The 10 cunning ways public radio stations convince you to give them money.

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March 2 2009 6:51 AM

Let's Get Those Phones Ringing!

The cunning genius of the public radio fundraising drive.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

If you're a public radio addict like me, you know the despair of waking up on a winter morning, turning on the radio, and hearing not the reassuring tones of Renee Montagne and Steve Inskeep but instead the jarring sound of your local host begging for money. At least twice a year, stations across the land withhold Nina, Cokie, and Sylvia and devote precious drive-time minutes to fundraising. It's maddening, in part because it reminds us how hopelessly hooked we are. Even after days of interrupted news shows and hundreds of requests for contributions, we still can't bring ourselves to shift our allegiance up or down the dial.

June Thomas June Thomas

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

Pledge drive is last-nerve-frayingly exasperating—but it's also sheer genius. One recent weekend, I fast-forwarded through the actual programming and listened only to the sales patter, focusing on the winter fundraising campaigns of WAMU in the nation's capital and WNYC here in New York. What I found was a band of ace pitchmen who know their audience better than we know ourselves.

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Herewith, a list of public radio's 10 most effective fundraising strategies.

1. The perfect gift

Over the years, the good people at public radio have discovered that there are a few choice items that listeners just cannot resist: subscriptions to The New Yorker; new releases from Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, or singers of jazz standards; and commuter mugs. But perhaps no item is more fetishized in on-air promos than the eco-tote. These logo bags appeal to members' green consciousness and to their homespun sense of style. (WAMU's lovingly detailed description of its tote's dimensions—"10 inches deep!"—is oddly titillating.) The bags also smugly announce to the world that the bearer isn't a freeloader: "While you're carrying that shopping bag throughout the market, everyone will see the WNYC logo and know that you supported …"

Click on the player below to hear two odes to totes.

2. The guilt trip

In all the U.S. cities where I've lived, no mainstream media outlet has come close to the local public radio station when it comes to reporting on the lives of the urban poor. WNYC deserves $60 from everyone in New York City with an annual income over $40,000 purely on the basis of its amazing "Radio Rookies" project, in which radio pros train inner-city kids "to use words and sounds to tell true stories." So who can blame the stations for stressing this kind of coverage at pledge time? No matter how many minutes of each hour are pre-empted by pitching, WNYC always finds room for stories from the outer boroughs. On the first day of this year's winter drive, a piece about ACORN working to protect low-income Queens residents from eviction was followed by a plea for support. In other words: Hey, liberal, are you sure you'd rather spend your money on a new iPhone case?

3. We're here for you—now be there for us

Radio is the loneliest medium, the one we most often experience in solitude. Public radio pitchmen cleverly exploit this by convincing listeners that this solo activity can be a form of community service. For all the talk of membership and community, you'd think sending a check to your public radio station was a social event on a par with buying a round of drinks at the local pub. A WAMU pitchwoman promised that "there is no wall between our audience and our content. … We're in this community; we're going down this path together."

Click on the player below to hear This American Life's Ira Glass describe listening to public radio as a quest for connection.

4. Your bill is past due

The New York Jets would never let fans into the big game for free and then request donations as they leave the stadium. Public radio gives away its product and then asks listeners to pay once they're hooked, like the mythical schoolyard drug slinger. The strategy here is to remind listeners how much they rely on public radio (rely is probably the most oft-repeated word during these campaigns) and to ask them to put a price on their dependence. Most stations play it straight—"Think about how much you use WAMU and how you would quantify that in terms of your budget if you received a bill only a couple of times a year." Sometimes, however, this tactic can feel overbearing—and off-putting. When a host throws out a virtual bill ("WNYC pays over $5 million a year for NPR News and the BBC"), I want to send it back unpaid—I didn't order $5 million worth of news and information.

Click on the player below to hear WNYC's Soterios Johnson deliver an on-air invoice.

5. Flattery

As a wag once wrote, "More people are flattered into virtue than bullied out of vice." Without ever mentioning their cousins in commercial broadcasting, public radio fundraisers butter up their listeners by suggesting that writing a check makes them far more sophisticated than the sheep who suffer through the other guys' ads: "Do more than just listen—become an active participant with your public radio station through a contribution to help support the programs." Fundraisers never underestimate the value of a compliment: "A commitment to lifelong learning and a commitment to intellectual curiosity are just two of the shared values that we have in common with our entire radio community here at WAMU." That's right, public radio is for smart people—and really smart people donate.

6. Only you can save journalism

In December 2008, NPR cut 7 percent of its workforce and canceled two shows (including Day to Day). Still, member stations have used the malaise in the rest of the industry to their advantage. The 2009 winter fundraising drives featured more reflections on the sad state of for-profit journalism than ever before. WNYC's news chief reminded listeners that "we're in an environment where a lot of outlets are cutting back their coverage, cutting back on their reporters," while WNYC is launching new shows and new initiatives. Radio Lab's Jad Abumrad stressed public radio's "civil" tone—"the reason you come to public radio and to WNYC is because you want the news put to you directly … but you don't want it all sexed up with hype and with sensationalism." Another WNYC spot made a subtle political appeal: "Newspapers, radio stations, TV channels—they may be reporting the news, but they're also trying to turn a profit. That's harder than ever right now. There's so much pressure to cut corners, reduce news-gathering, and make the share-holders happy. At WNYC, we don't have share-holders. We have listeners." Don't trust the capitalist press, comrades! Now give us some money.

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