew that I could make them stop begging if I sent them money. If I happen to get a coffee mug out of the deal, I suppose that’s a bonus. It’s not like I don’t drink a lot of coffee.

    Systems which reduce the length of the pledge drive based on certain thresholds of donations are appealing to me in some ways. They encourage people to donate earlier in the process, not because they will individually put the station over one of those large hurdles, but because they can be hopeful that others will join them in their early donations, and everyone will benefit from the more prompt return of uninterrupted broadcasts. However, this, like many other things NPR has tried and others in this thread have suggested, serves only to reduce the duration of my irritation, and does nothing to eliminate its source.

    I am becoming increasingly convinced, as this conversation continues, that the developing consensus is that there is not a practical technological solution to my dilemma. I hope that sometime in the not-so-distant future, somebody finds one that allows everybody to continue to benefit from public broadcasting, but which reduces my personal irritation with the process by which they are funded.

  22. Mike says:

    Electra: Sorry to presume. I like your “gift” thesis.

    Mark: I didn’t mean to say that you hadn’t made the NPR distinction clear, I just know it was something that I failed to understand for a long time. And I think you’re exactly right about the need for fresh blood in the pledge drives, and the impending problem.

  23. Brando says:

    Electra: Deep breaths. I see you as simply reinterpreting the situation above. And that is fine. I don’t see what about my post would make you upset. Note the use of the word ‘a’ to denote a correct term, for non-contribution to NPR rather than ‘the’ correct term.

    NPR does beyond any shadow of a doubt meet the requirement of a public good like a damn or military defense. Like damns or military defenses if no one pays, they aren’t provided. I think we agree on this.

    If you chose to conceive of the provision of resources to an organization as a ‘donation’ than that is just peachy. But, is the use of the term ‘contribution’ incorrect or do you just find it morally objectionable for reasons completely unrelated to my analysis of the situation. I certainly can understand that. I simply don’t agree.

    If you enjoy the benefits of, say, national defense, without contributing to its provision you are getting something for nothing. That sounds not only the like the technical economist definition of free-rider, but the common definition of free-rider as well. If you enjoy NPR and do not contribute towards its provision that is free-riding. NPR REQUIRES member support to function. Government finance is insufficient. This is simply a fact. If no non-government individuals contribute to NPR, NPR stops broadcasting the content it broadcasts. period. This is a classic public good provision problem.

    In fact, government is to many people’s minds (including my own) designed to solve these exact free-rider problems to provide public goods. If we required ‘donations’ or ‘contributions’ to supply the national defense or damn we would have been invaded by England and have no St. Lawrence Seaway. Indeed, this was exactly why the Constitution was designed the way it was to replace the Articles of Confederation. Public goods, without central authority, are underprovided. That is virtually an iron law of human organization. NPR is not immune to these problems, and like people who don’t contribute to the pizza that everyone is going to enjoy (while knowing that others must contribute), they are free riding.

    Again, if you object to the normative moral connotations that surround the word ‘free-rider’ or ‘free-loader’ or object to thinking of resources provided as a ‘contribution’ or ‘payment’ and prefer ‘donation’ then be my guest. Your comment, to my mind does nothing to undermine the logic of collective action outlined in my comment or in the work that studies the ‘free-rider problem’. It is totaly compatible. Personally I don’t find the notion of ‘gifts’ that are directly intended to create public goods a terribly compelling analogy, but to each their own.

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