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

4/26/11Follow @wroush

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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 … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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