How Public Radio can make more $$

Yesterday I got a note from a friend who works in Public Radio, a real maverick whom I respect a lot.

Among other things he was reacting to a piece in a non-Radio blog about how wrong-headed some Public Radio fundraising is. Knowing what Public Radio is doing wrong “is a common affliction among those who have not actually tried to raise money for things that they give away,” he noted, with some justification and plenty of hard-earned experience.

It has been a long time since anybody asked my opinion of what Public Radio should and shouldn’t do, and since nobody’s asking now, please take this for what it’s worth. Sometimes, after all, the best ideas come from somebody else’s box.

If the Public Radio challenge is to solicit money for something they give away for free, then I see at least two issues they haven’t considered nearly enough:

1. You can’t cultivate funds unless you cultivate fans

Listeners don’t pay for free programming. Fans do. The math is simple: More fans mean more revenue. Instead of simply sweating how to milk the tired old cow, Public Radio programs need to cultivate some fresh new cows.

New fans come because the programming is more suited to their tastes. Marginal listeners become regular listeners became fans become subscribers. But only if the programming targets the broadest possible tastes. You can talk fundraising strategies all you want, but the proverbial rising tide of listener satisfaction will float all funding boats. Fundraising becomes much easier when fans give enthusiastically rather than to seek relief from what amounts to audio panhandling.

This gets to my original complaint about some Public Radio programming: Its natural emphasis on a million niches rather than a handful of coherent wholes. “Public Radio” is not a brand per se, but any given station is. And that station must answer the following questions:

A. What do we stand for? B. What’s the one thing we do better than any other station? C. Are we doing that one thing consistently? Are we giving listeners what they most expect?

2. Instead of fundraising by providing a “bonus at the $100 level” why not take something away from folks who don’t pay?

For example, Fast Company magazine is there online for free. BUT…the newest issue won’t be available online until the PAYING customers have had first dibs. Only the old stuff is free, not the fresh stuff. Freebie-hunters have the new stuff “taken away.”

Another example: Rush Limbaugh makes much of his “Rush 24/7.” For $7.00 per month you get all kinds of benefits exclusive to members. These are elements “taken away” from Rush listeners who don’t choose to PAY for what is otherwise FREE. Benefits include, for example, exclusive archives, articles, screensaver, streaming, etc., etc. Let’s see: $7/month x 12 = $84. Not a bad chunk of change. And no “bonus” coffee mugs or t-shirts were sacrificed to the bribery Gods.

Another benefit of this approach: You’re giving listeners more of what they go to the show for in the first place. You’re giving them exclusive access and, in some cases, FIRST access. You’re increasing and rewarding involvement, which will not only pay off at the cash register, it’ll pay off in the ratings.

All of this is a no-brainer. And it sure beats the latest, greatest fundraising scheme.

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