Marketplace Scratch Pad

Commercial radio doing the NPR thing

Scott Jagow Apr 20, 2009

For-profit radio stations have started asking their listeners for donations to make up for lost ad revenue. Even the national network, Air America, is considering “pitching” for money, according to the Wall Street Journal.

From the Journal:

Air America, formerly radio home to comedian and disputed Minnesota Senate-contest winner Al Franken, says it is weighing a fee-based membership program, even though it is on the path to profitability (after a bankruptcy 3 years ago). “Air America has a very passionate audience,” says Chief Executive Bennett Zier. “They want to get more involved.” Mr. Zier says the company would never represent itself as a nonprofit.

But non-profit NPR is skeptical:

NPR isn’t pleased about the new competition. “There’s plenty of opportunity for confusion,” says spokeswoman Dana Rehm, who fears the “audience may not discern the differences between public and for-profit operations.”

Maybe she should say non-profit vs for-profit. Public radio is a misnomer. There is very little government funding for “public” radio anymore. The model now is listener donations plus corporate underwriting.

I think most people know the difference between public radio and commercial radio. The commercials with their sound effects and booming voices are kind of a giveaway. Corporate underwriting announcements on public radio aren’t “commercials” – there are guidelines to follow – but I will admit they do sometimes creep into “ad” territory. And the Journal points out that NPR is trying to recruit more people with an ad-sales background to lure corporate sponsors.

We just seem to be in an age of blurring public and private lines. It was a positive development many years ago when NPR and its stations became much less reliant on government funding. I can’t really say commercial radio stations begging for money is a positive development, but I think public radio could use this to its advantage.

My on-air pitch might be:

Escaping to commercial radio during the pledge drive is no longer an option! The commercial stations are begging for money, too. So, not only do they have those long, annoying commercial blocks. They’re doing fund drives!

Oh, and the programming isn’t as good either.

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