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.


Ben

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.

Andrew

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

Chris

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.

hmt

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.

Seminymous Coward

"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.

Mikemenn

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.)

mikemenn

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

Seminymous Coward

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.

David Dupont

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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Erik Jensen

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.

Eric M. Jones

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.

Toothy

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

Devin

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.

Kazzy

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.

Jay

You shouldn't feel any more guilty not contributing to public radio than you would for not patronizing advertisers of private station.

JB

I listen to the BBC World Service, which I think is paid for by UK tax dollars. I could stream it online for free, but it's more convenient to listen to it on WNYC, so I donate a tiny amount to help cover their license fee. (Though I would write them a big check right now if they would replace Lorraine Mattox, the underwriting announcer with the weird enunciation.)

I'll give money to This American Life or other shows directly if they ask me nicely. The argument that "my tax dollars pay for it anyway" isn't persuasive to me, because I want them to be able to improve and expand their coverage, not just maintain the status quo. Plus, anyone with a decent awareness of tax policy knows that the actual amount going to public radio is de minimus. I dislike the "become our community member" pledge drive shtick, but it must work psychologically, otherwise they'd revamp their tactics.

Kathryn

The BBC is paid for by a 'license fee' which is a mandatory tax paid by everyone who owns a television set in the UK. (When you buy a TV the retailer is required to take your details which they pass on to the BBC). The license is currently about $230/year (amazingly there is a huge reduction for people - apparently there are still a few - who only have black and white TVs). There are no adverts, excepting for their own output, so you will be bombarded between programmes with ads for upcoming broadcasts.
Of course the BBC has a significant radio output, which non-license payers are allowed to enjoy for free. They also have a terrific website which anyone can access. My children used it all the time for homework help.
Most everyone gripes about the license/tax. Presenters are paid too much, there are too many repeats, the director general is an idiot, they should pay for this and not that, they are biased...... I griped when I lived in the UK. Having returned to the US, I find I would happily pay to have full access to the BBC, (via the online iplayer) because the quality of output is consistently high - and admittedly contains good quality American output. For example, I watched the Sopranos, Sex and the City, Damages, and The Wire on the BBC. They are currently broadcasting Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire. Alas, we cannot subscribe, although I understand that the possibility is in the works.

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Eric

I think everyone missed the fact that you are already supporting Public radio because they get government money, which comes from your taxes.

Forest

NPR get's something like less then 1% of funding from government sources. Pubic Radio in general in the United States is not supported by taxes, but by listener contributions.

J1

Let's see what NPR has to say about their funding (http://www.npr.org/about/aboutnpr/publicradiofinances.html):

NPR stations:

Federal, state and local government (government) - 4.6%,
Corporation for Public Broadcasting (government) - 11.4%
University Sponsorship (nearly all, possibly all, government) - 8%
Individual donations, tax deductible, 39% x .15 (marginal federal tax rate for married filing jointly at NPR median contributor HHI of $53,593) - 5.9%
Corporate sponsors, tax deductible, 17% x .15 (minimum federal corporate tax rate on profit of $50,000 or less) - 2.55%, though that's subject to the 10% limit, so we'll throw that one out.

That's 21.9% if we throw out universities too, since all sponsors may not be public. If we include universities, 29.9%.

NPR itself:

Station and programming fees, 37% x .219 = 8.1%, and that excludes corporate sponsorships.

Since my math could be wrong, let's just go with direct government subsidies as stated by NPR:

NPR stations: at least 16%
NPR itself: at least 5.9%

That's a little more than 1%. NPR could almost certainly cover it by running commercials. Why don't they?

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Neil

I informally set aside a few hundred dollars a year to buy media and NPR provides a fantastic value for me. That said, I don't donate to stations directly.
I download podcasts. I donate to shows I download. If my local station died, I would not notice unless they produce one of the 5 programs I download every week.
I love the This American Life format for asking for donations--once a year-ish, they mention how much their bandwidth costs are and they get more than sufficient donations to cover it (including from me). My donation is a small portion of the value I get from the show.
All a media producer has to do is ask. I wish more of them worked this way. The willing and able pots of money await.

Marshall Thompson

I remember when I worked in radio and toured the tower facility in Minneapolis. All of the commercial radio stations had average equipment, but the MPR had top-of-the-line stuff. I concluded that MPR is overfunded and they don't need me. I'm going to listen and not feel one shred of guilt because I still support MPR through listening (underwriting sales) and tax dollars.

TM

You should feel as guilty over not supporting public radio as I do over using the return address labels groups send me in the mail along with their fundraising letters.

If somebody wants to give me something to entice me to contribute, I will accept it. But please do not get upset if I take what was given to me freely, supposedly with no strings attached, and not contribute. I choose what charities and organizations I give to each year, based on my own calculations. With few exceptions, those calculations disregard freebies, such as free radio or address stickers.

FYI - I happen to give to my public radio... but just because I do, that does not mean anybody else should too (or feel bad if they do not).

James

I dunno... Here I thought I was a cultural dinosaur, but I'm halfway surprised that they even still have radio stations. Don't think I've tuned in a radio broadcast in this century.

It's like those address labels. Ignore the fact that none of them have ever gotten my address right (I'm not a "Mr.", and I live in the state of Nevada, not some mythical place called "NV"), I just haven't mailed anything but income tax forms in years.

caleb b

Without NPR, I'd find an alternative form of free entertainment, so I don't feel the need to donate. Plus, I actively enjoy being a free rider, so that has an added appeal. If Freakonomics charged even 1 cent for access to the website, I'd abandon it all together.

NPR would just get more commercials if donations totally dried up….they want my donation, they don’t really need it.

RJ

If you are a tax payer in the US you are indirectly funding NPR. I do not feel guilty

Dave

I really love the free pod casts, and I listen to a lot. I have never responded to NPR appeals, but have donated, when specifically asked, to a few, including This American Life, Skeptoid, and 99% Invisible. Also Wikipedia. And I have bought both Freakonomics books.

Just saying.

Roly

So when do you feel it becomes stealing? Obviously you do feel guilty, or rather feel guilty that you don't feel guilty enough. So, do you think it would make any difference if I said that it's OK? (I'll do it for only $5!)
The economics in this question is how guilty do you feel? $5, $10, $50? Would you feel more guilty if I donated $100? If it does, we might be on to something - donating money to make others feel bad; anti-social altruism. I certain that if donating $50 inflicted $50 worth of moral suffering the fund raisers would have no problems reaching their targets!

Steve Cebalt

Hi Roly:

"Donating money to make others feel bad...antisocial altruism." That sounds a cit cynical but actually I think you've nailed it! Giving can be very competitive. That's why passing a plate at church works. because you're visible to peers who are also giving. Even though I write checks to the church as our family's primary donation, when the plate comes by I always stick a few bucks in to eliminate the social stigma I might feel from others in the pew (as if they cared -- total self-absorption on my part, thinking others care what I do...). A couple dollars is cheap insurance from perceived threat of social stigma -- a couple dollars so I am "in the game."

Many of us have charities we support from love or deep affinity to the cause; a hospice home, Cancer Society, etc. But other donations are made purely from social pressures -- and to compete with others. And since I never talk about public radio and no one knows I listen to it, I feel no competitive pressure or guilt.

Your comments are a tiny bit radical-sounding, but I do think you're on to something!

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Forest

No, pubic radio is for everyone in the public above all else, but you should. This is not a case of free-ridership because the concept of public radio is essentially to provide a service that is not driven by cash. The fact that cash is needed is simply an unfortunate reality, and asking for donations is for now the best solution to that problem.

Tim

My two biggest problems with NPR pledge drives:

1) The lack of acknowledgement of federal subsidies. I understand that it may be a small portion of the budget, but it feels very disingenuous to me not to acknowledge it. A simple statement such as, "X% of our budget comes from federal tax dollars, and for that, we are eternally grateful to you and the American public. But we can't survive on that alone. That's where our pledge drive comes in...", would go a long way with me.

2) The lack of acknowledgement of their ad revenue. Yes, NPR does not run formal commercials. They do, however, "thank" their advertisers for sponsoring their programs, and mention the businesses by name. They always do this during hard breaks on the other stations to ensure that the most ears hear it. This is an ad - you are getting ad revenue. Acknowledge this. Don't constantly state that "you don't run commercials, so we need your pledge" when you draw ad revenue. It's disingenuous and misleading. A similar statement to the one I mentioned in the first point would go far.

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Phil Persinger

Here in the Albany, NY, area neither of your objections holds true: the stand-alone NPR affiliate is pretty straightforward about both the size of its budget and the relative percentages of income from various sources-- and it talks about this during their very successful pledge drives.

Money is a reality for everyone, to paraphrase someone else in these comments, but to lump non-profit enterprise into the same category with for-profit operations is to miss the point. They inhabit completely different cultures (ref. "The Gift" by Lewis Hyde). The latter are in the business of making money-- pots of it if possible-- while public radio stations, like libraries or the Red Cross-- see themselves primarily as a public service. You may not like how much the your local NPR station's president makes, but it most likely is considerably less than the salary for a comparable position in the private sector. And public station balance sheets are available for public inspection.

The real problem many public-broadcasting outlets have with their audience is their discomfort in discussing money. This creates the suspicion that, as with Enron or Bernie Madoff, there is something to hide (and sometimes they do). It's no wonder they experience, in the main, such difficulty snagging pledges during their fund drives.

To see how it should be done, check out wamc.org during its fund drive starting June 2. Paradoxically for my argument, the station frames its relationship with its audience-- and why folks should pledge-- largely on a transactional basis.

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