An Open Letter to WHYY

(Warning: below is a rant directed at my local public radio station)

To Whom It May Concern at WHYY:

I am a big fan of WHYY and NPR, and have supported your station many times over the past ten years with gifts (usually over the suggested minimum level) made in response to your regular pledge drives.  But not this year.  I will likely continue to support WHYY – I can’t imagine having KYW 1060 as my only radio news source – but I will not reward the pathetic efforts of your pledge drive with my gift.

Why do I resent your pledge drive so much? 

First, your hosts are lousy.  Just because they’re on the board or management of the radio station doesn’t mean they can sit behind a microphone and inspire people to give to WHYY.  They often make bad jokes and even worse segues to overly dramatic tales of public radio’s financial woes.   Which gets me to point #2 . . .

Second, the rhetoric is misleading.  Listening to your hosts’ desperate dialog, I start to worry that public radio in the nation’s fifth largest media market is teetering on the brink of insolvency.  "If we don’t reach our goal of 250 pledges during Morning Edition, we’ll have to go back to management and make some decisions about programming."  Please, don’t insult your listeners with such ominous but hollow threats – listeners who you describe as "Well-educated, Influential, Culturally active, Decision-makers, Technology savvy, Affluent professionals."  I’m technologically savvy enough to surf over to your website and find (the buried) financial report showing that WHYY had a $2.2M surplus last year.  And, because I listen to your station, I know that Joan Kroc gave $225M to NPR in 2003.  I know this doesn’t eliminate the need for listener support, but please, you have some explaining to do about this misleading rhetoric.

Third, the thank-you gifts/incentives/bribes are cheezy and make the whole act of giving somewhat misleading.  How many coffee mugs can a public radio listener really need?  And a shower radio?  Puh-leez.  Futhermore, once you deduct the cost of the coffee mugs (and shipping) from my donation to the financially strapped public radio station that serves my community like no other, I realize that a significant portion of what I thought was an altruistic gift to my community non-profit radio station is really paying for the thank-you crap that you’re sending me.  Please keep the crap to yourselves.

A few suggestions:

Get your executive staff and board members off the air during the pledge drive or, at least, reduce their airtime.  In stead, ask your "loyal," "enlightened," "engaged" listeners to share their testimonials of why they listen to and support WHYY.  I’m more inclined to give to NPR if a peer is asking me than if a WHYY staffer is asking me.  Furthermore, some of NPR’s most popular efforts of recent years are listener-created – I think of both This I Believe and of SoundClips.  This approach could probably work for you.

Be honest with us.  Tell us how Joan Kroc’s money is being used at NPR, and why our smaller gifts are just as needed.  Ask us to support WHYY out of loyalty, community service and dedication to quality journalism, not out of an unfounded fear that our favorite programs might be cut even though your radio station has a $2.2M surplus from last year.  Use the pledge drive as a celebration and showcase for public radio, not a poorly-produced beg-a-thon.  And make a better effort to raise money outside of the pledge drive – through direct mailings, peer giving campaigns, online giving, and pre-pledge drive efforts.

Flush the crap.  Ask for listener support without any incentives.  However, if you must offer thank-you gifts, make it clear that the "thank you gift" is not a "gift" from the radio station to the listener, but rather a purchase by the listener.  Make it clear that my $100 donation to public radio will be turned into a $78 donation after you send me two coffee mugs.  And after you do that, make the case that public radio needs the whole $100, not the $78 that remains after receiving two unnecessary mugs.

I will continue to support public radio in Philadelphia with my financial gifts.  But it is my hope that you will make the act of giving less painful and more gratifying – and you can start by changing the on-air pledge drives.

Your loyal listener (except during pledge week),

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

7 thoughts on “An Open Letter to WHYY

  1. LZ — your letter, although strong – is so appropriate I might have to cut and paste parts of it to give to my local NPR station. You said it and you said it well. The same thing about our statewide Public Television Station – they have an on-air beg-a-thon, and its worse, because they keep interrupting their awesome programming with whiny begging and promises of incentives (are these donated by some corporate group or is the cost part of our giving – they should really disclose this as you suggested). Good luck with getting a reply – I wonder what the marketing guru’s say about such fundraising techniques.
    p.s. — What a CPE experience you are having! Mine was 10 years ago – one day a week, for 9 months – with weekday and weekend on-call shifts – and some lasting 24 hrs. I only had to drive 30 minutes – nothing like your commute.

  2. Unfortunately, people seem to give in response to the beg-a-thons and “gifts.” I just send a check once per year in response to a mailing and listen to a different station whenever WHYY goes on a 10-day fund drive. (Perversely, however, I am fascinated with the possibility of Patrick Stoner’s head exploding and usually tune in for the manic final 30 minutes of the drive.)
    WXPN has a good idea: the week before a fund drive they say, “For every so-many dollars we get this week, we’ll shorten the on-air fund drive by 1 hour.” Now there’s an incentive to just send a check and not call in.

  3. I can relate to the on-air begging campaign because of listening to other stations. However, the Minnesota Public Radio fund raising has been much more respectful of the audience than the type you tell about. They do mention gifts, but they are only for first time joiners. But success breeds success. They have found that shorter types of pledge drives actually work better.
    MPR has two networks, one for classical music, the other for news and information. Both blanket the whole state. And they have a popular music station, but it has a more limited range.
    I’d urge you to tune in via your computer. The links are somewhere on for streaming audio.
    I cringe when I hear the programs and announcers at another public network in a neighboring state.

  4. I don’t know “LZ”, I think I’m going to have to disagree with you here, and not for any really good reason. I just feel like being contradictory today.
    On a whim, I sat in to answer the WHYY phones one night during the last pledge drive, and found some unfortunate truths. People rarely call in during the actual program, only during the begging breaks when your favorite hosts read off their pseudo-statistics and promise gifts. Only then, and the people who called nearly always wanted the gift, whatever it was. Heck, during Marketplace, the deal was a single month subscription to the Financial Times, which is nice, but one month? Seriously. Subscribe to the newspaper, subtract the cost from your original gift, and give that to the station. Chances are, it’ll be more valuable for all involved. But people like the quid pro quo, no matter how stupid the gift.
    And the management of the station knows this. They realize that they need the gifts, the flattery, and the cheeziness to encourage people. It’s a shame, but it’s a reality. Say hello to the fickleness of the general populace.
    I would like to argue, however, about the quality of the gifts. They can be much more fun than a mug or two. The This I Believe book is great, and I got that last October. And I have to admit, I was tempted to go in for the pint glasses during this drive. I don’t need four, but…
    Further, the whole Joan Kroc thing is misleading. She gave to NPR, not to individual stations. WHYY is a member station of NPR, but it must pay for the programs from NPR, APM, and PRI… why tell you this? You can hear it yourself from the hosts. Money given to NPR does help support programming, but more importantly it keeps the dues down for the member stations, which while not important for WHYY, is more important for smaller stations all over the country.
    If you like the WHYY programning, but don’t want to give to the station, maybe you should give to APM or PRI. You probably listen to their programs and they didn’t get the $200 million bequest. Why not support them? Help bring diverse programming to the smaller Public Radio markets.
    Just a thought. You can yell at me about it tomorrow at the hospital.

  5. Thank you, thank you, thank you! Whever I hear that they are having the fund drive I will not listen to it. I have absolutley no problem with switching to another station during that time. If anything, it makes me not want to give.

  6. Since it is pledge week here too, I’ve been listening to the pledge talk with a more critical ear after reading your post. Yes there are “prizes” but, for the most part, they use prizes that go along with a guest speaker’s topic. For example, a popular weather commentator was on for a special call in show and his book was the reward for joining during that time.
    There are mugs and pins, etc. too, and they are promoted in the spirit of building community and extra advertising for the network. There are also big prizes, like 25,000 frequent flyer miles. I’ve always assumed that the station isn’t paying full freight for these or the corporations donate a portion of the worth of the prizes to the network.
    It works: there are 9000 pledges this week already. The goal is 15000

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