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

Arts, entertainment, and more.
March 2 2009 6:51 AM

Let's Get Those Phones Ringing!

The cunning genius of the public radio fundraising drive.

(Continued from Page 1)

Click on the player below to hear three pitches that invoke the sad fate of journalism.


7. You're not just helping us—you're helping your fellow listener

 Public radio fundraisers are masters of the moment, able to turn any trend to their advantage, even a dire economic crisis. This year, it's impossible to ignore the frugal tenor of the times—so WNYC's Jad Abumrad made an explicit call for still-solvent listeners to contribute on behalf of their less fortunate brethren: "A lot of WNYC members and listeners have lost their jobs, lost their businesses. So, let me just sort of put a message out to the people who, you know [raps on table], have not lost their jobs, and to say, consider making an additional pledge, an extra $20, an extra $30 to help cover those people who right now are listening, relying on public radio, but they can't—they're not in a situation where they can make that pledge just now, and they'll get there next time."

Click on the player below to hear Jad Abumrad talk his way around the recession.

8. Niche marketing

The best of public radio's weekend shows have distinct personalities: the discursive storytelling of This American Life, the self-deprecating bickering of Car Talk, and the cozy in-jokes of A Prairie Home Companion. All these shows produce special pledge editions, pitching in their signature styles. Ira Glass clearly missed his calling in sales; he is a master of the "ask." He appeals to his people in their native tongue, sarcasm, calling on them to show their love for the show rather than the station it happens to be playing on: "There is one sure way that you can send a signal to this radio station that you like this program, and that you want them to continue running this program, and that is to call right now. …. Not later, not in an hour, during that other show that comes after us."

This American Life has another approach to fundraising, one that only a secret policeman could love. They ask listeners to "turn in your friends and loved ones who consistently listen to This American Life and other public radio shows, but never pledge." Ira Glass then calls up some of these delinquents and shames them on-air. As someone who grew up with scary ads for the BBC's TV-license detector vans, I find these spots thoroughly creepy, though I'll concede that they're memorable and almost certainly effective.

Listen to Megan, Paul, and Kathleen get caught in the act of not donating; for a transcript of the Megan call, click here. Click on the player below to hear Ira Glass speak fluent sarcasm.

9. The match game

There's no math section on the public-radio-host aptitude test. I know this because every time a station announces a "2-for-1 match" in progress—that is, some beneficent superdonor has agreed to double each regular member's contribution during a set time period—they feel compelled to do the sums. Badly. "That means if you donate $60 before noon, it's worth $120 to WNYC. If you donate $75, it's worth $140, I mean …" These matches engender skepticism in public radio haters, who believe the challenges are bogus—the superdonors are going to give a set sum come what may—and suspicion in even the most loyal listener. Matches do generate a sense of urgency, but the tactic can also be counterproductive since some listeners may delay their pledge until a match is in effect, by which point second thoughts set in.

10. Stop me before I pitch again

The last day of a campaign is the best time to listen, and not just because it's almost over. The staffers are so slap-happy, they start to mangle the phone number they've repeated thousands of times, and the unintentional comedy that results can be highly entertaining. At the tail end of a weeklong pledge drive, station staff members are at their loopiest. (The backroom staffers, who only appear on-air during pledge drives, seem to get particularly punch-drunk in the final days.) Yet smart stations turn even this cabin fever to their advantage—public radio listeners are sensitive people, the thinking surely goes, perhaps they'll take pity on these poor souls and call in a pledge to spare them further embarrassment.

Click on the player below to hear a WAMU staffer's rambling but brilliant final-day anecdote.

Personally, I prefer to donate on my own schedule, rather than succumb to the nagging of a pledge drive. In other words, I'm an easy target for yet another arrow in the public radio quiver: Give early and shorten the fund drive. I'm also, however, a sucker for the right gift. This year I couldn't resist the umbrella. It's "lightweight, yet sturdy"! It has a "molded hand grip"! But most important, it's got that WNYC logo, so everyone knows I've done my part to help pay for the kind of quality, in-depth reporting New Yorkers have come to rely on from their public radio station. Shows like The Takeaway and—Oh God, I really am brainwashed.

Does your local station have a particularly effective fundraising tactic? Tell us about it in the Fray.



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