How stations are changing up fundraising strategies during the pandemic

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The economic fallout of the pandemic has forced public media stations to take a hard look at their revenue sources.

During a webinar Tuesday, Luke Dennis, GM of WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and DeLinda Mrowka, chief audience officer at KQED in San Francisco, discussed their revenue strategies and how their thinking has shifted during the pandemic. They were interviewed by Joyce MacDonald, CEO of Greater Public.

WYSO was three days into on-air fundraising in March when Ohio’s governor issued a stay-at-home order. The station decided to end its fundraiser.

“I’ve received nothing but gratitude and thanks from listeners for doing that,” Dennis said. Later that day, the station received $8,000–$9,000 from listeners thanking the station for ending the fund drive early.

WYSO was hoping to have another drive in June, but after the police killing of George Floyd, the station again decided against fundraising that would interrupt programming.

“I know a lot of stations have had great fundraising success during this period,” Dennis said. “But we actually decided not to do interruptive fundraising. We did some direct mail that has been our best response ever to direct mail.” The station also began airing 30-second promo spots about membership that are “very transparent about what we need to close our books by June 30th.”

WYSO hopes to eventually get 90% of its revenue from membership and underwriting so it can rely less on CPB and state funding. “We’re getting there,” Dennis said. It is aiming to increase underwriting income and has hired a full-time account executive. Dennis said he also sees an opportunity to boost major gifts and has hired a major gifts officer, he said.

KQED was fortunate because it doesn’t hold a spring drive in March and could see that stations were having success with shorter drives, Mrowka said.

So when KQED held a fundraiser in May, it moved to a 14-day drive with only two days of on-air pitching.

The station decided to lower its goal but exceeded it by 30%, Mrowka said.

During the drive, “the messaging was so clear and strong,” Mrowka said. “We were not talking about premiums. We were not talking about bonus gifts.” That led to 17% of donors taking a gift, versus 65% during previous drives.

“I know this was a moment in time, but we’re going to see what we continue to do,” Mrowka said “We will not be doing two days, but we’re certainly not going to be doing 14 days on air” as the station has done in the past, she said.

The station is projecting sponsorship revenue to decline 20%, Mrowka said. It has taken steps to shore up that income by focusing on public service announcement buys from entities such as government agencies and medical facilities. It also created a special package for new clients with low rates.

Mrowka said she believes that diversity in revenue is important.

“I hear some people saying, ‘We want to be 100% supported by individuals,’” Mrowka said. “And I am in the camp of, why, when there are local businesses and nonprofits that want to support us?”

The biweekly “Building Resilience” webinar series is being convened by Current and partners Public Media Journalists Association, Greater Public and Public Radio Program Directors with support from the Wyncote Foundation.

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