KQED Takes a Technological Step Toward Killing the On-Air Pledge Drive

If you’re a loyal public radio listener like me, you understand the special torture of pledge drive season. You grumble as your favorite shows get interrupted several times per hour by announcers pleading for your cash (the difficulty being that they may actually need it more than ever, if GOP efforts to strip NPR’s federal funding succeed). You change to another NPR station, only to find that the outlets have cleverly timed their pledge drives to coincide. What’s worse, the pain continues even after you’ve pledged, until the drive grinds to its scheduled end. In this world of on-demand everything, the fact that making a pledge doesn’t actually turn off the pledge drive seems like a persistent bug in an increasingly outdated operating system.

But KQED, San Francisco’s flagship NPR news station, is taking the first experimental step toward changing that situation. The station announced last week that if you contribute $45 before its spring pledge drive begins on May 5, you’ll get access to an exclusive pledge-free Internet stream with all of the station’s regular programming—plus some extra stuff to carry you blissfully through each hour, while on-air pledge breaks continue to plague regular listeners.

The pledge-free stream will be accessible on up to four devices per listener. People who donate $45 or more at the station’s website will get a unique password via e-mail, which they can enter into their browser when they visit KQED’s streaming site on their computer, smartphone, or tablet. The offer is only good for the May drive, and only for the first 5,000 donors who select it.

It’s believed to be the first time any U.S. public radio station has forked its product, offering one broadcast to people listening via terrestrial radio and another (better) one to paying, Internet-equipped listeners. In fact, KQED says it will muster two separate staffs of announcers and engineers to handle the dual streams.

Andrew Phelps at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard has called the move “an NPR listener’s dream come true,” which it is. But others are worried by the example KQED is setting. After all, most public radio stations already offer streaming Internet versions of their primary broadcasts. So the step from offering a temporary pledge-free stream to a new system of year-round “premium” public radio programming, available only to those with the means to pay, would seem to be a very small one.

“The incentive for the stations will be to gradually make the exclusive service more and more desirable than the free service, and the pledge periods longer and longer in order to get more people to buy in,” WBUR reporter Adam Ragusea complained to Phelps. “Then little by little, year by year, we will become a de facto subscription service, which is not what we’re supposed to be.”

I spoke today with Don Derheim, KQED’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, who says there are definite problems with the idea of a year-round premium stream. “The concept of a premium radio service that has the word ‘public’ in front of it does seem to conflict with our mission,” Derheim says. “It doesn’t really feel like something that is for all the people, and we are always intending to provide a universal service. That is the power of public radio.”

That’s part of the reason why KQED is starting out small with the pledge-free program, offering it only during the pledge period and limiting the stream to 5,000 listeners. “We have the technological ability to scale beyond that, but we intend to stick with that number this time around, just to really give this a good, hard shakeout,” Derheim says. “Also, it gives us the ability to really look at what happened and test our thesis.”

What is that thesis? It’s that, in Derheim’s words, “the radio listeners are going to get what they want.” Better to offer them a pledge-free stream, he says, than to drive them to the free (but less timely) podcast versions of NPR programming, or to lose them altogether during pledge season.

“Pledge is not most people’s favorite time of the year, and we’ve done things to make pledge more efficient, more fun, and more interesting, but the bottom line is that public radio listeners understand where the money comes from, so there is a tolerance for on-air fundraising,” Derheim says. “But there is this other group of people who stop tuning in until the pledge drive stops. We’re hoping this benefit of the pledge-free stream will keep some of these listeners and drive down the annoyance of on-air fundraising, without putting KQED at risk from a revenue standpoint.”

It’s too early to assess demand for the pledge-free stream. But Derheim says that the people signing up so far have been donating “well in excess of the $45, which really tells me that the community that supports KQED understands what is going on here.” If the alternative stream proves to be extremely popular, “it could be part of how we behave going forward,” he says.

Derheim says he’s both excited and nervous about the plan, and that many of his peers in the public radio world feel the same way.

“In some ways, we don’t have a choice but to continually look for new things that serve our market,” Derheim says. “When somebody slapped the first KQED logo on a coffee mug 25 years ago, that was a great evolutionary step in public radio pledge. Now we have moved on from there. This is an evolutionary step as well. The need for the public to support public radio is not going away—but how to serve the public during the on-air fundraisers, I think that is the discussion we are going to have to have.”

Eager for an East Coast point of view on KQED’s experiment, I contacted Jake Shapiro, CEO of the Cambridge, MA-based Public Radio Exchange, which runs a marketplace of public-radio programming for stations and is also the organization behind the mobile apps now offered by many public radio outlets. Shapiro says the public radio community has been discussing the idea of pledge-free Internet streaming for years, but that the first experiment couldn’t happen until enough people actually started getting their radio via Internet. “Now we’re at a reasonable tipping point of mobile/Internet listeners and devices/platforms,” he says.

Shapiro thinks the pledge-free drive “isa natural extension of the notion of a membership benefit and pledge premium.” The tension, he says, “is a philosophical one around public radio’s deep-rooted commitment to universal service, including a mission of reaching under-served audiences and addressing market failures in commercial media. Does paid access to a better listening experience further skew public radio to catering to those with means? This is already a sore point in a public radio system that primarily draws an educated and therefore more affluent audience.”

“Ultimately I don’t think a paid premium service as a primary delivery of public radio is a likely or desirable outcome—that’s XMSirius,” Shapiro continues. “The revolution is in rethinking the relationship so we’re not asking for support through the pain point of a pledge drive, but more in the pleasure of enjoying or being inspired and moved by stories you can’t get anywhere else.”

Judging from early reactions in the twittersphere, other public radio stations will come under swift pressure from their listeners to offer something like KQED’s pledge-free option. “I’ve been wishing for something like this from WNYC for ages,” tweeted John Borthwick, CEO of tech investing firm Betaworks New York. But of course, there’s one barrier left to overcome: few people can access Internet streams from their automobiles, where many commuters spend the most time with public radio. “Finally I can get rid of those stupid pledge drives,” tweeted one KQED fan. “Now if I can just get this in my car.”

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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5 responses to “KQED Takes a Technological Step Toward Killing the On-Air Pledge Drive”

  1. Eduardo says:

    One can already access the internet stream of out-of-region NPR stations that aren’t on the same cycle of pledge drives.

  2. Wade RoushWade Roush says:

    Eduardo: Quite true, and I’m sure some listeners do that. But I’ve noticed that increasingly, stations in different cities seem to be synchronizing their pledge cycles (perhaps for this exact reason). And you can’t get local news/weather/traffic from an out-of-region station. That’s one of the reasons the KQED initiative seems so clever.