Tuesday, May 10, 2011

$45 means free radio for a year ...

The Coming Death of the Public Radio Pledge Drive

For many public radio stations, the beginning of May means the beginning of spring pledge drives. Loyal listeners across the country can expect to be pestered, badgered, and harassed to dig into their pockets for support. And support they should — with the current battle in U.S. Congress over federal budget cuts to National Public Radio, fundraising is more vital than ever for these stations. But, as necessary as they may be to keep valuable programming on the radio, the pledge drive strategy more or less epitomizes what we call “interruption” around here. There’s got to be a better way, right?

We’re happy to report that San Francisco-based KQED has developed a new pledge-free streaming model for Internet listeners, the first experiment of its kind by any public radio station. With a $45 donation, listeners can tune in to an alternate live radio stream — hosted by a different on-air announcer than the pledge station — where, for a year, they won’t be asked to pony up any dough. The pledge-free stream is only accessible via the Internet, but can be streamed on up to four browsers, including smart phones and tablets. As one would expect, its not available on conventional radios — so you’ll have to put up with continued fundraising breaks on your car radio, unless you stream the internet station through your phone.

The idea of a premium paid radio station isn’t new by any means — take Pandora One and SiriusXM, for example — but public radio has always been a different beast. It’s designed as a service to the public. So what happens when a premium service that’s not accessible to all is introduced into a sphere that’s designed to serve all? The Bay Citizen gives a great in-depth analysis here.

Of course, radio stations need to generate income to be sustainable, and for lots of small public radio stations, listeners donate because they value national shows like NPR. If Congress cuts funding to small stations like Montana Public Radio, they’re essentially out of business, unless listeners respond to these pledge drives with big bucks.

Asking some users to pay for a cleaner and less interrupted listening experience is one potential solution to pull in the money necessary to keep the free radio stream available to everyone else. But does paid radio qualify as public radio? Will the new KQED model prove sustainable? How will this paid-premium approach affect the future of public radio?