March 29, 2009 in Nation/World

NPR weighs holding rare on-air pledge drive

Paul Farhi Washington Post
 

WASHINGTON – Times have gotten so tough that National Public Radio is considering something it hasn’t done for a generation: a pledge drive.

With NPR facing a projected $8 million budget deficit and looming cutbacks, some of its most prominent program hosts are urging management to consider a direct, on-air appeal to NPR’s listeners – something that’s prohibited by the organization’s bylaws.

Longtime NPR personality Susan Stamberg and “All Things Considered” host Melissa Bloch raised the pledge drive idea recently with new NPR President Vivian Schiller in employee meetings held to discuss the deteriorating financial condition.

Stamberg said in an interview Friday that NPR raised $1 million during a weeklong series of appeals that she co-hosted in 1983, when it was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.

At the time, she pointed out, NPR was much smaller, with fewer member stations and a weekly audience that was one-quarter the size of its roughly 23 million listeners now.

“Think how much we’d be able to do now if we were doing something similar,” Stamberg said.

NPR has an annual operating budget of about $150 million and expects revenue to fall about $8 million short of that amount this year.

NPR’s member stations raise funds through semiannual pledge drives, but the nonprofit organization’s rules forbid “direct-marketing activities,” such as soliciting money during programs or through the mail.

The prohibition is designed to keep Washington-based NPR from competing with its 800 independently operated member stations for listeners’ contributions. In the NPR ecosystem, stations hold the pledge drives and then pay annual fees, or “dues,” to NPR for the right to carry such shows as “All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition.”

Stamberg said she has subsequently urged Schiller “not to take ‘no’ for an answer” from member-station managers, who control the majority of seats on NPR’s board.

Schiller was unavailable for comment. Another senior executive at NPR, Dana Davis Rehm, expressed guarded interest in the idea. “At this point, we’re happy to look at anything our staff or people want to put on the table,” Rehm said.

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