Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The Ransom Drive

I'm a fan of National Public Radio. Have been for about 5 years now. But I'm one of those "listeners who doesn't give money" that makes up over 90% of NPR's audience (according to a statistic of "1 in 14" that my local station used during one pledge drive). In some way, perhaps that makes me a hypocrite, and anyone who thinks so is certainly welcome to that opinion. If you like NPR, and feel you have the resources to give, I would absolutely agree that it is a worthy cause to give your money to. I simply have not felt able to do so, though I'm likewise aware that others of you may have less and still find yourselves able to give. There's no question that, at some level, it comes down to priorities. But, for me, when the NPR spokesperson asks me to consider the coverage they provide as on a level with other things that (they assume) I do pay money for, such as cable coverage or a newspaper subscription, I can safely say that I don't, in point of fact, get cable or a newspaper precisely because I would have to pay for them. Radio and TV come into my home whether I pay for the advertised products (or pledge money to the station) or not. In that regard, at least, it is free. If I choose to send money to help the service continue, that's my choice. But I refuse to be guilted into such an action simply because NPR chooses a different model whereby to raise money than a commercial station (that otherwise comes to my radio in exactly the same way) does.

But I really do get the concept that NPR, like any media outlet, requires money in order to continue to operate. And that the model by which NPR has chosen to operate requires that they ask for money regularly from those who listen to them. It's a good model. It is part of why they have been able to continue to provide balanced coverage on a multitude of issues without being beholden to either corporate interests or mass-market demographics. As such, I am perfectly willing to sit through the couple of times a year (usually spring and fall) that they must interrupt their usual programming in order to ask people to call in and pledge their support to the local station. And I do hope that other people, assumedly those with more resources, will step up to fill in the gap that I have created by not giving myself.

But it really does irk me when, at the end of the fiscal year, a station finds itself with lower revenues than it needs to end the year "in the black," and they schedule another pledge drive with the specific promise to stop the drive "as soon as x dollars are pledged." I've spoken to friends in the past calling this a "blackmail drive" because they threaten us with continued guilt signals until the money they desire is recieved. But it occurs to me that this is perhaps not the best description of what's going on here. This is more of a "ransom drive."

Here's my reasoning: my local NPR station (and not the whole network in this instance) has "kidnapped" segments from the shows which are provided to them by NPR. They are giving us less programming than was intended for this period. They will hold this programming hostage until such time as they meet their financial goal, at which point they will return programming to the originally intended level.

It should come as no surprise at this point that I do not think this is appropriate. If the station's regularly scheduled drives did not yield the necessary funds, then the station needs to cut back. Whether this simply means scaling back their ambitions (this is a continually growing station, both in listenership and in the amount of money they spend to provide local coverage. I am not speaking here, however, of the increased costs NPR asks of them because of the increased listenership, but rather the new reporters they hire, the better equipment they buy, etc.) or making hard choices to cut back on some of the services and staff they currently pay for, it seems apparent that not enough listeners called in to pledge their support during the regularly scheduled times of "pledge drive" programming for this station to continue operating as it currently plans to.

I have not yet even mentioned the vote that Congress is expected to take today to drastically cut back funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. If (as seems likely) this vote goes through, it is certainly true that NPR in general, and local stations in particular, will suffer greatly, putting even more emphasis on the need for funding from individual givers. This would be a tragedy. Not only would it mean that we'll likely see even more (and longer) pledge drives, but this would excise most of the most truly public money that the station receives. As NPR is forced more and more to rely on big donors, they will inevitably be put in the same position as many commercial stations, and end up having to make programming decisions designed to keep those big donors giving. As long there is some substantial pool of truly "public" money (even though it is, even now, not the bulk of their funding, most of which does come from individuals), NPR is able to continue to make desisions based more purely on the quality of the programming, rather than its appeal to those with deep pockets. This is, after all, what makes NPR such an attractive media outlet at present.

Perhaps I paint too bleak a picture. Maybe, if federal funding is scaled back, more people will contribute to stations such as NPR, and NPR won't have to depend on the few who can pay more themselves. This would enable them to continue providing the kind of balanced programming that has been so hard to find elsewhere.

Who knows? Maybe I'll eventually find a way to contribute myself....

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