Las Vegas Sun

November 28, 2014

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Consider all things, stations ask

Once again, it's the season of the $120 coffee cup and the $250 messenger bag.

Nevada Public Radio is in the midst of one of its semiannual pledge drives, trying to raise $335,000 and enlist 1,000 new members. But the news-and-classical combo (KNPR 88.9-FM and KCNV 89.7-FM) has a perverse problem: a growing audience.

The more listeners a station has, the more National Public Radio charges for programming. Alas for KNPR and KCNV, public radio listeners don't usually start donating until after several years, meaning this year's 40,000 new listeners probably aren't chipping in. Right now, the stations have an audience of 155,000 - and only 7,000 pay.

"Basically, by listening, they're costing us money," says Lamar Marchese, the president and general manager of both stations.

The station is trying to raise $335,000, one of its highest targets ever.

The drive started last Wednesday and is supposed to last until this evening , but because the stations can't stop asking for money until they have enough to make it until the March pledge drive, the drive may go on for a couple of extra days. By midday Thursday, the stations had raised $255,000.

Melanie Cannon, the stations' development director, says that "not only am I optimistic, I'm prayerful" the drive could raise the remaining $80,000 by day's end. The drive, she says, has finally reached a tipping point where more new members are contributing than existing ones. Early on in drives, it's the most loyal listeners who donate, and they often donate more than once.

"During the pledge drive, they feel almost held hostage to the pledge drive," Cannon says.

And the thousands of non contributing listeners?

They ought to feel ashamed, she says. "They've got us tuned to No. 1 or No. 2 on their radio dial, and they're letting grandma on a fixed income make three pledges for them."

So the radio station takes to the air, carving out three hours a day between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m. to cajole and remind, in that peculiar milquetoastlike enforcer-of-decency voice public broadcasting has, that the radio shows are made possible by the support of listeners like you. (You like the fine programing, bub? That Lake Wobegon sure is nice. Lots of above average children. Hate to see anything happen to them. Maybe you ought to consider all things. And with your peace of mind, we'll throw in a license plate frame.)

One of the favorite tactics of announcers is to remind listeners of "driveway moments," times when they had parked but couldn't get out of the car until their program had finished. It may be a sign of the average age of public radio listeners that to them a "driveway moment" means a particularly engrossing "Fresh Air" segment instead of necking.

Nevada Public Radio's listeners resemble public radio listeners nationwide in that they're over 35, have household incomes greater than $75,000, are married, own their own homes and are registered to vote.

And overwhelmingly, they're educated - more than 80 percent of them have some college experience. That percentage is so high that while fewer than one in 10 Clark County residents listens to public radio, nearly one in three residents who have gone to college do.

Unfortunately for Nevada Public Radio, Clark County lags far behind the national average for college attendance. (Percentagewise, we're Kentucky bad, though thankfully not West Virginia bad.)

But the biggest drawback to public broadcasting in the valley is that the audience is constantly moving into it, out of it or around it. The shifting about means that many listeners are not around for the three to five years it will take them to donate, Cannon says, and those who do donate and stay in the area might outrun their membership renewals. Nevada Public Broadcasting has one of the lowest retention rates for first-year members of any public radio station in the country.

Another challenge Cannon points to is that we live in a city known not so much for philanthropy as for a love of comps.

"Public radio could be deemed the ultimate Las Vegas comp in that it's free. When you come in the door it's free, and when we ask you to give us money, we ask you to tell us how much you'll give," Cannon says. "It's like passing the hat."

Nevada Public Radio does have one other source of revenue it can increase, only it's a difficult one. It can sell a tightly regulated form of advertising. But, because the stations occupy a federally mandated noncommercial portion of the FM bandwidth, they cannot air brazen and lucrative advertisements.

Instead, the stations have 160 or so "underwriters," businesses that buy 15-second announcements limited to the business' name, a brief description of it and a way to contact it. (Disclosure: One of KNPR's underwriters is the Greenspun Media Group, the parent company of the Las Vegas Sun.) Because political ads are forbidden, public radio stations don't share in the election-year windfall. The priciest announcements, during the morning news programs, cost $75 each.

The ads make up maybe three to four minutes' worth of an hour's programing, compared with 10 to 15 minutes on most commercial stations. Nevada Public Radio makes $1.3 million a year from the ads and $1.8 million from pledges and fundraising events. The remainder of the $3.8 million budget comes from federal funding and tax breaks.

For a public radio station without the support of a major donor or philanthropic organization behind it, the quickest and surest way to raise money is by asking listeners for it.

"We don't have any fallback position to say, well, if we don't get it from the members, we can go get it out of my piggybank," Marchese says. "But there ain't no piggybank."

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