It’s been a bad couple of months for public radio and television, image-wise. Sexual misconduct accusations have knocked prominent hosts Charlie Rose, Garrison Keillor, Tavis Smiley and Tom Ashbrook off the air, while two of NPR’s top news editors, Mike Oreskes and David Sweeney, have resigned.
Business-wise, things are humming along, as many stations hold year-end pledge drives.
“We have not had any negative feedback from listeners and no cancellations of membership due to the sexual misconduct accusations,” said Goli Sheikholeslami, chief executive of Chicago’s WBEZ, the station known for partnering with NPR on “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me.”
“For the year,” Sheikholeslami added, “we are actually up 7 percent, which is a great performance over a very strong year, last year.”
San Francisco’s public radio and TV outfit, KQED, has enjoyed a membership-revenue surge since opening the 2018 fiscal year in October, according to spokesman Peter Cavagnaro: up 25 percent compared with the same time in 2017.
At WHYY in Philadelphia, “year-end giving is right on track with previous years,” said Vice President Art Ellis. “We have not received any comments that would indicate the accusations are having an impact on giving.”
Michigan Radio “had a successful year-end fund drive this month, achieving our goals,” according to General Manager Steve Schram. “Our corporate support funding is also on target for its mid-fiscal-year performance. Similarly, our current grants have not been affected.”
“Thankfully, we have seen no direct impact so far,” said J.J. Yore, station manager at WAMU in Washington. “While many factors may impact the performance of year-end fundraising, we appreciate the ongoing support we receive from our listeners and are working hard to meet our largest-ever December campaign goal of $1.5 million. Support from corporate sponsors is at its highest level ever.”
One exception to business as usual: Minnesota Public Radio reported 153 membership cancellations in the 24 hours after the station and parent company American Public Media cut ties with Keillor, who hosted “The Writer’s Almanac” and previously hosted “A Prairie Home Companion.”
But disgruntled listeners interviewed by MPR and the Minneapolis Star Tribune seemed more upset by the station’s decision to abandon Keillor than by the charge of unspecified “inappropriate behavior.”
In any case, the cancellations represented a tiny fraction of the station’s 133,000-member base. MPR did not respond to a request for an up-to-date cancellation number.
Popular as national figures like Rose and Smiley are, their presence or absence does not dictate whether viewers will donate to their local PBS affiliates, said Bill Stotesbery, general manager of Austin PBS.
“We strongly believe that the trust PBS has built with its viewers and supporters is bigger than any one personality,” Stotesbery told me, “and this is especially true at the local station level.”
“We have not seen any deterioration in local support,” he added.
Rocky Mountain Public Media in Colorado is “outperforming against our typical fundraising goals,” said President Amanda Mountain.
One possible reason: Public broadcasters have been pretty unsparing in coverage of their own scandals — a painful approach that audiences seem to appreciate.
“I will say that when there is an issue like sexual harassment that is, and has been, such a pervasive aspect of our collective culture, our listeners and viewers expect us to do more than issue a blanket PR statement and wipe clean from our airwaves any trace of the alleged offenders,” Mountain said. “They expect us to use this opportunity — these breaches of our public media cultural values — to engage our community in civil discourse, when so much of the public conversation is boiling down a complex issue into a matter of black and white, which it simply is not in every case.
“So, that’s what we are doing, in order to maintain the public trust and their support.”