There’s a Book in There Somewhere
I was at the Public Media Development and Marketing Conference in Washington DC for two and a half of four days last week but had to leave for a family emergency. I was there to get information and contacts for my book about the public radio fund drive. I’ve had people tell me nobody would read a book on fund drives while others have said they would be the first to read it. I’ve heard people say the audience isn’t really interested in whether stations make their fund drive goals while, unknown to audiences, staff that don’t make those goals feel demoralized (though, they’re told, if they want to keep their jobs, they better not show it). That the data being crunched at the national level on fund drives is overwhelmingly abundant, detailed and focused, and at the same time, there are local stations essentially doing their own thing with regards to fund drives for which there is absolutely no data.
Two focus groups I ran before going there said people do want to know how much programs cost, including how much do stations pay to join NPR, how does that affect the shows they hear, and why are fund drives so boring. Meanwhile, stations seem to be in a stranglehold of costs v revenue, staff v the ability to dive deep on administration and storytelling (hence the heavy reliance on volunteers), and autonomy v the long shadow of NPR, CPB and PBS.
At the conference, I noticed an obsession with language and how, rather than incite or insult, to infer the right (contributing) attitudes amongst listeners … although the inferences seem to change as rapidly as the language so as not to infer wrong attitudes. More than once, I’ve heard someone (as in someone on the front line of a station somewhere) say, “Public radio doesn’t want to deal with this, talk about that, address this”, which makes me wonder if there is there a disconnect between the snappy promos moving downstream and something else going on regarding relationships at all levels, And all of this orbits “you” (not “you all”); the donor, giver, sustainer, contributor, member, listener, audience. I have learned the fund drive is a relentless effort by stations to continue to spiral up in a deathly fear of themselves spiraling down.
Another friend in radio called the entire industry of public radio fundraising, “dastardly”.
Fund drives are about money, and public radio must be torn. How do you use language that is both unambiguous and painfully transparent to raise huge sums of money from a public that wants high quality news, information and entertainment but not be overly annoyed by the ask? How do you retire programs that should”ve been gone long ago except for big, loyal and financially powerful bases protecting them? How do you reconcile with reeling stations and pissed off fans over cancelled programs that probably never should’ve been cancelled but for the fact that their base didn’t or couldn’t rally because they just didn’t have the numbers.
Fund drives are about business and business is about money. “This model works”, pitchers say over and over. But does it?
This is part of the state of the public radio fund drive.
Sounds like there’s a book in there somewhere.