Question of the Day: Should I Feel Guilty About Not Supporting Public Radio?

We recently ran a listener survey for Freakonomics Radio. Among the interesting findings: only (or should that be “only”?) 18 percent of the respondents are members of a public-radio station. A reader named Steve Cebalt wrote in to ask about the nature of public-radio membership:

So it’s pledge week at my local public radio station, when they interrupt my favorite news programs with appeals for money. Funny, I used to be on the board of directors of this station, so I have a great appreciation for it.

But I am not a member. I don’t pay. I am supposed to feel guilty, but I don’t. You know why? 

Because I am not really causing a negative externality on others — am I ?

Whether I listen or not, they’ll still broadcast right? And others contribute freely of their own volition. So is anyone harmed if I listen (or don’t listen) without donating?

I’d love to see your blog readers rip into this question from a Freakonomics perspective: 

So go ahead, people. Rip. Remember everything you’ve ever thought about free-ridership,  slippery slopes, and critical mass on issues like voting.

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  1. Ben says:

    He has a good point, I think.
    Radio is being broadcast whether you listen, or don’t, support, or don’t.
    If there are 10 listeners and 1 donates, it’s no different than if there are 1200 listeners with 1 donor.
    The incentive is only there if you actively want to continue listening.
    I don’t think you have the right to complain if you aren’t a donor, though.

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    • Andrew says:

      If it is a podcast, that is not true. More listeners = larger amount of bandwidth that the program has to pay for.

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      • Chris says:

        Distribution can be largely free for a (popular) podcast. The BitTorrent protocol could be used to eliminate most of the hosting cost. It may be unpopular at the moment, but the benefits could be substantial.

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    • nobody.really says:

      Not only do non-members NOT impose a cost on others, they actually provide a benefit.

      1. The people who created and maintain public radio WANT people to listen and become better informed (or, if you’re cynical, to become indoctrinated in the same manner that the people who create and maintain public radio are). By listening, you’re granting their wish.

      2. Public radio sells advertising, called “sponsorships.” Those sponsors are impressed by the fact that public radio attracts so many listeners (and by the demographics of those listeners). By listening, you’re making sponsors more willing to underwrite the shows.

      True, if you become a member you provide MORE benefit to the people who created/maintain public radio. But if you can’t afford to contribute $$ right now, DON’T use that as a reason to stop listening; whatever problem you think your “free rider” status is causing is merely compounded if you drop out.

      And beside, there aren’t many episodes of Car Talk left.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 42 Thumb down 1
      • kane2742 says:

        Another benefit: If you like the show, you might tell other people about it and get them to listen. They benefit the show through all the ways mentioned so far, and some of them might also be inclined to donate.

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      • Jake says:

        Unfortunately there aren’t any episodes of car talk left. What you hear is spliced together repeats of past shows. They retired near the end of last year.

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  2. hmt says:

    Should you feel “guilty?” I can’t answer that one. I’ll offer up a few random thoughts.

    How should you approach where your money goes? Like all economic decisions, you should pay what you think it’s worth.

    If you don’t pay your resource could go away. Probably not likely in the case of public radio but the possibility is there. Or the quality could decrease below what you expect.

    Do you tip? why? You’re not required to. Others will tip the server (hopefully)

    Where I live there is a game store (board games, miniature games, not video games). A portion of the store is set aside with tables so you can play games. No charge or purchase required. I buy games from this store even though I can find the same games online at a discount. Why? Because I want this store to continue to exist. Without it there is no easily accessible common gathering place to play games.

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    • Seminymous Coward says:

      “Like all economic decisions, you should pay what you think it’s worth.”

      While I occasionally follow that principle, it’s out of a sense of charity or a desire to support a niche I favor (including that same FLGS one, actually). I would never feel guilty about not doing so, though, as I have no duty to support others’ business endeavors; it’s purely supererogatory.

      More importantly, I would never apply that reasoning to a generic commercial grocery or clothing store. No matter how nice the apple or shirt I would not pay more than they ask. Taking advantage of consumer surplus violates no economic principle of which I am aware.

      Also, a (US-style) tip is distinguished easily as payment under an informal, social “contract” for services.

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    • nobody.really says:

      “Like all economic decisions, you should pay what you think it’s worth.”

      As an aside: Classical economic theory says that we generally do NOT pay what we think something is worth.

      Remember the supply and demand curves? The demand curve reflects the quantity of widgets demanded at any given price. The supply curve reflects the number of widgets produced at any given price. The point where the lines cross reflects the point at which the buyer’s and seller’s evaluation of the widget matches. Arguably, the MARGINAL buyer is paying what the widget is worth TO HIM — which is equal to what the widget is worth to the MARGINAL seller. They are each indifferent to whether the transaction occurs or not.

      Given that result, what good is trade?

      To answer that, we look to all the OTHER buyers and sellers. Each of the buyers to the left of the intersection is someone who would have been happy to pay more for the widget than the market-clearling price. In other words, these buyers are paying LESS than they think the widget is worth. And there are more of these buyers than there are of the marginal buyers.

      In short, classical theory suggests that most of the time we’re paying less than we would be willing to pay for any given good/service. (And similarly, most of the time the seller is receiving more than the seller would have been willing to accept for that good/service. That’s what causes consumer and producer surplusses.)

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    • Mike says:

      I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with your FLGS example. You buy games at the FLGS because you like them and want to support them with your dollars even though there are cheaper alternatives.

      I would expect this positive affinity-based incentive to be much more powerful in driving support, than support based on “feeling guilty for not paying someone for something you never asked them to do in the first place”.

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  3. Mikemenn says:

    I feel the exact same way. In fact, I like this approach to the free market. NPR puts out a product. They ask the public to pony up to pay for it. If it’s good programming, they good money, if not, they go under.

    … except they get some of my tax dollars. Granted, it is a very small amount and would in no way float their business. But still, we DO pay some already and so I in no way feel guilty about not donating. (Plus, I don’t listen much. I listen only on weekends and get no enjoyment out of classical music.)

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    • mikemenn says:

      (I always see my typos after I click the POST button. Sorry.)

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    • Mark says:

      So you figure your $1.61 is a fair amount to pay? ($506M/314M)

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      • Bill McGonigle says:

        Aye, there’s the rub. If I do a random survey of my friends who actually think about things like where public radio funding comes from, at least half of them think that they’re already paying for public radio, so they don’t need to give more. Another handful won’t give on principle because they’re government funded. But when I look at the local station’s annual report, the government funding makes up about 10% of their budget and membership support is about 40%. But you want to see a Public Radio exec’s skin crawl? Suggest that if they give up their government funding (10%) that their total revenues would markedly exceed present-day 100% because of the folks who would want to be new donors. They’d be more receptive to having the local prostitutes throw a benefit night.

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  4. Seminymous Coward says:

    I feel no more compelled to donate to public radio than commercial radio. Their funding model is their decision, and it can’t impose an obligation on me. This is especially true since broadcast media are sent to everyone regardless of their wishes; I didn’t sign up for NPR any more than the local Clear Channel stations.

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  5. David Dupont says:

    My wife & I have donated to one NPR station or another for more than 30 years. As soon really as in our post-college days we had access to a station — yes, I recall a time when that wasn’t a given. As we’ve moved from locale to locale we’ve always joined fairly soon, even if it was at the minimal intro level. Currently we listen to two stations. For awhile we split our contribution but not equally. My wife decided because one had a demonstrably stronger membership base in numbers & wealth we’d shift everything over to the other, more local station, which is a classical music station. (The other is all talk.) So we both are devoted, & generous members & freeloaders at the same time. Now recently the classical station was fundraising & we just listened to the talk station all the time, & I didn’t feel as guilty as part of me thought I should. Still I’m aware that the classical station (which unlike the oher is a joint operation with a public TV station) is struggling. I know it could go out, & I wonder: Would we be better off because then the talk station may very well take over its transmitters & expand its coverage. I’d probably still give because I know what it’s like not to have it. And there’s also an element of social association. Still, not sure I’d give as much.

    Interestingly the classical; music station has also launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to bring an electronic music show back. Could this be a harbinger for funding?

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  6. Erik Jensen says:

    No, you should not feel guilty. There are a virtually limitless number of worthy causes you can support with time and money; you shouldn’t feel guilty unless you are lazy and stingy in the general sense.

    As for me, I do a few hours of volunteer work a week and donate a certain percentage of my income to a few charities and political causes which I have made a priority. I ignore pleas from public radio (which I like), I do almost nothing for my neighborhood association (which does great things), and I’m a terrible member of a church (which has awesome people). I have zero guilt for any of this.

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  7. Eric M. Jones says:

    1) I quit donating the day I discovered how much the bigwigs received in “compensation”.

    2) I am convinced that ‘charity’ is the most dishonest way to fund an enterprise. Would there be any blood shortage if they actually paid donors?

    3) The NPR stations I listened to seemed extremely anti-Palestinian/pro-Israeli.

    4) Listen to the BBC to hear what real honest reporting is.

    5) Tom and Ray are retiring.

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  8. Toothy says:

    There is a different problem with the NPR model.

    One has to listen to the week long annoying, tedious and persistent pledge drive even after contributing! Happens twice a year for a whole week.

    That had me turn off radio – and with that weaned me off NPR

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    • Devin says:

      I suspect a lot of people would be happy to donate, not to support the station, but to shut them up.

      Personally, I would much rather listen to ads than listen to a pledge drive.

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      • Kazzy says:

        In my area, they usually do certain days where if they hit a certain goal by a certain time, they go pledge-drive-free for a given period (sometimes the rest of the day). Seems like a pretty good incentive and on at least a few days, they’ve hit it and went back to doing things normally.

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    • Volinva says:

      in the Washington DC arrea the problem is all of the annoying, tedious, persistent, anti- capitalist, America hating talk disguised as news and commentary. the jazz music becomes less and less frequent. if they would just shut the hell up and play good jazz I would be glad to donate at least a little bit.

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      • Jack Donaghy says:

        Yes, You should feel guilty. Why? That is an immoral decision. Unless of course you are going to exercise that same logic in every other aspect of your life. Are you married? Why? She would have probably married someone, whether you marry her or not she will get married. What about a job? I am sure that job will be done, by you or someone else. So yes, you should feel guilty.

        As far as the economics go, it is a typical “free-rider” dilemma. It is no different than roads. The exist whether you use them or not, but the city, county, or state taxes pay for that road. Drivers from out of state get to use those roads free of charge.

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