Radio Free Pledge Drives

My local public radio station, WNYC, is in the midst of its winter pledge drive. You know, that all too familiar time of year in which they interrupt “Morning Edition,” “On the Media,” or any of my other favorite radio programs to ask for financial contributions from listeners — over and over and over again.

Ever since I was a kid, when I was watching “Sesame Street” on PBS, I’ve lamented the necessary but irredeemably boring nature of public broadcasting’s pledge drives. I find them incredibly difficult to listen to, and I often turn off the television or radio entirely during the weeks when they’re on the air.

A while ago, I had this brainstorm: once a viewer or listener makes a pledge, the station ships out a special gadget that tunes into a members-only frequency — one in which the station broadcasts without the interruptions of its pledge drive. Parallel programming, in essence. If that option were available, I’d pledge money on the first day of the drive, for sure, and I bet lots of other people would, too. The ability to forgo the tedium of a week’s worth of nagging shouldn’t be underestimated.

Members-only Broadcasting

A physical gadget distributed to thousands of audience members is unrealistic, of course, but now we have something much better than a single-purpose widget, and it’s called the internet. It may be impractical still to provide this kind of service for broadcast television, but it’s well within reach for radio. Stations like WNYC are already providing high quality streams of their content through the net, so most of the groundwork is already there.

What else would it take to provide an alternative stream, available only to members? WNYC and its public radio peers generally assign unique identification numbers to their members, which could easily serve as the basis for authentication. The rest would be a relatively straightforward matter of workflow, I think, splitting the broadcast into two streams — one with the pledge drive, and one with the standard NPR content — at the appropriate times.

Notwithstanding the fact that the annoying persistence of pledge drives actually works — there’s a good reason they’re hard to avoid — there’s a compelling reason to implement this idea: it minimizes customer frustration. I’m a big fan of public broadcasting, but it’s hard to describe how thoroughly irritated I become when pledge drives are on, and I suspect lots of other listeners feel the same way. It can’t be a good thing to regularly provoke your customers’ ire in this way, surely, drive after drive, year after year. C’mon, WNYC, give it up.

  1. “A while ago, I had this brainstorm: once a viewer or listener makes a pledge, the station ships out a special gadget that tunes into a members-only frequency — one in which the station broadcasts without the interruptions of its pledge drive.”

    Dude, I think you just re-invented cable television. Or at least old-skool cable before it had ads.

  2. I like the idea — I can’t stand the week of pledge drives, either. I suspect HD Radio might offer some interesting possibilities here. AFAIK, it should be technically possible for an HD broadcast to contain a secondary encrypted signal for subscribers only. The big hurdle would be standardizing a way for the reciever hardware to decrypt the signal (the station could send subscribers a USB dongle that could be plugged into the reciever…).

    My own local station broadcasts both music- and news-only feeds online (in addition to the simulcast), and I’d love the ability to tune in to these streams with a radio as a perk of membership (especially if there’s a pledge drive going on on the simulcast).

  3. I would surmise that any willingness to implement such a feature would depend to a large extent on how many repeat contributions are made during the course of a single drive.

    I’m not particularly familiar with the sort of thing you’re discussing (thank you BBC), but it sounds like it’s a balancing act between encouraging (pestering) people to donate, and not driving people away.

    The point is, if I bug someone 20 times a day for some cash, and they end up contributing twice or more over the course of the week, I’ll find it easier to live with a few people turning off their radios for a week, and then returning when the campaign is over.

  4. This just seems like another way of implementing subscriber-based radio. I think a more viable solution would be to convince XM or Sirius to carry the programming you want sans the pledge drives.

  5. Eric: I make a contribution of about $10 per month to WNYC, partly because I know the majority of it will go directly towards public broadcasting costs. I don’t want to have to buy specialized hardware and then pay a similar cost to a satellite radio provider, only to have a much smaller fraction of that money get back to public broadcasting.

  6. My local NPR affiliate has a pre-drive drive. A couple of weeks before they start doing the tradition pledge drive they ask for donations at the news break, and remind listeners that if they give more now that programming won’t be interrupted later.

    For the most part it works, and often the ‘official’ pledge drive last for a few days only.

  7. Khoi, I very recently endured WVXU’s pledge drive, and had precisely the same thoughts. Imagine if shareware nag screens continued to pop up asking for cash even after you’d paid for a license.

  8. I don’t know anything about WNYC’s setup, but I might guess that producing an additional broadcast would present a lot of logistical problems. There might only be one control room, one set of processing hardware (compression/limiting/AGC etc.), one set of hosts doing local news breaks, one set of engineers producing the shows.

    Maybe they could produce an automated “all-NPR” stream, but subverting their usual broadcast chain might present its own headaches.

    So, although it might drive up pledge revenue, the cost of doing the other broadcast might displace that increase, making it more trouble than it’s worth.

  9. My local affiliate does something similar to Chris’: about a year ago, they set up an online payment system, and started lightly pushing that in the time leading up to the fund drive. They were also pushing the idea of a one-day drive, with the online system helping it along. They actually did manage to complete it with several hours left in the day, and the next drive only took a bit more than a day.

    They do realise it’s annoying to keep cutting in, but have little choice—so I found this to be a clever solution.

  10. WNYC does that, too. Supposedly, they’ve been able to shave off a few days from recent pledge drives. But it’s hard to see the difference; it still feels like a long, long time before the drives are over.

  11. My NPR affiliate also does a ‘pre-drive drive’ too. They send letters and call current members for donations so they could do a shortened pledge drive, but it barely works– I think the pledge drives are now for 10 days instead of a full two weeks. They’ve had the capability to accept pledges online since at least 2000.

    However, I do escape the pledge drive while I’m at work– I listen online to other NPR affiliates who are not currently conducting a pledge drive.

  12. Khoi, I’ve had this exact same thought in the past. If only there were some way to pull it off. I guess we’ll just have to wait for the nationwide always-on, persistent WiFi network. (Ha!)

    These drives do seem to last forever.

  13. One thing WNYC – and PBS on tv, for that matter – could do is make the pledge drives themselves more entertaining and less mind-numbingly boring.

    WFMU, an NYC-area listener-supported free-form radio station does full-fledged pledge drives once a year (as opposed to, what, 4 times for WNYC?) These pledge drives are actually FUN. They are entertaining. They get special guests and play cool stuff and appeal for money.

    When WNYC gets special guests on during a pledge drive, it’s really just to talk about how great WNYC is. WFMU has guests on to SHOW how great WFMU is.

  14. My local station, WHRV/WHRO (woot, 2 stations) does the online pledging as well. Also, I don’t find our local folk to be nearly as mind-numbing as what some of you are describing. I suppose I just got lucky. I find it kinda odd that WNYC should have long pledge drives. I mean, it’s NYC, don’t you have a few million people to cull from? The costs per station shouldn’t differ that much as usually the pledge drives, at least where I am, are only to pay for the costs to NPR/APM/PRI. Are stations charged differently depending on their market?

    One thing I am glad of is that pledge drives only ever last 2 weeks. Then, they’re done till next season.

    As irritating as it might be it’s still worth it.

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