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Same but Different?

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same but different

What differentiates public radio from commercial radio isn’t the wordplay that distinguishes a commercial, which is what commercial radio calls the paid statements from advertisers between music or talk, from underwriting, which is what public radio calls the paid statements from companies between programs.

The main distinction between a commercial and underwriting is that commercials have verbs like, go, do, see or call.  They constitute what is known as “The Action Step”; words that tell the listener to perform some act.  Public radio, instead, tells you everything about the company except to patronize it.  Ideally, public radio and the underwriting that financially supports it, avoids the action step.

Not because it wants to.  Public radio’s history is speckled with instances of stations with creative station managers who wanted to see exactly how close they could get to telling listeners what to do.  And they’ve gotten in a lot of trouble for it from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the FCC – two entities that tell public radio stations what to do.

Getting listeners to act, especially if they do it, can be very profitable.  It must be.  It’s a model that financially supports commercial radio to the tune of millions of dollars each year.  But public radio, unlike commercial radio, is also accountable to Congress to maintain its, shall we say, purity.  To be a public radio station, with all of the non-profit, tax exempt perks that come with it, a station must not sell commercials.  And commercials are full of action steps.

When President Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, the goal was to create a system of radio and TV stations that weren’t focused solely on money and didn’t act or sound like it. Think of radio stations with 45 minutes of music and 15 minutes of commercials, or a TV program with 12 commercials in a row, and you get an idea of how it looks like all they care about is money.  But, … at least they’re straightforward about it.

Which is why the pledge drive can be so confusing.  Pledge drives are one of the ways public radio stations get the money they need to provide the programming they offer.  In a pledge drive, hosts come on during program breaks and ask listeners to donate money.  But if you listen to a pledge drive, it can be a non-stop commercial for more than 20 minutes an hour.  And you hear those asks in the places between programs where you would normally hear underwriting;

“Call now.”
“You need to do this.”
“We’re waiting to hear from you.”
“Don’t wait.”
“Head on over to your phone.”
“Get out your credit card and become a member.”

I’m not sure why public radio can’t have underwriting with action steps but it can have pledge drives that tells listeners to call a telephone number up to 40 times an hour.  Maybe it’s a little loophole in the law – a gift from Congress who realized it’s hard to get people to part with their money without a little direct cajoling.

Perhaps the letter of the law is distinctive.  But for the ordinary listener, it can certainly sound like a distinction without a difference.

P.S.

After I posted this blogpost, I had the idea to title it, “Tomayto, Tomahto”, but it was too late.

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Written by Interviewer

February 16, 2016 at 12:53

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