If you’re a loyal public radio listener like me, you understand the special torture of pledge drive season. You grumble as your favorite shows get interrupted several times per hour by announcers pleading for your cash (the difficulty being that they may actually need it more than ever, if GOP efforts to strip NPR’s federal funding succeed). You change to another NPR station, only to find that the outlets have cleverly timed their pledge drives to coincide. What’s worse, the pain continues even after you’ve pledged, until the drive grinds to its scheduled end. In this world of on-demand everything, the fact that making a pledge doesn’t actually turn off the pledge drive seems like a persistent bug in an increasingly outdated operating system.
But KQED, San Francisco’s flagship NPR news station, is taking the first experimental step toward changing that situation. The station announced last week that if you contribute $45 before its spring pledge drive begins on May 5, you’ll get access to an exclusive pledge-free Internet stream with all of the station’s regular programming—plus some extra stuff to carry you blissfully through each hour, while on-air pledge breaks continue to plague regular listeners.
The pledge-free stream will be accessible on up to four devices per listener. People who donate $45 or more at the station’s website will get a unique password via e-mail, which they can enter into their browser when they visit KQED’s streaming site on their computer, smartphone, or tablet. The offer is only good for the May drive, and only for the first 5,000 donors who select it.
It’s believed to be the first time any U.S. public radio station has forked its product, offering one broadcast to people listening via terrestrial radio and another (better) one to paying, Internet-equipped listeners. In fact, KQED says it will muster two separate staffs of announcers and engineers to handle the dual streams.
Andrew Phelps at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard has called the move “an NPR listener’s dream come true,” which it is. But others are worried by the example KQED is setting. After all, most public radio stations already offer streaming Internet versions of their primary broadcasts. So the step from offering a temporary pledge-free stream to a new system of year-round “premium” public radio programming, available only to those with the means to pay, would seem to be a very small one.
“The incentive for the stations will be to gradually make the exclusive service more and more desirable than the free service, and the pledge periods longer and longer in order to get more people to buy in,” WBUR reporter Adam Ragusea complained to Phelps. “Then little by little, year by year, we will become a de facto subscription service, which is not what we’re supposed to be.”
I spoke today with Don Derheim, KQED’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, who says there are definite problems with the idea of a year-round premium stream. “The concept of a premium radio service that has the word ‘public’ in front of it does seem to conflict with our mission,” Derheim says. “It doesn’t really feel like something that is for all the people, and we are always intending to provide a universal service. That is the power of public radio.”