Reporter's Notebook

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Posts Tagged ‘Pledge Drive

Kill Your Darlings

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Hand Holding Knife

A programming genius I know is helping me crunch data that I’ve  been collecting for this book I’m writing about the public radio pledge drive.  The plan is that tranche A, after it’s washed and tumble dried, will be a template for tranche B; using one as a control for the other to find patterns that aren’t obvious.

I know a little about spreadsheets, and that’s how I gave my programmer friend the data I’d gathered.  But they weren’t exactly in love with it.  “You need to reformat this”, they said.  “Otherwise, I need to write a whole language subset (whatever that means) before you can see this data the way you want to see it.”  In other words, they didn’t like my spreadsheet.

I like to think I’m a smart person.  I like to think I’ve been around enough to know a little about a lot, but that little bit I know is really good.  Turns out, spreadsheets are high school level data collection to graduate level people writing programming in languages like Perl.  So, here I am, reformatting my spreadsheet in a way that my programming friend’s program can better search it, parce it, slice and dice it.

And you know, their way is better.

There isn’t as much ambiguity.  There’s much more consistency.  And I’m finding mistakes, not in the original data, but how I notated it.  It’s like when writers are taught to read their copy backwards as a way to catch mistakes because reading it forward makes it too easy to miss them.  Rearranging my twenty columns into their three is a brutal exercise in utility.  But it’s exactly the kind of brute force utilitarianism that a programming language needs to create elegant results.

“Kill your darlings” is what editors tell writers too in love with what they’re written.

I can tell you, programmers are even worse.

Written by Interviewer

June 25, 2016 at 07:34

The Batphone is Red

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PledgeTheBook

That’s the first thought that hit my brain when I saw the preliminary artwork for my book from the terrific graphic artist who created it. Ren (short for Karen) and I worked on the front and back cover for no more than a week after the phone cover art was finished. But we haggled for months over that cover art, which we both knew would have to be definitive and signature.

I wanted something boring. I just didn’t know it was boring. I knew I wanted a phone on the cover, since what better exemplifies a public radio pledge drive than a phone? But I wanted a generic, black, 1950ish version. And I wanted it on a white cover because I thought it would draw the viewers eye..

Ren liked the basic idea. “I can work with that”, she told me. But it was by no means a finished idea. For weeks, we went back and forth about design. She developed a version of the phone that was more stylized and interesting than what I was thinking. Big body, big dial, big handset. You hear pledge drive phones during pitch breaks because the ring is supposed to conjure up in your mind the icon of telephone – a thing that equals the noise it makes and the attention it garners. Think Peter Sellers as the US President in “Dr Strangelove” pleading with his Russian counterpart on a big clunky phone that the bomb heading his way isn’t intentional. It wouldn’t do to have Androids vibrating on tabletops as the sound that you’re supposed to associate with the dynamism of giving.

Likewise, Ren felt the image needed to draw on that association to power and formality but at the same time, not be that. So when she completed my black phone on a white cover, I was thrilled. She, not so much. “White covers are death”, she said. “But I love it” I whined, even as I felt I had already lost the argument.

I mumbled something about white space, but Ren pressed on. “I’m sending you a variation I’ve been playing with”, she said. “Keep an open mind”. Her variation was a halting fire engine red phone on a black background. I stared at it, not wanting to be that guy who couldn’t swallow ideas not his own. “Waddya think?”

I deferred. It was attention getting. Still, I clung to my boring black and white version. “Well, since we’re experimenting, can you give me some color combinations for the phone and the covers?” She did, handily, as if to say, “You know this design is the best one. Just admit it.”

And, she was right. The more I looked at it, the more it grabbed my attention. It made me think of urgency. It made me think of the pressure to reach a goal by a deadline. It made me think of disappointment and defeat if the goal is missed and the crime of the consequences that could follow. And it made me think of valiant efforts to not let that happen by public radio crusaders.

Caped crusaders.

P.S.  To learn more about the coming book, visit @pledgethebook & http://www.pledgethebook.com. To see more work from Karen Green, visit https://rengreen.wordpress.com/ and linkedin page? https://www.linkedin.com/in/karen-green-102579b9

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May 24, 2016 at 10:16

Radio Silence

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Flatline

At about 6:43 p.m. PDT on April 28, 2016, listeners to KOPB in Portland stopped hearing American Public Media’s “Marketplace” and instead, listened to about 15 minutes of buzzy static.  When the program returned, the board operator didn’t make any mention of the technical problem.  I’ve worked evenings and nights at a public radio station.  I know that after quitting time, there is a skeleton crew, if any, in the building with you.  I also know that problems with a network feed are pretty much out of a board operator’s control.  At my station, there was a “B” line that we could switch to if there was a problem with the “A” line.  I don’t know if the board operator tried that, or if that option was even available.

The point of this post, however, is about the non-comment over signal loss after the signal returned.  And admittedly, I don’t know if there was any kind of explanation for the signal loss later in the evening.  Maybe there is no protocol, i.e., no generic script in place for board ops to read in case of a signal loss like that.  Though, anyone who has grown up with American TV and radio knows trouble slides and trouble music are as much a part of broadcasting in the U.S. as test patterns and the National Anthem.  So, why no mention?

My suspicion, and it has been my suspicion for awhile, is that stations don’t want to draw attention to their problems, whether those problems are in or out of their control.  It makes sense.  Radio is an ephemeral medium, meaning it’s designed so that you only hear something once and then, it’s gone, on its way to Alpha Centauri, forever.  Just like there is no crying in baseball, there is no repeating in radio.  So a mistake made a second ago deserves to die there.  The audience will forget it a second from now because there is always new stuff filling up their ears.

But, although that rationale might work with commercial stations that repeat formulated playlists every 90 minutes, I think the public radio listener is more of a challenge.  And, ironically, they’re more of a challenge because they’re public radio listeners.  We’re told they’re smart, they’re politically active, they have long memories.  All of the things public radio stations wax romantic about during pledge drives.  It’s why they wax romantic – public radio listeners are special.

So if they’re so special, don’t they deserve to know why stations have flubs?  If they’re supporting stations with their hard earned dollars in tough economic times, if they’re constantly referred to as “shareholders”, don’t they deserve to know when the machinery breaks down and what’s being done to fix it?

When I lived in Utah, KCPW, one of several public radio stations that served Salt Lake City, went through a period when for up to half an hour at a time, the station would inexplicably play the same :30 second commercial over and over.  Or, there would be long stretches of dead air.  I was a loyal listener and contributor and I can’t remember hearing an explanation.  Eventually, I had to contact the station directly, where they told me about a technical problem that involved their then sister station – KPCW.  Anyway, even though the interruptions continued for months, I decided to keeping listening and giving because I understood the issue.

But that I had to call, and them not volunteer to tell me, really chapped my ass.  And the thing about being taking for granted like that, over time, the effects become cumulative.  One could start to feel like stations really don’t care about how their behavior affect the audience.  And that is a mistake.

Someone said, “I’ve come to expect it.  Stuff happens.”  And yes, that’s true.  Why should we care?  I ask instead, what good, really, are calipers or scales or rulers or, for that matter, standards if they can be always be fudged?

Hey, I’m that loyal, smart listener, remember?  Own up and start talking to me about everything I’m helping support.  When stuff like this happens, tell me something rather than try to make me feel like it never happened.

It’s a little thing, but not really.

Written by Interviewer

April 29, 2016 at 10:06

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

Bye Bye Q

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Canada2C

It is interesting that John Sepulvado of OPB, who was one of two fund drive pitchers for OPB’s one-day, end of year drive early this week, talked up the interviews of “Q”, the Canadian radio variety program that was airing at the same time.  But OPB is dropping Q as of January 4, 2016.  And nowhere in any of the pitches during that hour of Q was that mentioned.  Also, nowhere in any of the announcements from OPB that “All Things Considered” is moving from 4 p.m. to 3 p.m. PST was it said that as PRI’s “The World” moves from 3 p.m. to 2 p.m., that Q is disappearing completely.  They have been announcing the coming change for about two weeks.

It’s reasonable for Q’s loyal listeners to think that if ATC is moving, and PRI is moving, Q must also be moving.  Why not just say it’s not?

They will no doubt meet the disappearance with first, confusion.  Then anger and then, possibly, resignation.  But I wonder what kind of explanation they will get.  They may never know why Q has gone away.  That public radio stations regularly do this is not unusual but it is, at the very least, insensitive to the people who support their favorite programs as a demonstration of trust in the stations which air them.  They deserve more than that.

The omission of the future of Q shows how public radio is so afraid of criticism that it talks up the positive while avoiding anything that could possibly stir up bad feelings from listeners and jeopardize future giving.  This is an example of much I’ve read about the need for greater transparency in public radio.  I mean, if an opportunity to say something so logically obvious and appropriate was so purposely avoided, listeners might reasonably wonder what else isn’t being told especially when openness is the supposed currency of public radio.

Written by Interviewer

January 2, 2016 at 14:44

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.

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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