Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘Fund Drive

Time to make the Donuts

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Donuts

The only thing I like better than writing is building databases.  You would think those would be reversed considering writing is thought to be more of an artistic endeavor.  Creating spreadsheets, by contrast, is head down, butt in the seat, grunt work though, as someone who writes, I know writing can be its own kind of torture.

But there is something about the researching; the lining things up, the sorting, the cross-tabulating that I find fascinating such that the days or weeks or months it takes me to compile that data is as much the reward as the surprises the data reveal.  You would think filling rows and columns would be laborious and tedious and mind numbing.

Each piece of data helps build a picture that I anticipate like a kid’s first time visit to Disneyland.  I’ve always been like this.  I know I have to do this digging and shoveling, sifting and stacking.  But I also know that when I hit “Tabulate”, pictures in each cell start to move like pages in a flipbook and that is thrilling to me.

As I work on this book, I am digging as deeply as I have ever dug and I know what I’ve done so far hasn’t gone nearly deep enough.  I can be OCD like that.  But when the researcher is satisfied that he has found every article, report, study, white paper, message board or blogpost, he will hand it all off the the writer who trusts every ladder rung has been stress tested.

The writer will take that roiling vat of information and move to Step 2 of the process; corroboration; turning facts and assumptions into thoughtful and intelligent questions that people in the know can confirm (or refute).  Questions that I hope show the people I’m asking that I have done my homework.  Because nothing annoys professionals more than amateurs who waste their time.  These are busy people and my subject – money and how public radio stations get it – is at the heart of what each of them do everyday.  The writer will then take everything and exhaust pens, pencils and toner cartridges on reams and reams of paper.

My editor will first pat me on the head and tell me it’s clear that I’ve been thinking hard about this, but then fill the other side of the page with notes.  My graphic artist friend will tell me my ideas for artwork are good places to start. My programming friend will make me stare at numbers I’ve already stared at for months and make me make them make more sense.

And I will (for the most part) listen to these people because they are smart.

I hope the interviews I get, supported by the rows and columns I’m filling now, help me create something new and helpful to everyone who cares about public radio, listens to public radio and wants it to be the best it can be.

Time to make the donuts.

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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.

Written by Interviewer

February 16, 2016 at 12:53

There’s a Book in There Somewhere

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Fund Drive

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.

Written by Interviewer

July 19, 2015 at 23:51

Fund Drive Blues

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Pie Chart

I volunteered this weekend at Oregon Public Broadcasting.  I was one of the people you would talk to if you called to make a pledge for radio.  I also volunteer at KBOO in Portland, a community radio station that isn’t public radio, but is listener funded like public radio.

I just learned that KBOO ended its drive but did not hit its fund drive goal of $85,000.  The drive began on or about February 2 and was scheduled to go for two weeks. When I checked drive progress last night, KBOO was at about $47,000.  KBOO has had problems in the past hitting its goal and it has led to ocassional speculation that the station has financial problems.

But OPB’s fund drive began on February 5.  I volunteered for the current drive three separate times; on the first day, somewhere in the middle and at the scheduled end of the drive, which was supposed to be Saturday, February 14h.  OPB’s goal was around $600,000 but as of 5 p.m. Saturday, it had only raised about 2/3s of that amount.

Both stations are careful however about how they express that shortfall.  OPB stock phrase is “We’re not quite done yet”, while on KBOO’s site, there is a banner that reads, “We came up a bit short of our goal, so please donate online if you can”.  And if you listen closely, you can hear them blaming themselves even though the fact that people didn’t give enough money isn’t their fault.

People take the programming even though they hate fund drives.  And although stations emphasize all of the people that like them, love them or want more of them, these numbers say people either don’t have the money, or for some reason, don’t want to part with it.  And it certainly isn’t because they don’t know the goals or the deadlines or the phone numbers.  What that tells me is that the fund drive model isn’t working and we need to be doing something different.  Even if the intent is to support excellent programming, pitchers often say they don’t like holding programs hostage and listeners don’t like being extorted.

From what I understand, fund drive goals are set through a combination of what the stations need and what they were able to get at the last fund drive.  Although, as I said earlier, KBOO ended its drive, OPB will grind on until it hits its goal, if it hits its goal.  But neither case is cause for celebration because as pitchers often say, the money stations ask for during a particular hour pays the cost the station pays the producer of that particular program.  And if they don’t come up with enough money, they can’t pay for the program next time, which often means programming changes listeners don’t like.  For both outlets, KBOO and OPB to be so far off from such a carefully calculated goal speaks volumes to the alchemy of both misses.

And it affects every operation, including news which is where my interest most lies.  Less money can mean less reporting, less conversations, less exposure of what needs to be seen and heard.  Although a boon for the shady, it’s frustrating for staff and listeners.

It’s a lousy system all around.  It’s got to go.  But the problem is what to replace it with?

*UPDATE: OPB ended its drive at 6 p.m. on February 17th.  It was $33,000 short.  It probably could’ve hit that goal if the drive had lasted one more day since it seemed to be raising about $40K per day.  But because Governor Kitzhaber resigns tomorrow, I am guessing they probably didn’t want to risk fundraising competing with such an important and historical news event.

Written by Interviewer

February 17, 2015 at 02:20