It’s that time of year again. The leaves are changing colors, there is a bite in the air, and public radio stations around the country are holding their year-end pledge drives. Local and national public radio personalities implore us to cut checks to support the programming and help balance the budget. They dangle coffee mugs, tote bags, and Ira Glass CDs in front of us.
Sometimes I grow impatient and change the channel. Sometimes I find myself wishing there was a secret code those of us who pledge could punch in to our radios and access a pledge-drive-free stream. Sometimes I grow weary of the same talking points and pre-recorded clips playing over and over again.
Let’s admit it. The pledge drive is easy to hate. But nonetheless I kind of love it. Here’s why:
1) Sometimes it’s good to brag
A local public radio reporter once told me she thought that journalism in America would be in a much different place if newspapers had to answer to the local community instead of absentee shareholders. A few times a year public media takes a step back from doing the hard work of journalism and spends time each day talking about why their work is important. They talk about providing the kind of journalism that commercial media has nearly abandoned. They remind us about the local stories they have covered. They reflect on their own track record and impact. They make the case as to why they are relevant and still important in our lives. While to some this may sound like bragging or pleading, I think it’s actually vital for public institutions of all kinds to remind citizens of the work they do, or else they are simply taken for granted.
2) Couldn’t do it without you
When pledge drives are done well, they do not only remind us of why we depend on public media, but also acknowledge they ways in which public media relies on us. Pledge drives are a reminder that we are the stakeholders in this medium, that we have a role to play.
3) Community voice
My local public radio station spends a lot of time playing clips from local people, businesses and organizations talking about why they donated to the station. I enjoy hearing the diverse voices of my community and appreciate the wide array of reasons why people support public media. Scholars like Benedict Anderson and Robert Putnam have written about how the shared experience of reading a local newspaper helped constitute local communities. It gave people shared cultural reference points, and a common language to discuss and understand pressing local issues (its worth acknowledging that this was not seen as a universally good thing always). As information and how we access it has atomized, some have wondered how people’s understanding of community, their connection to their neighbors, will change. I find that listening to the voices of my neighbors on local noncommercial stations (both NPR affiliates and others) helps build that sense of a network and a community.
4) Feels good to give
When I was first getting into nonprofit fundraising someone told me, “Remember, people like to support things they care about.” It’s true. For all its quirks (and even its serious challenges) I’m a huge believer in public media. However, even though I’m a fan, I don’t think to whip out my wallet every time I hear a great story. Even I need a little prodding. When I do decide to give – sometimes once a year, sometimes more – I am grateful for the chance to put my money where my mouth is. There are few things better than contributing – time, money, expertise, service, whatever – to something you believe in.
5) It’s a call to action
Finally, pledge drives are a constant reminder of our responsibility, not just to kick in to support our local station, but also to be advocates for public media. This is especially true this year, as Fox news has launched a parallel campaign – complete with hourly updates and video ambushes of NPR’s CEO – to defund public media just as local stations are reaching out to their communities. Right now, public media needs community funders, but it also needs community organizers.
Our national investment in this vital communications infrastructure is shameful. In the most recent round of appropriations the Corporation for Public Broadcasting got a paltry $1.43 per capita in tax payer funds. Canada spends $28 per person, Finland spends over $100 per person. Our public media system does some incredible work with their limited budgets, but they could be doing more, and so could we.
Get out there next week and vote for candidates that support public media and understand the importance of expanding it.*
And stand up for public media. Speak out about why you care, tell your friends, call your lawmakers.
*The opinions in this post are my own and don’t represent my employer, Free Press, who is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization and does not endorse or oppose any candidate for public office.