Media Watch

KUT Needs a MySpace Page

KUT general manager Stewart Vanderwilt and marketing 
director Sylvia Carson say the public station needs new 
members, not just dollars.
KUT general manager Stewart Vanderwilt and marketing director Sylvia Carson say the public station needs new members, not just dollars. (Photo By John Anderson)

In a press release touting the success of KUT-FM's spring fundraiser, station General Manager Stewart Vanderwilt proudly told the story of a 7-year-old listener who "raised more than $300 from her lemonade stand." Well, that plucky little girl better get back to the street. Austin's largest public radio station is once again trying to pry a few more nickels from listeners with its first-ever summer fund drive, which will cover 12 hours next Thursday.

Actually, this time KUT management is not so interested in the 7-year-old lemonade pusher (who is apparently a huge fan of Car Talk). They want her friends. The new one-day "friendraiser" will target new members and returning members, addressing one of the nagging issues facing the public radio station – while the average individual donation is increasing, the number of donors is steadily decreasing.

This is a disturbing trend for stations around the country and something of a mystery for station fundraisers. For KUT, the issue is particularly vexing, since its listenership and revenue continue to grow, even as the number of donors shrinks. The spring drive raised $772,964, compared to $727,738 for the same event in 2006 – but the station received only 5,651 "gifts," compared to 5,915 the year before. Last fall's on-air campaign brought in 5,453 donations, compared to 6,335 in 2005.

"Success is not just dollars," said KUT director of marketing and development Sylvia Carson. "Success is also measured by the number of donors." Fundraisers know a small donor list suggests an elitist organization that is not serving the entire community, even if donations are up. "We don't want it to be an exclusive club," Carson said.

In general, public stations like to attribute the declining number of members to the economy and the competition among nonprofits for donations. (Darn those whiny cancer patients.) Loyal listeners move out of the area or just up and die, creating a natural attrition. But the fact that new members aren't stepping up to replace the old members – despite constant efforts to recruit new members – is troubling territory for stations like KUT, a Pandora's box that may say much more about the state of corporate public radio than about simple fundraising issues.

At the very least, it raises the possibility that a new generation of KUT listeners is not drinking the station's Kool-Aid and may, in fact, view the station as "an exclusive club." For example, Austin's minority communities could be a rich source of new donors if they believed KUT was really serving their interests. In similar fashion, a daily local public affairs show might garner support, but KUT management doesn't have the cojones to bump any of the popular NPR shows, a move that might hurt the ratings.

It is also possible that listeners are simply growing tired of KUT's relentless moneygrubbing, from ads urging you to donate your old car to spots offering a chance to get a head start on pledging, apparently under the assumption that listeners will shout "Yippee!" at the opportunity to send in their money early. Those undecided KUT listeners may wonder why they would send money to a noncommercial station that runs "underwriting announcements" that sound more and more like good ol' fashioned commercials.

Whatever the cause of the lack of donor growth, KUT management apparently believes the way to address the issue is with another fund drive. This, of course, ignores the likelihood that potential new donors may simply hate fund drives. At most stations, listenership drops during pledge drives, but station managers remain tethered to the on-air beg-a-thons like junkies unwilling to fight their addiction, even though it may ultimately damage their system.

Carson emphasized that KUT is devoting only 17 days to on-air fundraising this year, which is far less than similar public radio stations around the country. (Although that doesn't take into account the weeks of airtime devoted to promoting the pledge drives.) KUT hopes to attract 1,000 new members by the end of next week's 12-hour session, dangling the chance to win two VIP passes to the Austin City Limits Music Festival as an enticement for new pledges. Expanding the number of pledge drives is "not the plan," Carson said, although she acknowledges the station is toying with new approaches to attract new members, like the one-day blitz. "It's a test," she said. end story

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public radio, KUT, Stewart Vanderwilt, Sylvia Carson

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