Public radio, TV station donors keep wallets open

The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore's public radio and television stations are seeing little drop-off in their fundraising efforts, suggesting that their audiences' hunger for news and information during this election year is making up for the country's uncertain economic climate.

Officials at both WYPR-FM (88.1) and WEAA-FM (88.9), which carried out fall pledge drives during the past week, reported totals that were roughly in line with last year's pledge drives, if not slightly over.

The total raised at WYPR, where the February firing of talk-show host Marc Steiner raised a firestorm of protest and threats from many listeners to stop contributing to the station, was up about $5,000, or about 2 percent.

"I think the numbers aren't down because we've got a lot of people listening, and a lot of them realize what the programming provides for them," WYPR program director Andy Bienstock said. "Even if they couldn't give as much as they had, they thought it was important to give something."

Although the average size of the pledge to WYPR was down, Bienstock said, the number of people pledging increased, more than making up the difference. This year's on-air pledge-drive total of $207,592 was nearly $5,000 more than last year's total. But the number of new contributors, or members, was more than 900 this year, compared with 530 in 2007. The number of pledges also climbed, from just under 1,600 last year to more than 2,100 this year, he said.

"The volume of calls was just simply terrific," said Bienstock, who admitted it "had entered my mind" that the recent economic downturn could have spelled trouble for the station.

WYPR's experience was typical of what has been happening throughout the country, said John Sutton, an Annapolis-based consultant on public radio fundraising.

"In difficult times, people count on the news that they get from public radio even more, and are willing to pay for it," he said. "We find that a lot of people are making their first-ever gifts, in the $50 to $75 range."

Recent fundraising results are in line with the historic model, said Boston-based fundraising consultant Jay Clayton.

"If you go back in history and look at the big news stories, like 9/11 and the first and second Iraqi wars, the Iran-contra hearings, people [go to] their public radio stations during these times," he said. "They translate that into the need to give."

At WEAA, a public radio station based at Morgan State University whose drive ended yesterday morning, the total going into the weekend was about where it was at the same point last year, station General Manager LaFontaine Oliver said. Final totals at WEAA could not be obtained yesterday.

Officials at Maryland Public Television, just coming off a weekend pledge drive that raised slightly more than $156,000, agreed that economic turmoil has, so far, had a negligible effect on their fundraising efforts. With one less day of on-air fundraising than at this time last year, the total pledged has risen by a little more than 2 percent, from $814,000 to $831,000, MPT Vice President Joe Krushinsky said.

Not all the local public radio stations are feeling their audience's largesse. WTMD-FM (89.7), which eschews news and information in favor of progressive music, saw the numbers for its recent pledge drive drop by 25 percent, from $110,000 to $78,000.

Clayton, the radio fundraising consultant, said he's seen no evidence that public radio stations with music programming are faring any worse than their more news-oriented counterparts. And WTMD's results may have been more because of rotten timing than anything else. Its drive ran Oct. 3-10, just when the economic news began turning really bad - the Dow Jones closed below 10,000 for the first time in four years on Oct. 6, plummeting by nearly 800 points before rebounding near the end of the day - and before the public had a chance to acclimate itself to whatever hard times lay ahead.

"Waking up on Monday morning to the beginning of this bad economic news was certainly ... unexpected," WTMD General Manager Steve Yasko said from the station on Towson University's campus. "I fully believe that folks will continue to support us in the future, once the uncertainty of all this has passed."

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