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On the psychology and economics of public radio pledge drives 
24th-Sep-2009 10:45 am
la la la, not listening
So, I was driving home last night listening to my local NPR station, KQED, when they cut to a pledge break. Alas, perhaps, for KQED, I've also been listening to the audiobook of Chris Anderson's Free, which produced an interesting mental dialogue between me and the pledge commercial.

It started with Ira Glass, presenter of This American Life explaining that studies show that only about 1 in 10 of public radio listeners ever pledge to their local station.

Me: Yeah, that sounds about right. Chris Anderson's Free says that most free products or services where users have the option to pay a for a premium version have about a 10% uptake rate on the premium version. And considering that the premium you get for pledging to public radio generally a sense of moral superiority and a tote bag, that's not bad at all.

Glass then goes on to ask what other business would allow 9 of its 10 customers to play absolutely nothing.

Me: Have you used Google recently? Facebook? Craigslist?

Glass then phones up a bookstore in Chicago, and asks to purchase 10 copies of Snow Falling on Cedars - except that he just wants to pay for one of the copies, and get the other 9 for free. The bookstore employee on the other end of the phone, of course, refuses.

Me: Which is not a particularly apt analogy, because those additional copies of Snow Falling on Cedars have a marginal cost of a few dollars of materials, printing, and shipping costs. Whereas the marginal cost of an additional listener tuning into KQED is...Zero!

Glass then asks the bookstore employee if he ever listens to WBEZ, Chicago's public radio station. And he does, and so Glass asks him why he should get public radio for free if he won't give away books for free. And the store employee doesn't have an answer.

Me: Because you haven't been reading Chris Anderson's Free!

Glass then goes on to ask if this is what it will take to get people to pledge to their public radio stations: NPR presenters phoning them up and making them feel guilty. Do we want to pick up the phone and hear Nina Totenberg asking us if we've pledged yet?

Me: That would actually be kind of awesome! Though I think I'd prefer a phone call from Terry Gross. Or any of the Planet Money team.

So, here's the thing - I am one of that 10% who does donate to public radio. But the tone of pledge drives really annoys me - to the extent that I think it actually reduces my motivation to donate. I don't want to be told that I'm somehow a bad person for taking advantage of something that is provided for free, and that I must retrospectively make up for that badness by ponying up cash. That's not why I give to public radio. I give to public radio because I understand that the programming I enjoy costs money, and that the primary source of that money is donations. I'm making a rational economic choice, not paying for the absolution of sins.
24th-Sep-2009 06:51 pm (UTC)
I'm a donor, too. I think. What I'd actually like is to donate once a year, forget about it, and then be reminded in time for next year's donation with something like: You donated x in June 09. Would you like to renew your donation?

Instead, whether from NPR or other things I donate to, what happens is a blitz of junk mail from them and related causes, around the year. I can't recall when I made the donation; they apparently can't either, but they sure have my address.

I'm switching all my donation to Paypal. I'm not donating to anything that isn't on Paypal, except when I personally know the people involved.

And I switch off NPR when the pledge drive comes on, which is why I haven't heard what sounds like a really offensive ad. If a bookseller were to say, we have free books - and then say, but you know, you should donate the cost of it - I think it would be rather offensive too.

Ummm, /rant. Sorry.

24th-Sep-2009 09:47 pm (UTC)
Yes, the onslaught of junk mail is annoying. There are times when I've given a small donation to an organization, only to be instantly met with junk mail asking for more, and I've stopped donating, because I think, "What good can my tiny little $25 do in the face of such insatiable financial need?"
24th-Sep-2009 06:59 pm (UTC)
I'm just imagining this conversation with me:

"If I buy one photo from you, would you send me nine for free?"
"Sure, what's your email address?"
"Um, wait, you would?"
"Yeah, why not?"
"Um... actually, that's not why I called. Do you listen to Minnesota Public Radio?"
"No, I think Garrison Keillor is an ass and a sellout and I wouldn't support him if my life depended on it."
*boggled silence*
24th-Sep-2009 09:47 pm (UTC)
I bet you could get a lot of people to pledge money to endorse those sentiments!
24th-Sep-2009 07:07 pm (UTC)
Here's the thing: I probably *would* donate to public radio - and really feel I ought, considering the uniquely-funded goodness I've been used to thanks to the BBC in the past - but I agree, the tone of the pledge drive is a turn-off. Even if they don't use the same wording as your peeps, if my local NPR is holding a pledge-drive and they're interrupting Morning Edition with a begging letter, I tend to switch off.
24th-Sep-2009 09:53 pm (UTC)
It's actually really odd that the pledge drive survives on radio, which is a notoriously non-sticky medium - it's so easy for listeners to switch off or flip to another channel.

Ironically, the only reason I didn't switch off this particular pledge break was that I recognized Ira Glass as the presenter of a show I occasionally listen to and enjoy.
24th-Sep-2009 07:57 pm (UTC)
I *want* very much to donate, but simply cannot afford not to at this point in things. :( It does make me feel vaguely guilty, but I've long since developed a strategy for dealing with that guilt--turning off the radio when pledge drives are happening.

Edited at 2009-09-24 07:58 pm (UTC)
24th-Sep-2009 09:58 pm (UTC)
One of the reasons why I do try to donate to public broadcasting now is that there were many years when I couldn't afford to. But that's part of what makes public broadcasting great - it provides high-quality news and entertainment to people regardless of their ability to pay.
24th-Sep-2009 08:47 pm (UTC)
Glass was a speaker at a library conference I attended in March, and so should know better. (There, the benefit is even less tangible: your taxes pay for public libraries even if you don't use them, but if you believe that the opportunity for a citizenry to inform itself is important then you are okay with this. The first person to suggest that we can also fix this problem by giving everyone an Internet has not tried to help someone do serious information seeking. JFGI, indeed.)

That said, I think Chris Anderson has been drinking his own kool-aid a bit too liberally.
24th-Sep-2009 10:05 pm (UTC)
Anderson's book is...interesting. It's been very thought provoking, and it's the first really good overview I've come across of the economics of giving stuff away for free. But even laying aside the Wikipedia plagiarism thing, I've caught a couple of bits of sloppiness that make me doubt Anderson's intellectual rigor. It's worth reading, but I wouldn't base any business decisions on it without doing some independent research of my own.
24th-Sep-2009 09:58 pm (UTC)
Glass then asks the bookstore employee if he ever listens to WBEZ, Chicago's public radio station. And he does, and so Glass asks him why he should get public radio for free if he won't give away books for free. And the store employee doesn't have an answer.

I would have hung up on him with extreme prejudice by then. (Only, of course, it wouldn't have come up, because I don't listen to the radio, and public radio in Australia is funded by taxes anyway.

But seriously. "You call me up at my workplace, put me on the radio without permission, and then expect me to feel bad?"
24th-Sep-2009 10:09 pm (UTC)
Yeah. (In fairness, the segment was probably pre-recorded, not live, so they probably did get the guy's permission. In fact, I'm not 100% sure that the whole thing wasn't scripted, or at least done with some advance warning, because I assume that the natural reaction to being phoned up and asked out of the blue to provide free merchandise is to hang up on the caller.)
24th-Sep-2009 10:13 pm (UTC)
No, I've had people asking for free stuff before. The idea is that if we keep them talking, they might decide to pay for something.
24th-Sep-2009 11:21 pm (UTC)
We're NPR listeners and used to donate by mail. The pledge drives always bugged me, but what infuriated me were the reminder letters from the station that always said "Thanks for your gift of $X last year. How about donating [a figure always $25-$30 more than I had done the previous year]?

I don't know why it bugged me so much. I almost stopped donating. I did write to them to ask them not to do this, but after a while it started again.

Finally, I found a way to donate through work. It's the same amount each year unless I change it. I've done my part because I still do listen and want to support what I listen to, but I never get any correspondence or calls from them. Yay.
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