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.


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.


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


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.


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.)


(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?


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.


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


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.


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


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.


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


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.


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).

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.


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