Public radio

Almost everyone who listens to public radio is guilty. We take it for granted that NPR will always be there.

Could you even imagine life without WNCW and WCQS? Pretend you’re zooming around in your car doing errands, or rushing home from work. As you reach over to activate the airwaves for your daily dose of news and tunes, you notice that the low end of the radio spectrum is silent. Twist as you may, you just can’t conjure up 88.1 or 88.7.

In a flash, your mood changes. All Things Considered, Afropop, Celtic Winds — gone. Life as we know it suddenly goes flat.

Now I admit that’s a worst-case scenario. But in the delicate world of public-radio funding, it’s also a distinct possibility.

The “public” in National Public Radio means just that: If you want to listen, you have to pay. For the uninitiated, WNCW (88.7) — licensed through the North Carolina University system — offers the best in live and recorded Americana radio (texturized with a strong program of “world” music offerings), while independent WCQS (88.1) bills itself as the place to be for “news, classical music and more.” (While their demographics are different, both stations offer the news programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered.)

“This is programming worth paying for, and we never apologize for asking people to pay for what they use,” WQCS Program Director Barbara Sayer states firmly.

That’s right. Those jarring pledge breaks that interrupt public radio’s seamless flow with history-laden commentary and no-holds-barred pleading are not staged just to annoy you. These on-air beg-a-thons, as insiders so lovingly refer to them, are how public radio survives. The broadcasting world is fully cognizant that their listeners find the intrusions distasteful at best, but it must be pointed out that the fund drives raise 60 percent of the annual operating costs for most stations.

“Unless you did a cold mailing, there’s no better way to find new contributors,” continues Sayer, adding, “It’s not like the meter runs out and you can run over to put another quarter in your radio.” So until someone in radioland comes up with a money-making equivalent, count on these verbal crusades to continue.

Beginning on March 31, WNCW and WCQS will again take to the airwaves to ask for your donations — money which, to them, is tantamount to the blood coursing through your veins. All employees are conscripted to hustle nonstop for the duration, and, barring death, it’s all hands on deck.

Starting at 6 a.m. each day, for seven days, the on-air staff will take turns pitching until late into the night. Administrators will process thousands of incoming pledges as fast as they can without keeling over from exhaustion, and on-the-spot computer training will take place in marathon central’s vibrant core. Toward the middle of the week, staff members might slip into zombie mode, fueled by a combo of too much caffeine and adrenaline. Nevertheless, they’ll no doubt somehow manage to remain genuinely gracious throughout the campaign.

If stations expect to meet their goals, preparations must begin six months out. Reminders are sent to lapsed members, and the logo T-shirts must be designed and ordered. WNCW’s thank-you CD, now in its fourth edition and available only in the fall, gets mixed down and pressed. And development staff at both stations fly into an organizational frenzy, to schedule the 100 or so phone volunteers required to pull off an event of this magnitude.

In the grand tradition of public broadcasting, faithful volunteers don’t expect wages — but do require treats for their toil. Everything from Krispy Kreme for breakfast to a sit-down dinner at the Golden Horn Restaurant entices the community to pitch in. And all meals are provided gratis.

According to WNCW Station Manager DeLane Davis, that station raised a whopping $220,000 last fall — their biggest haul ever.

Yet the cash came from only 10 percent of the 120,000 listeners who tune in every week. And WCQS’s numbers strongly parallel that 10-percent figure: Of their 40,000 weekly listeners, exactly 4,066 gave donations in1999.

Moreover, this statistical average has remained constant for the past 15 years — for some unknown reason, public radio just can’t seem to break through that invisible ceiling.

“Last year, we got $144,000 from the North Carolina General Assembly and received a $103,000 stipend from CPB,” says Davis. “But our budget runs right at a million dollars. Underwriters can go bankrupt, national programs can fall through.

“I always keep extra money in an interest-bearing account,” he reveals.

A couple of years ago, a scary movement was afoot on Capitol Hill, spearheaded by the bulbous Newt Gingrich — who tried to dismantle the 33-year-old Corporation for Public Broadcasting. If his evil plan had borne fruit, many public-radio frequencies would have permanently vanished. Luckily, Congress defeated the legislation.

And for those who’ve been dwelling happily under a rock for the past few weeks, you might have missed hearing that — out of 95 reporting stations — the national Gavin Report awarded WNCW the title of Best Americana Station of the Year, for the second year running. Does winning the Gavin Award promote additional giving?

“Definitely yes. National acknowledgment gets us stronger industry support, and the labels send more CDs. That way, we capture more listeners,” says Davis.

So when the volume suddenly surges under your favorite honey-voiced personalities, know that they are as serious as triple-bypass surgery when they start trolling for dollars. Although the coffers aren’t empty, replenishing them is crucial. So listen up, all you radiophiles, and mull over these facts the next time Armando Bellmas or Chip Kaufmann comes a-begging: If you resonate with the thinly veiled guilt trips they’ll be laying on you, maybe it’s because you are part of the 90 percent who say, “Hey, someone else will make that call.”

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