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Public radio tunes out tough economic times

With dire economic news seemingly at every turn, public radio appears especially vulnerable. But while the estimated 2.5 million donors to public stations nationwide may be cutting back, the news isn’t across-the-board depressing.
/ Source: contributor

At WDAV in North Carolina, a public radio station that plays classical music, an on-air fundraising drive earlier this fall began sooner than most other public stations. As it turned out, that was an unfortunate bit of scheduling.

“That week was precisely the time Wachovia melted down and Bank of America saw its stock lose one-third of its value,” explained Ben Roe, the station’s general manager. “That also happened to be the week when gas prices hit an all-time high in our area. We put the drive on hold when the Dow slid 500 points.”

Peter Fretwell, the general manager of WWFM, another public radio station based in Trenton, N.J., that also plays classical music, had a similar experience. “Our timing was impeccable,” he said with a laugh. “We started our fund drive one day before the biggest one-day drop in the stock market. We were shooting for $230,000 before the end of the calendar year. So far I’ve got $105,000.”

With dire economic news seemingly at every turn, public radio appears especially vulnerable. The listeners out there tend to be a loyal bunch, offering their hard-earned dough to keep alive stations that provide lifelines for them to the arts and news.

But while the estimated 2.5 million donors to public stations nationwide culled from between 28 million and 30 million overall listeners may be cutting back, the news isn’t across-the-board depressing. And the situation is a tad more complex than Joe Champagne giving $15 rather than his usual $50.

“When the economy goes up and down, when the mood of the nation goes up and down, our listener support stays fairly predictable,” said Dana Davis Rehm, senior vice president for strategy and partnership at Washington, D.C.-based National Public Radio.

“About 50 percent of our money comes from listeners. The second biggest piece of the pie is corporate underwriting. That stream of revenue ... is most deeply vulnerable to shifts in economy.”

In and around Charlotte, which is WDAV’s territory and is home base to Bank of America and Wachovia, public radio is fairly stable, even though jobs have been affected in that area and retirees — many of whom are devoted listeners — have seen their 401(k)s dry up.

WDAV has an endowment to fall back on as well as listener and corporate sponsors. And there is a small grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a nonprofit entity created by Congress in 1967 to support public broadcasting. That funding model is roughly similar throughout public radio’s family of stations.

Defying the circumstances
In some cases, a station has defied the economic circumstances around it. “We have a strong station in Sacramento,” Rehm said, referring to Capital Public Radio. “That area of California is the hardest hit in terms of the economy and the number of foreclosures. They reported that the mood is subdued among listeners. Yet they had the greatest number of donations in their history, even though the average dollar gift is down about 10 percent. But more people are calling in.”

Scott Hanley is director and general manager of WDUQ in Pittsburgh, which has a dual format of news and jazz. He said the station is healthy despite the times, but a recent pledge drive that typically would go for 12 days instead was pared to eight. And yet, WDUQ still raked in $250,000, which was $10,000 more than its goal.

“Our underwriting is going well. And the Pittsburgh economy is in good shape compared to other places,” he said. “That being said, we’re not fat and happy, either. It’s a precarious time for any public radio station.

“We reduced our drive because we wanted to stop annoying our listeners. When the drive was almost two weeks long, that meant my staff was not doing its job. I’d rather have them do news reporting and talking to businesses about business support.”

More than most broadcasting outlets, public radio appears to have formed a fierce emotional bond with its listeners. Lisa Gray, interim director of marketing and communications at WDAV, said the economy has had the effect of making that bond even tighter.

“There’s tremendous uncertainty. There’s a lot of anxiety out there,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of donors who called and told us how they needed the calming effect of classical music.”

Gray said the suspension of her station’s on-air fundraising drive had as much to do with pleasing the station’s audience as it did with concern that the economy has curtailed giving. “We decided that what our listeners needed most was music,” she said.

Said Roe of the same station: “For a lot of people our station serves as a coping mechanism.”

Then there was the campaign season, which created a unique situation. Some people may have been holding out on making their customary donations to public radio because they only had so much cash available, and they were directing some of it to their favorite candidates and causes.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that when the election is over and people adjust to the recession,” Fretwell said, “that they will loosen up that portion of their discretionary income that they give to charitable and other parties.”

On the other hand, because of the hotly contested political races, many listeners were turning to public radio for their election information, which in turn created fundraising opportunities.

“Many of our stations have had record-breaking pledge drives in the fall,” NPR’s Rehm said. “What we have heard from audiences is that they have appreciated the quality of our election coverage and war coverage.”

Still worried about making money
But clearly, with each passing dark day on Wall Street, public radio and those in its realm get a little more nervous. “I have heard from other marketing directors at other stations,” Gray said. “Their pledge drives are coming up and they’re worried.”

In the meantime, many stations are thinking creatively. Fretwell’s station in New Jersey covers Princeton University. “We’re going to branch out like we’ve never done before,” he said. “We’re asking higher-end people in the Princeton area to host dinner parties for those who may not have been donors before,” he said. “We’re talking to the Institute of Advanced Studies to host a reception so we can tell our story.

“It’s forcing us to think outside the box.”

Hanley said that the reason public radio has been able to weather these brutal times is because it is needed. He cited an example of how his station’s recent fund drive promised that a portion of the donations to the station would go to a local food bank. That created an enthusiastic response from listeners.

“It used to be that public radio was an alternative,” he said. “Now we’re an essential media with 160,000 listeners for our station alone and 30 million nationwide.

“We’re not an alternative anymore. We’re critical for culture and news and information. It’s OK for us to ask for money because we’re essential now.”