We still need help, NPR tells its listeners

A huge gift to NPR may mean fewer donations for its member stations.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Los Angeles resident Oliver Kendall admits that he hasn't renewed his subscription to his local National Public Radio affiliate, KCRW. Although the medical student cites financial difficulties as an excuse for not contributing, the fact that he tuned out KCRW during its 10-day pledge drive last summer certainly didn't help. "I resent KCRW pledge drives and I avoid them at all cost," says Mr. Kendall.

So one can imagine the rejoicing of Kendall and other KCRW listeners when their hometown newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, declared that the "days when National Public Radio is forced to ask member stations to hold fundraising drives just so it can stay on the air are over."

In that Nov. 7 front-page article, the Times reported on the more than $200 million gift NPR would receive from the estate of the late Joan Kroc, widow of Ray Kroc, the founder of the McDonald's fast-food empire.

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But at least one public radio listener, KCRW's general manager Ruth Seymour, reacted differently. "I just about flipped," says Ms. Seymour, who remembers standing on a busy street corner in Manhattan when she read the Times story. "I was screaming into the telephone: 'You have to get me through to the editor!' "

The truth is that the Kroc gift will have no effect on the financial needs or the fundraising efforts of NPR's 750 member stations.

Instead of receiving financial support from NPR, these stations have to pay for NPR programming

In the case of KCRW, the cost is nearly $1.2 million a year. In addition, the stations are solely responsible for their own operating costs, which is the bulk of their yearly budget.

Also, since it takes about $800 million a year to run NPR and its member stations, the $200 million gift is "not the savior of public radio," says NPR spokeswoman Jessamyn Sarmiento.

The Times ran a correction and, a week later, a second piece that clarified the situation. However, the second piece was deep in the paper on page 12 - where it was likely to be viewed by many fewer potential donors.

But if the Kroc gift was able to confuse the Times, clearly much of the public had already been confused long before they read the story.

"No doubt we have a lot of ground to cover to inform the public about the differences between NPR and its member stations," says Ms. Sarmiento, "and where the money will go."

(The money will go entirely to NPR's endowment fund, which will yield about $10 million a year.)

But according to Bill Davis, president of Southern California Public Radio, damage was done to an already off-the-mark public perception.

"Clearly, a lot of people think that when they're sending their support to their public stations, they're writing a check to NPR," says Mr. Davis.

That was partly responsible, says Mr. Davis, for the poor pledge-drive performance of his KPCC station, which serves the large Los Angeles suburb of Pasadena. In December KPCC missed its $1.3 million goal by nearly 25 percent, the largest disappointment in the station's pledge-drive history.

Although he also blames technical difficulties that occurred during the 10-day drive, Davis says that, based on anecdotal feedback and calls from listeners, there is "no doubt in my mind" that the L.A. Times publicity hurt giving to the station.

"How much of that 25 percent can be attributed to the publicity surrounding the Kroc gift, I really can't say," he adds. "My gut instinct says it's probably about half."

As NPR affiliates head into their own fundraising drives in the coming months, station hosts are debating how to best treat the Kroc publicity during this economic downturn when many listeners are already looking for reasons to do less giving.

KCRW's Ms. Seymour predicts the gift will have "no effect" on KCRW's upcoming drive, starting on Jan. 29, because of the station's core group of "loyal and very informed" listeners.

But Laura Walker, president of New York City's WNYC, thinks the station will see an interesting winter drive on Feb. 20.

"I imagine we'll get some questions why we need to pay NPR $2 million a year," says Ms. Walker, whose station pays the largest dues of any NPR affiliate. "I anticipate that many of our donors and members will be confused, thinking that we received that money."

But a generous gift is not always a disincentive to other potential donors. Sometimes, say some fundraisers, it can instead inspire others to do the same.

Since Ms. Kroc lived in San Diego and was a local subscriber, the city's KPBS, which includes a television division, received its own funds from the Kroc estate ($5 million).

Although such a large amount going directly to a station might be expected to hurt its fundraising, general manager Doug Myrland says listeners and television viewers might instead see the gift as a huge endorsement, one that will only spur more financial support.

"That's certainly been our experience locally," says Mr. Myrland.

Although KPBS won't hold its next radio pledge drive until Feb. 6, he notes that the station's 17-day television pledge drive last month exceeded its goal by more than 10 percent.

"The gift enables people to understand that we're worthy of significant gifts," says Myrland.

But the average listener doesn't give "significant gifts," and that's why Mr. Kendall finds Myrland's logic a little fuzzy.

"I don't think listeners will give more money because a corporation or an estate has given them millions - that's ridiculous," he says. "I think most listeners will take the opportunity to give less, and maybe use the money differently this year."

Still, Davis says he had great success in the final days of KPCC's drive when the station altered its pitch.

"Then we started saying, 'Mrs. Kroc made an extraordinary gift to NPR, but she also recognized that the gift would not benefit her local station in San Diego. So she made a generous gift to her local station as well. And therefore, let Mrs. Kroc's generosity to her local station inform your support of KPCC.' "

It wasn't enough to raise KPCC to its goal, "but our last-day syndrome was huge," says Davis.

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