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?