By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 28, 2009
Times have gotten so tough that National Public Radio is considering something it hasn't done for a generation: a pledge drive.
With NPR facing a projected $8 million budget deficit and looming cutbacks, some of its most prominent program hosts are urging management to consider a direct, on-air appeal to NPR's listeners -- something that's prohibited by the organization's bylaws.
Longtime NPR personality Susan Stamberg and "All Things Considered" host Melissa Bloch raised the pledge drive idea last week with new NPR President Vivian Schiller in employee meetings held to discuss the deteriorating financial condition.
Stamberg said in an interview yesterday that NPR raised $1 million during a week-long series of appeals that she co-hosted in 1983, when it was deeply in debt and teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. The fundraising appeal then was known as "The Drive to Survive."
At the time, she pointed out, NPR was much smaller, with fewer member stations and a weekly audience that was one-quarter the size of its roughly 23 million listeners now.
"Think how much we'd be able to do now if we were doing something similar," Stamberg said. She added, "None of us wants any more cuts. We've already lost two programs" -- the daily newsmagazine shows "Day to Day" and "News and Notes," which NPR stopped producing earlier this month to save money. NPR has an annual operating budget of about $150 million and expects revenue to fall about $8 million short of that amount this year.
NPR's member stations raise funds through semi-annual pledge drives, but the nonprofit organization's rules forbid "direct-marketing activities," such as soliciting money during programs or through the mail.
The prohibition is designed to keep Washington-based NPR from competing with its 800 independently operated member stations for listeners' contributions. In the NPR ecosystem, stations hold the pledge drives and then pay annual fees, or "dues," to NPR for the right to carry such shows as "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition."
Stamberg said she has subsequently urged Schiller "not to take 'no' for an answer" from member-station managers, who control the majority of seats on NPR's board. She noted, however, that Schiller, who joined NPR in January, has a tough sell ahead: "The station managers are very fearful, and understandably so, about letting us put our hands in the pockets of their listeners."
Schiller was unavailable for comment yesterday. Another senior executive at NPR, Dana Davis Rehm, expressed guarded interest in the idea. "At this point, we're happy to look at anything our staff or people want to put on the table," Rehm said. "We're entertaining a lot of ideas to raise revenue. All cash is good cash."
Rehm, who wrote the policy that prohibits "direct marketing," said nothing in NPR's bylaws prevents it from cooperating with member stations that want to raise funds on NPR's behalf. Stations could conceivably band together to run their own pledge drives for NPR, she said, with NPR and the station splitting the proceeds.
Rehm added that public stations would need a waiver from the Federal Communications Commission to fundraise on NPR's behalf. Such an authorization is not unprecedented. The FCC granted waivers to public stations across the country to raise money for a New York station that lost its broadcast tower in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The commission also did so in 2005, when stations pitched in to help public broadcasters devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
One prominent NPR outlet, WAMU-FM (88.5) in Washington, sounded cool yesterday to the idea of hosting a fundraiser for NPR.
WAMU and NPR already work together to solicit major donors, said Kay Summers, a spokeswoman for the station. "My initial reaction is that we want to continue with that rather than have a wholesale change of policy," she said. "It would be a real sea change in the business model."
WAMU raised $1.2 million, a record amount, during its February pledge drive. And Summers said, "A big part of our message is that you're supporting NPR with your money through the station's dues, and you're also supporting our local shows and operations."