How to Survive a Public Radio Membership Drive

They pop up all the time, but just irregularly enough that you don't expect them: a delicate balance of persuasion, threat, and desperation that's as rough on public radio employees as it is on you.


If you’re just joining us, welcome to the spring membership drive for WPNQ, Pentsaqualie Public Radio! We are here to remind you of all the GREAT work we do here at WPNQ, each and every day. Maybe take a moment, look yourself in the eye, and say to yourself, “Self? How do I feel about the fact that here I am, listening every day, and still not contributing? Is this the kind of person I am? Or am I the kind of person that values quality journalism, and understands that public radio is the foundation upon which any successful democracy is built?

For many of us, there is but one constant in this changing world, and that is the fact that every three months, though never predictably enough to see it coming, our favorite public radio station will turn on us and ask us to cough up some money.

This is always, by design, excruciating. It’s scary and bewildering to hear your favorite personalities transform, Jekyll and Hyde-like, from respectable journalists into people whose raw need is broadcast in real-time. The downward spiral is always the same. Day one — so upbeat! So positive! Day three—a little tired, but hanging in there! Day six, onward, until it is over: madness.

And you know, we’ve got some great, great gifts this year. We have, for the first time ever, an incredible, beautiful, sturdy, stylish, water-proof, leaf-proof, negativity-proof, feral-cat-repellent tote bag. Maybe it’s a sunny day—put your sunscreen in there! Maybe it’s a rainy day—carry an umbrella! Maybe, you could just … well, you could put in ANYTHING, anything in the world that you can think of, that would fit inside a totebag, could go in this one. There are so many things you can put in there. The possibilities are as endless as the programming here at WPNQ!

WNYC has come up with quite the strategy: this past week, they’ve been running on-air promos urging people to donate now so as to shorten the pledge drive that is slated to start next week—in fact, on Friday they posted this Facebook update: “Thanks to your early contributions, next Sunday will be FUNDRAISING FREE! Help us chop away at more hours and grow our garden of supporters.”

It is a testament to the awful power of the membership drive that the mere threat of a membership drive is enough to get people to donate.

There is still no sign, however, of the Nigerian schoolgirls. But you know what there could be a sign of, right now? Your support for WPNQ Pensaqualie Public Radio!

Paul Maassen, the general manager of WWNO in New Orleans, said that public radio employees are always looking for ways to evolve the process, and now use social media, targeted emails and direct emails.

“I think the whole idea is to get that reaction time and action time down,” he said.

I asked whether there would ever be a time when those of us who are already members could magically skip the membership drive; it does feel really unfair that those of us who dutifully pony up our $12.50 a month have to suffer with all the shirkers. No such luck, Paul said, or at least not yet.

We are now in day six of our on-air spring membership drive for WPNQ, and we really have to —politely!—absolutely urge you in the strongest possible terms to call now. Maybe you can give a dollar a day, and become a treasured part of our Righteous Benevolent Patrons Circle! Maybe you can only afford a penny a day, for a total donation of $3.65 per year, and become a Sustaining Hobo member! That’s fine too! Whatever it is, just please, please, please pick up that phone now and pledge it to us.

“There are moments of very real terror, though it’s not what people think—it’s not like someone is standing there with an axe, saying ‘Your job is on the line!’,” said Lila*, an on-air host at an NPR affiliate. “But there is the very, very real possibility that you’re going to have to be on-air a few days more to get the money.” (*This is not her real name.)

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

She described her colleagues’ attitude toward pledge drives as “pretty resigned,” saying that everyone knows this is part of the job. But, she said, the hosts are occasionally surprised by what they have said in the heat of the fundraising crucible.

“When you’re in the final days and everyone’s getting tired … you’re supposed to stay on-message but you start wandering and out comes some crazy analogy, ‘If there were no Morning Edition, you’d join a yoga cult and never look at a news story again!’, or something about how public radio is some handcrafted artisan drink. And it’s like, where is this coming from?”

It’s especially tough, she said, on people who are assigned morning shifts that don’t normally work mornings.

“The morning shift are the ones walking around looking pretty haggard—they’re swigging coffee and by the end of their shifts they sound completely wasted,” she said. “It’s just really hard, if you don’t work that shift, to walk in and be totally on at 6 a.m. There’s nothing natural about it.”

It’s ok, she said, to show a tiny bit of the cracks.

“It’s an implied threat — if you don’t give us money and let us get back to our regular jobs, we’re going to go all QVC on you,” she said, adding that in many, many cases, it’s not easy to go from being a reporter to pitching yourself, your work, and your employer live on air for days on end.

“Sales skills are not the same as news skills, that’s for sure,” she said. “The best pitches are the ones where you have personal stories, but at some point you have to close and you’re thinking about everything you saw in Glengarry Glen Ross.”

Just imagine wearing this incredible WPNQ disposable poncho as you walk down the street. People will look at you, and know you are virtuous, and clever, and true of heart. They will know that you are not a freeloader. Or, you could not call. You can continue to think of yourself as the kind of person who cares but, when push comes to shove, just does not give a flying f--k about the kind of quality, in-depth journalism and arts coverage you can’t get anywhere else. Make the choice today. Our phone lines are open and our volunteers are standing by.

But every person I spoke with said that it’s a completely necessary evil, and that without membership as part of the fundraising strategy for a station, local affiliates would be in huge trouble.

“Government support of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting continues to be less and less,” Maassen said. “All stations are different, but generally the CPB support is not the major budget piece — it’s the membership and underwriting and grant support from foundations.”

He said that about six percent of WWNO listeners in New Orleans support the radio station, which is “pretty average. Ten percent is considered pretty good.”

Lila said that she, and everyone, believes in the mission and even enjoys the chance to talk about the good work that they do. “It’s really easy to get disconnected from how you’re doing and how people are using it, but that’s not possible when you’re going on air four times a year to defend your funding,” she said. “Our whole model is built around a voluntary paywall, and we have to show people reasons to actually pay for the news they’re using in real time.”

So whether you’re a long-time listener, or short-time listener, maybe you just moved here, maybe your hearing was miraculously restored via the wonders of science, or maybe you are a dog. No matter WHO you are or WHY you love us here at WPNQ Pentsaqualie Public Radio, the fact remains that we are here and you are there and we are all karmically bound to one another and have only this present moment. Form is an illusion. The only reality is the quality public journalism of WPNQ. There’s never, ever, ever been a better time to call and become a member.