The Message

Pledge of Allegiance

As the spokesman for Colorado Public Radio, Sean Nethery is obligated to deal with complaints about CPR's pledge drives, which are widely (and accurately) regarded as the most irritating of all local begathons. He defends them with a series of well-reasoned arguments that he breaks up with a confession that folks at the network, a two-channel service whose mission is split between classical music and news-and-information fare, would rather not spend their time shilling for donations.

"Our goal is to provide people our regular content, not fundraising programming. But fundraising is part of the programming on public radio, and that's always going to be true," Nethery says. "That doesn't mean everybody will be happy about it, and we understand that. We know it's the devil's bargain of public broadcasting."

If so, Satan got his revenge on CPR during its spring drive, held during the first two weeks of May. Throughout that period, announcers repeatedly told listeners of CPR's nine stations -- Denver's KVOD/90.1 FM and KCFR/1340 AM are joined by signals in Boulder, Vail, Pueblo, Grand Junction, Delta and Montrose -- that they needed to rake in about $600,000 in order to end the fiscal year on sound financial footing. The solicitors offered potential donors plenty of carrots in exchange for their cash, ranging from classical discs to copies of the latest book by National Public Radio's Bob Edwards, who anchored Morning Edition, a CPR staple, for a quarter-century. (Shortly before the drive's kickoff, Edwards was replaced as Morning Edition's host, prompting widespread protest. CPR types tried to cushion the blow by mentioning that Edwards would remain at NPR as a "senior correspondent" -- a term that contains an unfortunate hint of ageism.) The stick, meanwhile, came in the form of friendly but firm reminders that if CPR failed to hit its monetary goal, more pledge drives might be needed.

Oddly, this prospect wasn't sufficiently horrifying to convince enough Coloradans to open their wallets. CPR, which has an annual operating budget of $6.7 million, with over 90 percent of that total donated by individuals and businesses, collected about $100,000 less than was hoped for. That should have triggered an auxiliary pledge roundup, as such gaps did the past several years, when what Nethery calls "two- to three-day mini-drives" were launched in June and December to make up for shortfalls. But this time around, CPR had another item on its June agenda: It had earmarked June 4-7 as the days when it would relocate to its new Denver Tech Center headquarters, at 7409 South Alton Court. The 35,000-square-foot space was donated by entrepreneur Barbara Bridges and her ex-husband Rutt, the Bighorn Center head and erstwhile senatorial candidate who once chaired CPR's board. A $5.25 million capital campaign, staged without on-air fundraising, is financing the upgrade; Nethery says about $500,000 more must be added by summer's end to reach that objective.

With the move looming, managers didn't want to schedule more pleading, so they came up with the idea of a drawing, with 25 Teac radio/CD players as prizes. The contest will be hyped once or twice an hour on CPR stations through this month, on spots emphasizing that anyone who makes a donation by phone or during a visit to www.cpr.org will be automatically entered into the contest. Rules posted on the website make it clear that listeners don't need to donate to take part in the drawing -- "No pledge or contribution is necessary. A pledge or contribution does not increase odds of winning," one passage states -- and according to Nethery, "We say that on the air a few times a day." But many of the taped promos fail to mention that giving isn't required in order to get in the running for the Teacs. The closest they come is alluding to the rules on the website.

Nethery insists that this approach isn't misleading and says the same for CPR's typical fundraising techniques, which differ substantially from the methodology favored by most other public-radio stations. When KUVO, a jazz outlet at 89.3 FM, conducted its May pledge drive, it used a handful of live bodies whose entreaties at least had a modicum of spontaneity. Not so CPR's drive, on which about 75 percent of the pledge requests are recorded. Announcers generally appear live only during "challenges" -- periods when a certain amount needs to be gathered in a short span to activate matching grants.

During CPR pledge drives, appeals eat up approximately 25 minutes of every hour between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., and the braintrust believes that quality improves when the messages are shaped in advance. "Virtually everything you hear on NPR is very carefully produced and carefully scripted," Nethery allows. "That's how public radio does things. Even Car Talk isn't live. And when we pre-record, we don't just lazily run a mike. We're writing and editing and trying to make better programming. Doing things live, you have a few things to say and you say them repeatedly, and that doesn't sound very good after a while. That's why, all in all, we think pre-recording creates better pledge drives."

Not all listeners agree. "People complain more about drives than anything, and what a surprise that is," Nethery says. "After all, we're not playing what they want us to be playing, and we're telling them intrusively and repeatedly to contribute to us." Redundancy is the most common gripe: "We'll sometimes get calls from people saying, 'I've already heard this hour.'"

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