NPR’s Pledge Drive Challenge Grant Scam

NPR Pledge Drive ScamAh, the NPR pledge drive!

The only time I listen to NPR is when I’m driving. And since I hate driving and don’t own a car, I don’t often listen to NPR. And I’m glad, because it always annoys me. It is a parade of typical, biased, American media. If the reporting is on an official US enemy, the reporting will be distinctly negative. And so on. Today, I heard a report on the US military bombing of the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan. And it was just taken as given that the US military was totally without any culpability and they were simply duped by those cunning Afghani forces. Really: it was that bad.

But it seems that every time I am forced to drive and end up listening to NPR, there is a pledge drive going on. One thing that’s interesting about this is how much NPR (and PBS, of course) are like the American government itself. The lower and middle classes pay for the vast majority of the operating costs. But both the US government and NPR do the bidding of their wealthiest members. I am given a guilt trip in the pledge drive to give money, but the rich actually get return on their investments.

The Challenge Grant Scam

There is an illustration of this that really bugs me because it offends my sense of math: the pledge drive “Challenge Grant.” This is when we are told that if there are (usually) $1,000 in pledges during the current break, that amount will be matched by some business. Here’s the thing: it doesn’t add up. Let’s assume that there are two pledge breaks per hour for 12 hours of each day. That’s 24 pledge breaks per day.

“Challenge Grants offer your company valuable exposure on KQED… During a KQED pledge drive, your company is recognized as the provider of a Challenge Grant.” —KQED

And the pledge drives are generally two weeks long. So that’s a total of 336 pledge breaks. (I’m certain that it’s less than that, so this gives NPR the benefit of the doubt.) There are also a lot of $500 Challenge Grants, and almost none above $1000. So the $336,000 in Challenge Grants is probably way high. It’s probably less than half of that.

But the KQED pledge drives generally raise about $2 million. Or at least that’s what they used to raise when I listened to the network more regularly. If that’s the case, then Challenge Grants make up at most 17%. Now that’s interesting, because that is suspiciously close to the 19% of NPR corporate funding. So I wonder if these are just contributions that would be given regardless.

Pledge Drive Math Doesn’t Add Up

The bigger issue, however, is that at 17% (At most!) of pledges, the Challenge Grants are always met. If even half of them failed, NPR wouldn’t come close to reaching its goals. So the Challenge Grants are just a lie to get people to pledge right now. But clearly, they would work a whole lot better if they were $10,000 instead of $1,000 — or the every more pathetic $500. So why aren’t they?

Well, KQED tells you why in its webpage, Pledge Challenge Grants, “Challenge Grants offer your company valuable exposure on KQED.” Indeed they do. The company name is mentioned at least three times and it is often accompanied by extra verbiage about how the company has been supplying fine whatever to the Bay Area since whenever. It is, in other words, straight advertising to a relatively affluent audience. And it doesn’t sound like an advertisement; it sounds like the company is just socially responsible.

The Big Lie

I find it really annoying because the hosts lie about it. They talk about how they will have to send the money back if the challenge isn’t met. And that’s true; it’s just that the challenge isn’t ever not met during the pledge drive. In fact, I assume that during a 10 minute pledge drive, the challenge is met within two minutes tops.

I know a lot about NPR pledge drives. If you want to know more, check out June Thomas’ article, Let’s Get Those Phones Ringing! The Cunning Genius of the Public Radio Fundraising Drive. But they are still effective. Yesterday, I decided that I really should send them some money. And then I stopped myself because that is crazy!

Instead, I went over to Democracy Now! and donated the money to them. There are two reasons. First, they need it a lot more. Second, it’s a really important news outlet whereas NPR provides better but not qualitatively different news coverage than CNN. And that reminds me, I need to give to FAIR too!

Remember: the Koch brothers don’t give to Democracy Now! and Fair. But you know who they do give to, right?

8 thoughts on “NPR’s Pledge Drive Challenge Grant Scam

  1. I have literally never been tempted to donate to NPR or PBS.

    I am a terrible person who doesn’t care about public broadcasting. Also I pay taxes and believe they should get it straight from the government. I vote accordingly.

    So you know, I am not gullible. But if you pledge now, you can match Big Bob’s Abortion MegaPlex and Fetal Part Warehouse’s donation of $1,000….

    • I totally agree. The ~20% they get from corporations totally distorts the mission of public broadcasting to the point where it probably shouldn’t even exist. It should be about what’s good for the nation, not what’s good for the Koch brothers.

      But I thought you had no sense of humor. That was pretty good!

  2. Well, NPR can go eat snot. Especially because (and here I’m just guessing) most NPR listeners are in urban, liberal areas . . . the same areas likely to have Air America affiliates. Not that Air America doesn’t have its own problems (hearing Thom Hartmann pimp for gold investments in ads is rather offputting) but it’s a damn sight better than NPR. And they air “Democracy Now” every weekday.

    I do give PBS money, strictly because of the local programming. I don’t know how it works in other cities, but here we have Twin Cities Public Television (tpt), tptLife (food shows, music) and TPTMN, which airs a good state capitol watch and all kinds of fun history/cultural features. It’s strong on describing the immigrant experience, for example. And that stuff’s great, so it gets my money.

    Here an article you might find interesting, where the PBS “ombudsman” reacts to viewer questions about whether Koch funding affects NOVA’s climate change programming. He asks a NOVA producer and gets an emphatic denial, which reminds me of the claim journalists always make that they’re never told to squash a story. As Dr. Noam pointed out, editors rarely have to make journalists squash stories — they’ve already weeded out the people likely to file undesirable stories in the first place. It’s called hiring!

    If you ever watch NOVA (and it’s really pretty terrible), it has a massive fixation with Futuristic Tech — exactly the sort of thing, were I an energy baron, I’d like to see disseminated to the public. Technology always solves problems and never creates any. To extrapolate this for global warming, we have no need to insist on massive infrastructure changes, because in the future coal/oil willl be cleaner, or we’ll alter the atmosphere, or cars will run on used plastic water bottles, or something.

    I remember — this was, like, 20 years ago — me and a friend would drink beer and go “Mystery Science Theater” on Charlie Rose and what a creampuff interviewer he was. That was fun!

    • I think the implication is more that we never have to worry about environmental problems because technology will save us. Someone will invent a certain kind of vacuum that will grab all the carbon and make it into diamonds and pencils. Innovation! It will save the environment! It will save the economy! In reality, it will save the profits of the rich.

      The other thing about reporting is that people think journalists have political axes to grind. But that’s just not true for the most part. They are just trying to get their stories (in print, audio, or video) run. And it takes them no time at all to learn what will fly and what won’t. And as I know from own personal experience, no reporter would ever be told, “David Koch wouldn’t want us to do that story.” They would be told, “No one’s interested in that story.” And there is really no way to counter that; you can’t take a poll. So you come up with another idea. And over time, you learn what you can sell and what you can’t. And you don’t even think in terms of not doing an article on global warming; you don’t even think of trying because you know “no one’s interested in that story.”

      But what really bugs me about NPR is that it is horribly biased without realizing it at all. And during our pledge breaks, they have recordings people made for why they donated. And they are filled with college educated people who think that NPR gives them unbiased news. At least when it comes to domestic politics, they know they have to provide the Democratic and Republican positions. But when it comes to reporting on Venezuela or Brazil, it might as well have been written by the State Dept.

  3. I had this whole long post and the F***ing browser ate it. You bastards! Goddamn software doesn’t do what I want it to do. At least I’m not in online college classes anymore. Some of those profs attached pdfs and docx files to their mass e-mails that COMPLETELY DIDN’T WORK and the profs would blame all the students. Those profs were, it’s safe to say, jerks.

    The gist of my post was a Faulkner quote that all writing amounts to “Kilroy was here.” I think this is correct. Not that some writers, like Faulkner, aren’t artists far more learned in their craft than WWII-era taggers spraypainting “Kilroy was here,” but that we’re all coming from the same place. Notice me. Acknowledge I exist.

    So I can’t exactly blame any journalist for doing whatever’s needed to get their work published/aired. Only shitheads like Friedman write for influence and power. The rest of us do it to shout, “I am! I was!”

    Totally unrelated, here’s a fun memory I have. The same friend I watched “Charlie Rose” with 20 years ago, we’d sometimes switch over to “World News Now.” It was an all-night news program, and while it still stuck to the State Department line, it veered more BBC than Ted Koppel. Back before we had the Internet, getting even a BBC level of analysis was unusual.

    Better yet, it sometimes had polkas. And here’s our friend Weird Al doing the “World News Polka”:

    • There is no doubt that writing is a narcissistic endeavor. And all my writing friends admit this. I have to say, however, that there is much less of that among the professional writers I work with. The best of them treat writing very much the way a carpenter treats any job. But I can’t imagine anyone getting good enough at writing without starting with, “Hey! Look at me!” With writers like Faulkner and Steinbeck, I don’t see much of that because of craftsmanship.

      I don’t blame reporters for trying to further their careers. And I don’t think Friedman means to be evil. It’s just that if you become convinced that you are brilliant, you’re going to be like that. I keep coming back to this but this is a big problem with inequality — not just economic inequality. Friedman has far more power and readership than his talents justify. It takes me back to my idea: would I rather rebuild a civilization with Mitt Romney or 50 teachers? I just don’t think that Mitt Romney is equal to 500 teachers.

      • And any good carpenter is going to take pride in their work. The hack isn’t someone who does things for money, not even things that are less than a full use of their abilities. The hack is someone who laces more value on money/praise/attention than on doing a competent job.

  4. My local PBS channels (WPSU, and WPSU World) actually have a great deal of good programming. The World Channel actually airs Democracy Now! every night. I, therefore, have no problem supporting them. I have actually never listened to NPR, on the other hand. Between college and methadone (both 60 miles away) I drive a great deal, but my car has satellite radio so I have no need for a terrestrial tuner. Nevertheless, I have friends and professors who, like myself, are very liberal and often implore me to listen to NPR. Why do you think this is? What is the deal with so many on the left advocating for NPR?

    “And it was just taken as given that the US military was totally without any culpability and they were simply duped by those cunning Afghani forces. Really: it was that bad.”

    Seriously?! That is really bad. Wow.

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