During a recent pledge drive, Terry Gross, host of NPR's Fresh Air, urged listeners who couldn't afford to donate to Philadelphia's NPR affiliate to hold onto their money. Looks like people heeded the public radio star's advice since WHYY failed to meet its fund-raising goals.
The problems at the Philadelphia station underscore the problems facing public broadcasters during the period of economic turmoil. Listeners to WHYY, which also runs Philadelphia's PBS station, also may have withheld money to protest the pay of CEO William Marrazzo, who is the country's highest paid public broadcasting executive. Most of its programming is considered mediocre. A WHYY official did not respond to a phone call seeking comment.
Public broadcasting, like its commercial media counterpart, is struggling with how to retain audiences who are bombarded with endless media choices, much of it available for free. That makes asking people for money to support their local public radio and TV stations especially challenging.
"PBS, like the majority of nonprofits in these tough economic times, has experienced an overall decline in on-air fund raising," said PBS spokeswoman Lee Sloan in an e-mail statement. "While success rates vary from market to market, ultimately, PBS stations were down roughly 20% from last year's December pledge drives. In an effort to adapt to the current economic climate, stations have diversified their fund-raising methods to encompass online giving, auctions and other alternatives to supplement their on-air efforts."
The heat is already being felt. New York's WNET, the flagship PBS station, recently announced that it was cutting 85 out of 500 workers, about 14% of its staff. Station head Neil Shapiro told The New York Observer, "A lot of the people that give to us generously find that they themselves have less to give." Boston's WGBH, the PBS station home to Frontline, has recently cut staff.
NPR, whose endowment was boosted by a $200 million endowment from the estate of philanthropist Joan Kroc in 2003, also is facing tough times. Late last year, NPR cut its workforce by 7% even as public radio's audience continue to rise. Local affiliates are struggling too.
"Most of our stations have a revenue issue of one kind or another," said Dana Davis Rehm, NPR's senior vice president for marketing communications and external relations, in an interview. "Fifteen to 20 percent have made budget reductions outside the usual."
Public broadcasting, though, continues to struggle because, unlike in other countries such as the U.K., it lacks a dedicated funding source. Some stations continue do hold their own. Houston NPR's affiliate KUHF met its fund-raising goals while its sister PBS affiliate KUHT did not. New York's NYC NPR affiliate is optimistic about meeting its goals for its pledge drive, though attracting corporate underwriting remains a challenge, while Boston's WBUR met its targets, according to station officials.
Public broadcasting is being forced to change with the times. PBS is being undercut by cable. NPR continues to attract a strong audience lured by the decline of for-profit media outlets such as newspapers. Nonetheless, the public radio network is projected to have a deficit of $23 million, up from an earlier projection of $2 million.
Non profit media continues to hold itself out as a beacon in today's media world, which is dominated by ever-coarsening public dialogue. These high ideals, however, may not be compatible with the current fiscal reality.