Top prospects for expanding pubradio revenues examined at Public Media Futures Forum

SEATTLE — When public media development consultants and station leaders gathered at the University of Washington’s Seattle campus on July 10 to discuss fundraising programs of the future, two ideas stirred up the most vigorous discussion: the potential for sustaining membership fundraising to reduce stations’ reliance on pledge drive revenues, and a text-giving program that would enable NPR to solicit donations directly from listeners. Maryland-based consultant John Sutton dreamed up the latter idea over breakfast, and he proposed it during the forum as a way to open a new path for listener donations that would provide dues relief to local stations. Under Sutton’s plan, NPR would run text-giving campaigns twice a year soliciting $10 donations from listeners. The monies raised — he estimated $35 million in net revenues — would reduce the program dues that NPR charges stations. Stations wouldn’t have to worry about NPR cultivating their listeners as donors because the text gifts would be made anonymously.

Dick McPherson

Questions to ask before you collaborate

For two decades, Dick McPherson has managed the McPherson Associates’ Public Media Co-op, through which 30-plus stations with more than 25 percent of pubTV members have shared fundraising materials, strategies and tests. Current asked McPherson to flesh out his heroically concise remarks at the Feb. 27 Public Media Futures forum about the powers and pitfalls of collaboration in fundraising. “Collaboration” sounds so good, even natural and certainly logical, especially among colleagues who share the same values and challenges. “Going in together” is not only efficient but today seems essential for public stations’ survival.

Cohesion: It helps when collaborators want the same things

There’s a growing disparity between the haves and have-nots among public stations. Their abilities to expand services and revenues are diverging. And if they were to collaborate on fundraising, they’d want different results from it. That was the scene as described by 20 execs and consultants in the Public Media Futures forum held Feb. 16 in Washington, D.C., by the communication schools of the University of Southern California and American University in cooperation with Current.

Upsides: Reconceived public stations can ‘be more PBS’ and be more local

The stations are here so they can understand and illuminate a community’s aspirations and concerns, engage people in the life of their community, and help people reengage and reconnect with one another. — Richard C. Harwood and Aaron B. Leavy1

The remark above reflects a way of thinking strategically about the institution of public broadcasting at this point in our history. Today, public media boards and executives face such strategic questions as:

What can we do to be a more significant and engaged institution in our community? What should be our focus, and what does that mean for redeploying resources from current activities? How can we help nonprofit and government entities be more effective when their missions are in greater demand?

Scale: Wisconsin net has economies of size and local bureaus, too

Nothing comes easily to public radio, not even a good idea. About 30 years ago, Wisconsin Public Radio veteran Jack Mitchell came up with the concept of banding together small stations throughout Wisconsin into a centralized system, within which a mothership would handle overhead and distribution, thus freeing up resources for stronger local content. Today, Wisconsin Public Radio operates 33 stations that benefit from strength in numbers – some of which might not exist today were it not for a centralized system. Each station is tied to one of two statewide networks, one featuring the NPR newsmagazines and classical music and the other mostly state-oriented talk programming. WPR “has twice as much programming” as a single network, said Mitchell, who now teaches at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, and the networks don’t air the same programs at the same time.

Current participates as information provider in a series of forums

With this package of articles, Current begins publishing a series of articles on Public Media Futures, appearing in conjunction with a two-year series of quarterly forums starting this month. The forums are co-sponsored by USC Annenberg’s Center on Communication Leadership and Policy and American University’s School of Communication, which publishes Current. Both the articles and the accompanying forums are planned to amplify and contribute to conversations already underway in the field about serious issues facing public service media companies in the 21st-century. The recession and trends in media technology are shaking the structural and financial foundations of public media, suggesting that some of the system’s major operating assumptions will have to change. These articles include commentaries from thinkers in the field as well as reports by Current writers.

Capacity: Radio’s local newsrooms weigh in

As the chorus calling on public media to add more local journalists grows, let’s be mindful of the specific ways adding journalists can dramatically improve local public service. Just by enlarging its newsroom to four, five or six journalists, a station will gain the human wherewithal to unleash a proper beat system. Beats cause reporters to become specialists. With a news staff of six, for example, a newsroom could have reporters well versed in the actors, history and nuances of a starter set of beats — education, health, business, law, environment and arts/culture. These specialists are more likely to break original stories, to know when it’s important to follow up, and to extract meaningful news analysis from a week’s events.