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Just Say No To Pledge

A classical music station’s highest ratings are rarely outside of format, that is to say, a DJ with a stack of records. Those hours hosted by a smart, accessible announcer presenting an equally smart playlist, all imbued with a potent sense of place (localism) engender the highest long-term loyalty. Of course there are exceptions but it doesn’t get better or match listeners’ expectations any better than good company and good music. Here at All Classical we do just that, 99% of the time. From the department of deep thoughts, we finally asked ourselves, why then do we and most classical stations only enjoy around 10% giving among those who listen. This, too, is essentially an accepted industry benchmark. We get it right when it comes to our programming. Are we getting it wrong when it comes to our funding appeals?

It may seem obvious, but we started asking ourselves if the very language we use, somehow reinforces the notion not to give. Yes, every station has its own unique way of relating to its audience, through its hosts, who the audience knows and trusts, and colloquialism. But, as an industry, collectively, perhaps the very banding together (literally on the left end of the dial and figuratively through networking and conferences) has caused inbreeding and a stagnant pool of ideas, and even a stratification of mediocrity. The audience naturally lumps us all together, as do we, ourselves. How many decades have we relied on the “it” consultant who teaches at conferences and runs around from station to station sharing the current bag of tricks. We end up with fairly well-run stations, a smart and growing audience and enough funding to enjoy basic viability. Why change what works, right? Given what’s happening in Washington, again, are things really working when we survive through a knife’s edge of financial support from the communities we serve, and enmity with many in our elected government? Think how different our world would be if we unlocked more of the giving potential of our audience, say another 10 to 20%, across the board. I realize that CPB did a study and stated to the Feds that there weren’t “viable funding alternatives” to the CSG monies enjoyed by stations. I’m sure this is true if we continue doing things the same way we have for 45 years.

Our fundraising habits are deeply ingrained and very hard to break. We use the same basic approaches in most everything we do, especially in terms of our lexicon. Here in Portland, we just finished our fall membership campaign, a well-designed 9 day fundraiser which took close to 13 days. We raised $521k, nothing to sneeze at, our largest to date (the goal was $500k). In our case, we have built a strong, broad base of sustaining member support (going from $50k in 2008 to $500k in 2012) and often find ourselves largely preaching to the choir. Additionally, contributing to the length of this fundraiser, we had an extremely rare sunny, fall weather the entire drive – quite disorienting to Pacific north westerners. Listening patterns were disrupted as were giving patterns. The other factor, beyond the norm, was the election news cycle. Aside from those external forces, we geared up to do what we always do, ask people to “pledge and support” their “public radio station,” reminding them that we are of course, “listener supported.” We realized that these are actually polite terms, euphemisms, for what we really mean and want.

In an attempt to clarify who we are and what we do, and what we need, in 21st century, new media terms, we challenged our on-air staff to drop those traditional terms and embrace alternative language. We didn’t beat ourselves up over lapses, but rather used lapses as an opportunity to re-state and illuminate our goals. We had fun calling ourselves out for the tired use of euphemisms. We made a few tactical adjustments along the way and stayed upbeat, cheerful, as well as challenging to our audience. Low and behold, we saw more new sustaining members than ever before. Anecdotally, we feel as though something, albeit small, was unlocked within the silent segment of our audience. We’ll refine our approach further as we look to our end of year campaign and then really drive home the “new” language (not truly new, but newly applied) in our spring on-air fundraiser.

Pledge = tax deductible gift

Support = tax deductible gift

Listener supported = community funded

Membership drive = fundraiser

Membership = sustaining contributor

Public radio station = independent, non-profit, non-commercial, service

A “pledge” is nice, but a credit card donation, now, is better. “Pledge drives” are a holdover from when many folks didn’t use credit cards or give that information over the phone, and would call during a drive and make a pledge, agreeing to mail a check later. “Listening” doesn’t keep us strong – giving does. Some in our communities do not listen but value a classical music service enough to give in support of it. Most of our actual listeners don’t give. Some people simply aren’t joiners or membership oriented, but will give. Yes, we are in a sense, “public radio,” given our DNA, but if you dig a little, the actual public believes we share funding with the other “public” stations in our markets, and around the “system.” Just ask them. We literally had folks give to All Classical for the very first time because we made a gentle distinction between ourselves and the other non-commercial stations in our market. We had 3 calls in one hour saying, verbatim  “We thought by giving to the NPR news station, it helped you. No?”

Ask your audience to join you in this conversation, before, during and after your on-air fundraisers and see what they say. I think you’ll be surprised at what you hear. There’s no real downside, other than staying static in your funding model. Stretch a little. Stretch your audience. This isn’t radical stuff, it’s just a little different – a new angle. They deserve to hear what you think and fully understand what your challenges are. They’re smart and may have some answers, to boot.


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