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.'"
CPR has tried a number of ways to decrease the moaning, to no avail. For instance, the outfit once decided to spread a two-week drive over three weeks with occasional days off along the way, under the theory that listeners would appreciate having a break. Unfortunately, Nethery says, "We got more negatives than before. People were like, 'Oh, my gosh, you're going into your third week!'" Now the philosophy is to get the chore over in three bursts of two weeks apiece, in late January or early February, May and October.
Because of the June and December mini-drives in recent years, CPR has spent more time fundraising than usual -- and that doesn't take into account regularly aired quasi-ads suggesting that listeners donate automobiles to the cause or put CPR in their wills. Nonetheless, Nethery says this material accounts for only about 10 percent of CPR's broadcasts, as opposed to the 25 percent of airtime devoted to advertisements by most commercial stations. In Nethery's view, the contrast between those who help and those who bitch is even greater. "We may have gotten fifty to a hundred complaints" during the May drive, he says, "but over 30,000 people give us money over the course of the year. That's a lot of people raising their hand and telling us they want to be a part of this."
There's no predicting how many more will volunteer in order to win a Teac. CPR generated only about $20,000 in the first two weeks after the drawing was announced, leaving four times that amount to raise by month's end -- "but sometimes people respond more as a deadline approaches, so we'll see," Nethery says.
Anything to avoid another pledge drive . . .
In the Zone: Like public-radio signals, public-television outlets keep the lights on with the help of on-air fundraisers, some of which are pre-packaged rather than live. The Public Broadcasting Service, the primary supplier of programming for such stations, offsets other costs by hawking program sponsorships promoted via filmed snippets that look more and more like standard-issue commercials with each passing year. There may still be distinctions between the elaborately produced acknowledgements aired at the end of some PBS shows and ads for the same companies that run on for-profit networks, but the average viewer probably wouldn't pick up on them.
Locally, Channel 12 plays the sponsorship game aggressively -- too aggressively, according to at least one critic. In 2003, Denver Post columnist Diane Carman took the station to task for airing Head On, a series of political debates, after state senator John Andrews, whose company funds the show, sacked his outspoken opponent, Dani Newsum. Andrews isn't the only prominent figure to have a similar agreement with Channel 12. Jon Caldara confirmed in this space that the Independence Institute, which he heads, pays many of the expenses involved with Independent Thinking, a Channel 12 discussion program that he hosts, and producers such as Aaron Harber gather funds and secure underwriting for their offerings as well.
Still, the most telling example of a Channel 12 show that bridges the worlds of public and commercial television is Sports Zone, a discussion program airing at 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays that's overseen by former Channel 4 sportscaster Les Shapiro and features members of the local jockocracy. (For the June 1 edition, Shapiro traded observations with the Fan's Charles Johnson, Rocky Mountain News columnist Dave Krieger and KOA's Dave Logan.) The program is sponsored by ESPN Zone, an area eatery associated with ESPN, a commercial channel, and broadcasts live from the restaurant.
Sports Zone's name hints at an even closer link, but Kim Johnson, Channel 12's vice president of broadcast operations, says that's coincidental. "The show originally launched as Sports Column, but afterward, we discovered that there's a bar downtown called the Sports Column, so we decided to change it," she maintains. "We went back to the four or five other prospective titles we'd thought about for the series, and one of them was Sports Zone." The switch occurred in January, a couple of months before the deal with ESPN Zone was inked. While Johnson admits the name change may have attracted ESPN Zone's attention, "they were not the only company that was approached for sponsorship," she says. Paula Ross, Channel 12's director of marketing and events, who signed up ESPN Zone, divulges that ESPN, the restaurant's corporate licensee, okayed the deal.
Channel 12 did likewise, using criteria that Johnson concedes "are very subjective." She knows there's a line that public TV shouldn't cross, "but that line is determined by each public broadcast station," she says. "It would be very difficult to establish some sort of guidebook, because each new production provides different opportunities and different challenges." In her opinion, stations would be going too far if they engaged in overt "product placement, or mentioned a venue repeatedly, or placed signage in very close proximity to the shooting area or intentionally on camera." She doesn't think Sports Zone commits any of these sins, though, because "we're cognizant of the fact that we want a separation of commercial interests."
How large a separation is another matter entirely.
Ready for her close-up: Not long ago, while newspaper readers could identify columnists by their mug shots, they didn't have a clue as to what most reporters and editors looked like. But that's changing with partnership agreements like those that connect the Denver Post with Channel 9 and the Rocky Mountain News with Channel 4 and transform scribes into TV talking heads on an almost daily basis. International affairs writer Bruce Finley earned even more face time when he was chosen to serve as an unlikely pitchman in a commercial for a new Post subscription offer. Finley's been on dangerous assignments before, but never like this one.
Such imagery has also invaded the pages of the Rocky, beginning with the top man. A photo of News editor/publisher/president John Temple has long accompanied his Saturday column, but twice recently, his prose has been supplemented by another image of him. On February 28, Temple was shown chatting with Jefferson County Sheriff Ted Mink at the Jeffco Fairgrounds, where evidence from the Columbine High School shootings had been put on public display; on May 22, he was seen sporting a huge bandage over his eye following cataract surgery. Here's hoping the photographer stays in the lobby when Temple gets a prostate exam.
Then again, Temple is a piker compared to News health and fitness editor Lisa Ryckman. In the June 1 edition, she not only wrote about exercises intended to tighten abdominal muscles, but she appeared in photos demonstrating them, clad in trendy workout attire. The first page of the article pictured her in black and white, doing the bicycle move; on the jump, she was the focus of nine color snaps that walked readers through the "traditional crunch," the "crunch with heel push" and more.
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Seeing an editor at a major metro daily in such poses seems more than a bit wacky, but Ryckman is totally comfortable with the exposure. Prior to her current gig, she worked as a reporter and "always seemed to be writing about the saddest stories in the paper," she says, including Columbine and the murder of JonBenét Ramsey. Burned out by the experience, she poured herself into "my second job -- the thing that kept me sane." Specifically, Ryckman taught a variety of fitness and natural-childbirth classes, and she continues to do so in her free time. She's certified by the American Council on Exercise as a personal trainer and group fitness instructor, by the YMCA as a martial arts instructor, and by Body Training Systems as "a Body Pump instructor." (This last term refers to group weight training, not a Hans and Franz routine.)
Knowing of Ryckman's interests, Temple designed the health and fitness position with her in mind, and urged her to take a how-to approach to writing about exercise. For Ryckman, posing for photos was the next logical step: "I devise a workout every month, and you need to make sure people are doing the exercises correctly. So it just made sense for me to do it." Thus far, she doesn't think she's been recognized on the street as the Rocky's exercise guru, but she's received plenty of positive feedback from readers. "Seeing a familiar face makes them feel connected to the paper in a very real way," she notes. "I think that's one of the best things I can do for our readers, and I think it's one of the things the Rocky does best."
Get the picture?