Sunday, April 02, 2006

The Death of Public Broadcasting

I just turned on Harry Shearer’s “Le Show” on my local public radio station, and learned that they were running a pledge break. (Pledge campaigns, for those of you from outside the U.S., are typically two-week periods during which regular radio and television programming are both interrupted and cut short by numerous requests for donations. Most public radio and TV stations run at least three pledge campaigns a year.) I immediately turned the radio off and made a note to avoid that station for the next two weeks.

Public radio stations, run for decades under the assumption that they had no real competition for their listening audiences, now find themselves competing on multiple fronts. For example, subscribers to XM and Sirius satellite radio have a wealth of public broadcasting shows to choose from; Sirius even has two channels dedicated to National Public Radio. Neither channel carries any pledges. In addition, most popular public radio shows are podcast on a national basis.

Most public radio stations try to get listeners to become members with a monthly payment of $10/month, or $120.00/year. Both XM and Sirius charge $12.95/month, or less if you prepay for at least a year. For $3 more a month than local public radio, you get over 150 channels of music, news, sports, talk, traffic and weather. You do have to buy a radio, but they’ve been discounted down to almost nothing, and most new cars either come with built-in satellite radio receivers or can be ordered with them. And, by the way, you can still get the public radio stations for nothing if you’re willing to put up with the pledges.

Some public radio stations counter by talking about all the great “bonus gifts” they provide. I learned not to even take the bonus gifts, because they decrease the tax deductibility of pledges. When I did get bonus gifts, they often took months to arrive, and I sometimes had no idea that they were attached to pledges: I started getting a subscription to Atlantic Monthly magazine that I didn’t order, and it took months to figure out that the subscription was a bonus gift for a pledge. Needless to say, I didn’t renew the subscription.

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