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.