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The Boston station's offer to shorten its pledge drive was the first thing its web visitors saw.

Pledge: short and sweet?
Some fundraisers aim to vex less, earn more

Originally published in Current, March 28, 2005
By Jeremy Egner

Last May, Dave Edwards, g.m. of Milwaukee’s WUWM, knew something had to be done about his station’s fall pledge drive, which consistently trailed its spring and summer campaigns and was getting worse. But he didn’t expect his membership specialist, Kim Matthews, to advise him to toss the whole thing out the window.

“We kicked around a bunch of ideas and talked about some other stations’ ‘buy-a-day’ efforts,” he says. “And finally Kim said, ‘If we’re going to cut back, let’s go all the way.’”
“I was pretty skeptical,” he adds.

Says Matthews: “He looked at me like I’d lost it.”

He decided to try the Non-Pledge Campaign with results that exceed the staff’s expectations. With the help of well-timed renewal letters and on-air plugs for the mailings and website, WUWM’s fall donations were 73 percent higher without a pledge drive than in last year’s same period — with a nine-day on-air drive. The station also increased renewals by 296 percent and saw a slight upward bump in underwriting income.

In addition, its new member-targeted spring drive, completed last week, brought in enough first-time donors — 13 percent more than the previous year’s drive—to raise hopes that the station can nix the fall drive this year as well. The decision won’t be made until the end of the fiscal year, Edwards says.

WUWM also shortened its spring drive from nine days to five, Matthews says.

“When we invited people in for listener feedback sessions, the recurring theme was, ‘We hate pledge drives,’” she says. “So we tried to find a compromise that would make them happy but still achieve our goals.”

WUWM’s non-pledge drive is the most drastic recent example of the perpetual search for a kinder, gentler approach to what many pubcasting listeners, viewers and staffers see as a necessary evil.

While few public radio stations go so far as acknowledging on air that pledge is a nuisance, it’s an unspoken assumption at stations that employ tactics such as pledge-early-to-shorten-the-drive appeals and Power Hours, which aim to earn a day’s dollars in a single hour of pitching.

In public TV, some stations are experimenting with pledging NPS programming and by targeting pledge programs more thoughtfully.

Stations also continue to work on the sound of their drives, avoiding guilt-tripping harangues and emphasizing listeners’ benefits instead of stations’ needs.

"It’s evolving. No one promotes ‘guilting’ people into pledging anymore,” says Leslie Peters, v.p. of Audience Research Analysis, who worked with consultant John Sutton to develop the influential Listener Focused Fundraising Project in 1999. Peters and Sutton are “remining the data” and will introduce an updated version of the study in August, she says.

But while WUWM has had promising results and other stations such as Boston’s WBUR and KJZZ in Phoenix have found success in reducing their pledge days, observers such as DEI President Doug Eichten warn against blindly “running after the latest, greatest thing” that some other station tries. A few years ago, “cyberdays” were “the answer,” he says, but now stations realize that collecting pledges online is just another part of a comprehensive development strategy.

Even Sutton, who developed the Power Hour concept, says stations shouldn’t rush to incorporate a pledge tactic just because it yields results for another broadcaster. “Unless you know the context of the entire development program, there’s no way to know if a practice would work for your station,” he says.

Sylvia Carson, development director for Austin’s KUT, says stations dig into the “pledge bag of tricks” whenever revenue growth starts to level off. KUT has reduced its total pledge days by nearly 50 percent over the past five years but has also spent more time planning its pitches and urging donors to pledge online.

“ If you stop thinking about fund drives as something bad you need to fix,” Carson says, “and start thinking of them as something short and sweet and do them the best you can, that’s how you make money.”

But WUWM’s Edwards says his station had already shortened breaks, preproduced its pitches and took other “steps to make drives less annoying.” Fundraisers have to keep trying new ways to raise money without alienating people, he says. “If you don’t, you’ll never know what works the best for you.”

As days go bye-bye

While WUWM’s move was bolder than most, many stations are experimenting with ways to shorten their drives.
A visitor to last week was greeted by a lovely photo of a daisy and an offer the station hoped would be equally appealing: “pledge early and help end the fundraiser early.”

The web prompt was part of the station’s deal with listeners, begun last fall, to cut a day off of pledge drives for every $100,000 raised. “As a listener, I even found all the pitching overwhelming sometimes,” says Peter Fiedler, acting g.m.

Since September, WBUR has cut its on-air fundraising 23 percent and shaved 9.5 days off its total of 41, while earning 13 percent more on-air revenue than last fiscal year, says Mike Steffon, marketing director. Its fall campaign grossed $1.1 million, the largest sum for a drive in the station’s history, and the winter drive raised $875,000, the largest for a winter drive.

Sutton’s Power Hours also help stations trim pledge hours by using matching grants and plenty of pre-promotion to fuel the quick-strike quests for cash.

Though the idea isn’t new—Phoenix’s KJZZ has been offering the deal since 1998—stations such as Boston’s WGBH, New York’s WNYC and WMUB in Oxford, Ohio, recently used the tactic with good returns.

“ The key is to promote a listener incentive,” Sutton says. Generally that incentive is less pledge time, but WNYC used another pitch to raise more than $150,000 and $125,000 in matching grants in one hour last fall. It promoted the hour as a way to pay for all of the presidential election coverage the station would provide, Sutton says.

KJZZ has used Power Hours with increasing success in each of the past 14 drives, says Scott Williams, program director for KJZZ and KBAQ. The stations uses a matching grant composed of listener funds derived from a pre-pledge mail campaign and plugs the hour for four days beforehand. Last October it brought in more than $66,000.

Between 1999 and 2004, the Phoenix station also reduced its pledge days from eight per drive to a “four days and four hours.” Over those years its annual on-air earnings have grown from $500,000 to more than $700,000, and off-air revenue has more than tripled, Williams estimates.

That last part is key, say consultants. Before stations start lopping off days, they need to make sure direct mail and all other cylinders of the development engine are firing, says Mike Wallace, a San Diego-based consultant and DEI advisor.

With fewer days of pledging, a station usually counts fewer new members, consultants say, which is why most drive-shortening measures prove to be temporary. Many of the same stations now experimenting with them tried similar strategies in years past before returning to traditional lengths.

To wit, WUWM’s pledge-less fall campaign netted 49 percent fewer new donations, though the station targeted new donors in its spring drive and will do so again in the summer.

Public TV stations tried pledge-reduction schemes in the 1980s, but don’t expect the current shortening trend to cross over into pubTV, says Craig Reed, TRAC Media Services’ director of audience analysis.

Some stations, however, like KLVX in Las Vegas, are essentially reducing pledge hours and vexation by leaving regular-schedule stalwarts such as Masterpiece Theatre and Nova in place during drives. Since KLVX began rewarding viewers in this way last spring, it has surpassed goals in each drive until its most recent one, says development director Kurt Mische. Spring drive revenues have been down nationwide, says Reed.

KLVX recently brought in $3,000 pledging Nova—”normally a non-starter,” Mische says—and has tried harder to replace shows with pledge programs in a similar vein to appeal to regular viewers.

For example, if the station removes Nature from the schedule it will replace it with an outdoor pledge program such as Alone in the Wilderness, Mische says. (Reed predicts “archival reality” programming like Alone, which is more reflective of pubTV’s documentary content than the average seminar on financial freedom or everlasting life, will be “the next pledge genre to really pop.”)

"We have to make money and pay bills but some of these long-term members have been helping us pay bills for a long time,” says Development Director Kurt Mische. “When we keep whacking them on the head with things that have little to do with mission, it hurts.”

Make these fine pizzas possible!

Most system observers say pubcasters have the skills to make drives less irritating, but improved pledging is still pledging.

"To the average listener they sound like the begging they’ve always been,” says Mark Fuerst, former g.m. of WXPN in Philadelphia and now head of the Integrated Media Association. “I think you have to work at a station to think these drives sound okay.”

Stations have dared to poke fun at the ordeal in recent years — the Magliozzi brothers’ and Ira Glass’s self-deprecating spiels are pinnacles of achievement in that style — but most quickly warn against apologizing for pledge.

Most managers know that pitches should talk about public radio’s values and benefits for listeners instead of their own budget shortfalls, says KUT’s Carson. Her station uses pitch points rather than scripts; pitchers go through a series of critiquing sessions before the drive begins.

“But our industry still has a long way to go,” Wallace says. He advocates thinking of pledge as a station’s commercial.

“When I hear a Pizza Hut commercial, they’re not telling me they need my money to survive as a business. They’re not saying my money makes more pizzas possible. They sell a benefit: ‘If I respond, this is the benefit I will enjoy.’ Too many stations are still focused on the station.”

WUWM and KLVX use their spots to plug the fact that they’re making pledge easier on their audiences. Both use variations on the theme “We’ve heard your concerns, so this is what we’re doing.” The Milwaukee station pointed listeners toward pledging by mail or online in an effort to “train members to renew off air,” Matthews says.

KLVX dosed its scripts with values-speak and airs spots of viewers touting the station’s worth.

WBUR also began using testimonials, and largely lets listeners handle the touchy task of dissing pledge. Says South End’s Shalini Kasida in one spot: “If you’re gonna donate, then do it earlier and get it over with so the rest of us can get on with listening to what we want to.”

Web page posted April 6, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Current Publishing Committee


Shorter pledge drives paid off with happier listeners and decent pledge revenues, 1997.

To make it work, stations rely more on timely direct-mail letters and focus their on-air attention on gaining new members, not just donations.

To keep their good-guy reputations with listeners, pubcasters must also be avoid commercialism on their websites, a study found.


Milwaukee's WUWM-FM and its online pledge page., a CPB-funded website about pledge drive technique.

Report of the Listener-Focused Fundraising Project, 2000.