The Thinker

Public Radio: The Agony and the Ecstasy

I am a big fan of public radio. With rare exceptions, I do not listen to anything else on the radio. Perhaps if I subscribed to Sirius or XM satellite radio I would stop listening to public radio. On the other hand, perhaps not. All I know is that I consider public radio, and NPR in particular, to be a national treasure. Which is why I want to chew nails every time the local public radio stations, as they did last week, host yet another membership week.

Seriously, we loathe them. Heck, even public radio stations hate membership week. That is why increasingly stations like WAMU-FM here in Washington D.C. try to bribe us listeners into shortening membership week. For a few weeks before membership week officially starts they try to get us to send them money. If they get enough, they will take one day off the campaign. Yes. Anything but that. Anything but one more day of their grating and near constant grubbing for money.

Yes, it is sadly necessary, but is undignified. Our Congress can give obscene and duplicative payments to farmers, but just spare change to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Enduring public radio’s membership week is like watching a classy dame who goes regularly to the opera and shops at Neiman Marcus spending four weeks a year hanging out on street corners and hiking her skirt for strangers. It is not pretty and it is in fact just plain revolting. Just as you do not want to watch a car wreck, you do not want to listen to public radio during membership week. Really, I would rather have my fingernails slowly pulled out one by one.

At least with commercial radio you know what to expect: fifteen or twenty minutes of annoying commercials every hour. The master of it locally is WTOP, our local all news and traffic station. The proportion of commercials to content is so high you would think the volume of commercials on the station would be unlawful.

For 11 out of 12 months a year, public radio is a welcome respite from our overly commercialized world. Not that outside of membership weeks it is completely commercial free. Virtually every show is sponsored by some well moneyed commercial or non-profit organization that is anxious to tell you what they are up to and to give you their website address. Some TV shows, like The News Hour on PBS almost might as well be commercial TV, with the lengthy “sponsored by” messages that are (hate to break it to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting) just shameless commercials.

Clearly, all that corporate and non-profit cash is not enough. That is why the announcer usually informs us that most shows on public radio and TV are also sponsored “by viewers like you”. That is nice to know. Viewers like me who appreciate public radio and TV contribute most of the funds necessary to keep them on the air. I know I do my part. I give my local public radio stations a healthy chunk of change every two weeks through the Combined Federal Campaign.

So since I am giving regularly, can you please cancel membership week? For that matter, will WETA stop sending me regular (as in once a month) junk mail soliciting further contributions? Yeah, I know I am on their mailing list because I made the mistake of just once contributing during membership week. Now they will not let me go. I am constantly badgered for more money. I have tried to tell them that I am sending them money via other means anyhow, but they never listen. They are like the doe-eyed orphan Oliver Twist asking Mr. Bumble, “Please sir, can I have some more?”

For the record, I certainly do not want public radio to go out of business. I make sure I send them money regularly to keep them in business. I depend on shows like All Things Considered and Morning Edition for my news fix. WAMU-FM in particular has just the right mixture of other public radio programming that keeps me tuning in for more. I need this refuge of commercial-free sanity on the airwaves to keep my psychic lid from popping. In my mind, public radio models what I want my country to be but simply is not. The announcers are scrupulously nonpartisan. They can discuss President Bush’s latest incoherent ramblings without even a hint of bias creeping into their voices. While I am sure I will get disagreement, I feel that on balance public radio shows are fair to both sides, as well as to the middle. Everyone is so thoughtful and civilized.

Until membership week. Then public radio becomes a bad carnie sideshow. It is amazing that public radio gets as much money as they do during membership week because public radio announcers are so excruciatingly bad at selling public radio. It is not that they do not have a valuable product. So many public radio listeners like me would not be listening to them if they did not. Their product is unique and singular. They just cannot sound convincing asking for money. The more they grub thank you products for $50, $100 and $200 contributions the less convincing they become. Besides, we know it is an important service and do not need further convincing. From the tone of their voice, it sure sounds like they too would prefer having their fingernails slowly pulled out rather than have to suffer through another membership week. This is to let you know that we here in the public suffer with you.

For me, membership week means tuning in for just the news or turning off the radio. Thankfully, in the Washington area, there is one final place of refuge on the FM dial when all else fails. It is WCSP, C-SPAN’s completely commercial-free public affairs radio station. (For those of you who live far from Washington D.C., you can always listen to it online.) Granted, spending your Saturday afternoon listening to archival recordings of the Lyndon Johnson tapes, or hearing the late Hubert Humphrey ramble about his life, may not be your cup of tea. Fortunately, its political content is usually more timely than these examples. However, at least in my area, its signal strength is low, so tuning it in can at times be hit or miss.

Membership week is beneath public radio. I think what public radio needs is a sufficiently well moneyed foundation. Perhaps Bill Gates, with all his billions, could put us public radio listeners out of our misery and fund an endowment for public radio. Then it would never be necessary again for a public radio or TV station to grub for money or have to find sponsors again.

And while I’m at it, I’d like pony.


One Response to “Public Radio: The Agony and the Ecstasy”

  1. 11:48 am on November 1 2007, fwinoker said:

    Public radio gets between 20-25% of their funding from viewers. The problem is most are matching funds, making the “pledge drive” nesseccery. Too bad most can’t pay their staff enough to live on. Most seem to have 2nd jobs, or spouses with earning power suffecient to allow them thier hobby. (working in public radio)

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