In the Loop

Many paths to your wallet: NPR contemplates its own fund drive

Posted at 11:22 AM on March 30, 2009 by Jeff Horwich (3 Comments)

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The folks at National Public Radio must be just glowing with love for the Washington Post this morning. Or maybe they meant for the idea to leak out in this kind of half-formed way...

According to the WashPost, times are tight enough that NPR is contemplating something it last tried 25 years ago: Holding its own on-air fundraiser to ask listeners for money. Such money would be sent directly to NPR, rather than taking its usual path through the hundreds of local and regional stations and networks (like MPR, of course) that provide the broadcast outlet for NPR content.

It hardly sounds like it's green-lighted -- more like it's being speculated about internally. Plus there's the thorny fact that NPR seems to be forbidden by its own bylaws from doing such a thing--presumably because many stations would go ballistic.

NPR execs contacted by the Post floated a compromise notion of working with stations to hold a special fund drive specifically for NPR. NPR President Vivian Schiller also told the industry paper Current last week that there are plans in-the-making for an online fundraiser for NPR an online fundraiser at with all proceeds to benefit stations. **See update below.

I'm not sure how much joy either idea stokes in the member stations themselves; either way, it's a competing play for the dollars of the same audience (for the most part, though NPR may generate a modest organic audience online).

Of course, much of the money from station fund drives already goes to NPR in the form of payments for its shows. But more listeners every day are learning the technical tools to bypass their local stations and get NPR content when and where they want it. Plus NPR has also put serious $$ and promotional muscle into efforts like and PlanetMoney that never really touch the airwaves of your local NPR affiliate.

As you diehards might recall, new president Schiller got her job after station backlash over NPR's go-it-alone digital initiatives forced out former President Ken Stern. But at first blush, this doesn't feel like the kind of "station-sensitive" thinking the stations probably had in mind.

**UPDATE 3/31: NPR clarified below, in a comment, that the "online fundraiser" would benefit stations, not NPR directly. Boo-hiss to my hasty reading of the Current article.

But that idea of an online fundraiser, then, turns out to be kind of a red-herring in the debate about whether NPR can and should raise money for itself.

Oddly, it seems to me that online is one place NPR could certainly make a case for raising money under its own banner. An online fundraiser for stations feels like kind of an awkward fit: Raising money for stations in the very place where people go to bypass stations? What a wonderful way to remind people that they don't need to tune into their stations any more.

Comments (3)

If NPR does its own fund drive and people begin giving to NPR over their local station through on air fund drives, where will NPR content be aired? If NPR wants to run a fund drive on podcast only content, that isn't aired on member stations, that is one thing, and a good idea. To invade individual station member drives is a whole different animal altogether.

Ira Glass tells us to support WBEZ all the time on This American Life's podcast, and on their website. What he does not do, is butt in on MPR's member drive and tell us to call Chicago Public Radio and pledge to WBEZ (or PRI) instead of MPR. I don't see why NPR should be any different.

Stations should go ballistic if NPR decides to do this.

Posted by Greg | March 30, 2009 1:26 PM

There is a major inaccuracy in your blog post that I’d like to correct.

You write that Vivian Schiller “told the industry paper Current last week that there are also plans in-the-making for an online fundraiser for NPR.” Current actually reported that “NPR is moving forward with a different plan to appeal for listener support, Schiller said. will introduce online giving, hopefully by this summer, with all the proceeds going to stations.”

By way of background, here is text from Vivian Schiller’s note to station managers, sent on Saturday, March 28, following the misleading Washington Post article:

“We did not plant this story. We did not want this story. And we have no plans whatsoever to launch a national giving campaign on behalf of NPR. On the contrary, we recognize that many of you are suffering your own deep economic hardship which is why we’re working on several fronts to bring more money to YOU thru online fundraising on, a supplemental spending request to Congress and in other ways.

A couple of stations have reached out to ask how they can help – via fundraising in their community or otherwise. While I’m deeply appreciative and welcome any support they choose to give us, I’m not expecting the station community to solve NPR’s deficit in this manner. The best thing you can do for NPR is to keep your station economy healthy so you can continue to run our programming alongside your own....”

Posted by Dana Davis Rehm | March 30, 2009 2:23 PM

Very glad for NPR comment (and correction, which has been incorporated).

Given NPR's internal and external denials of this idea, following the Washington Post article, I wonder how the last few days have been for Susan Stamberg (who floated the idea in a meeting and then did an interview with the Washington Post suggesting it might be a good idea)?

Posted by Jeff Horwich | March 31, 2009 9:57 AM

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