Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘Fundraising

When Elephants Fight

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“When elephants fight, the grass suffers.” – African Proverb

In the course of working on my book about the public radio pledge drive, I stumbled upon a conversation between two leaders in the public radio realm. Adam Davidson, who has been a content producer for NPR and APM with a particular interest in economics, and John Sutton, a long time radio researcher and fundraising consultant who has been following audience behaviour for decades.

Mr. Sutton responded to a conversation Mr. Davidson posted about the future of audio content and how public radio in general is facing an existential threat from new, long-form journalism from podcasts like “Serial”. Mr. Sutton responded that people don’t use podcasts the way they use radio as it currently exists and even with the technological changes that have rocked public radio, their effect in the long term will be smoothed out.  As time went on, their conversation got a lot livelier and their critiques of each other’s point of view, much more, … um … pointed.

Fortunately, what I’m working on isn’t specifically about program production, audience behaviour or technological innovation as it affects public radio. There are people are much smarter about those things than I will ever be. But it reveals the problem with experts. What is the public to do when standing between two people who have the credentials to clearly and cogently defend opposite points of view?

Pubcasters do everything they can to keep the public happy and in a giving mood and that means drawing as little attention as possible to such conversations. But in the deep underbelly of public radio, they ultimately direct bigger conversations. Like, for example, those over the success of Jarl Mohn, NPR’s new CEO who wants to bring more high value donors into NPR. It’s a strategy that drew justifiable skepticism from the host of OPB’s daily flagship radio news program in 2014.

Maybe the extra cash will help public radio rely less on pledge drives, give producers more freedom to produce higher quality programming and help it avoid future bloodbaths like the one that rocked the network in 2014. ICYMI, NPR made deep cuts in staff and programming in a cost saving move.

In their August 2015 conversation, both men do agree on one thing – the key to public radio’s success is producing programs the audience will listen to and pay for. Their discussion, found here, is probably only one of many such fights between such elephants deep within the public radio milieu.

Written by Interviewer

March 12, 2016 at 08:59

Biting the Hand that Sort of Feeds You

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Biting the Hand

Kudos to Dave Miller, host of Oregon Public Broadcasting’s “Think Outloud” for the voicing fears and suspicions of KOPB staff. Mr. Miller was interviewing the new NPR President, Jarl Mohn.  Mr. Mohn had spent much of the conversation talking about the importance of fundraising for the future of NPR, mentioning that the mammoth Ray Kroc (founder of McDonalds) endowment to NPR of a quarter billion dollars in the early 2000s may necessarily be considered “small” in the face of NPR’s future financial needs and fundraising asks.

At one point, Mr. Mohn said he looks forward to “helping” NPR affiliates with their fundraising, to which Mr. Miller, God Bless Him, said that he knows a lot of dedicated people doing fundraising at public radio stations around the country who are already working hard to fundraise, and how do they know that Mr. Mohn’s offer to “help” isn’t just an excuse for NPR HQ to skim more money off the operating budgets of already struggling stations?

Ka-POW!

NPR programs are not cheap. Consider what it costs for a local affiliate just to meet overhead; that’s lights, taxes, licenses, fees. Then, salaries and benefit packages, capital expenditures, lawyers. Then marketing and advertising, maintenance, insurance. And none of that includes the cost of the programs.  I’ve heard pitchers on OPB say that flagship offerings like Morning Edition and All Things Considered can cost a million dollars or more each year.  Then, there’s very popular programs like Science Friday, Here and Now and the relatively new TED Radio Hour.   All of that has to be covered by whatever grants and endowments a station can scrounge. But the center tent pole for any station is fundraising. As a former federal employee, I’m well familiar with the phrase “Hi, I’m from the Government and I’m here to help”. Consider this piece from the Columbia School of Journalism in 2010 that looks how how much it costs to run NPR.  It makes sense that affiliates who’ve got their own thing going don’t necessarily want HQ’s nose under their own tent flap.

And it also doesn’t help that NPR has cycled through five presidents since 1994.  No doubt, local folks look at the turmoil at a place that is supposed to be rock solid and wonder if their own management is a little more stable and locally focused.

Mr. Mohn’s charm offensive had the overtones of a PR campaign. And although he said that if stations didn’t want the help, they didn’t have to take it, you could tell by the occasional edge in his voice that he had heard those concerns before. And now, good journalism or not, KOPB in general and Dave Miller in particular have Mr. Mohn’s attention, if for no other reason, because the station dared to give voice to the question that so many dedicated staffs around the country mutter to each other in hallways and breakrooms.  And for folks who think HQs don’t ever seek recriminations against affiliates for personal slights, a review of Pacifica turmoil might give them more to consider.

George Orwell said journalism is telling something somebody doesn’t want you to tell and everything else is public relations.

OPB – Journalism Done Here.  Good job … and buckle up.