Some public radio stations cry foul over CPR fundraising
Public-radio fundraising drives are usually an irritation to listeners who’d rather be tuning in to such programs as “Morning Edition,” “Car Talk” or “A Prairie Home Companion” than listen to someone beg them for donations.
But the way one Front Range public-radio station goes about its fundraising has the managers of many other public stations in the state crying foul.
To minimize how long Colorado Public Radio’s on-air pledge drives last, it augments fundraising with mass mailings to current and potential donors.
While that’s not unusual, what bothers the general managers of smaller public-radio stations around the state is CPR’s practice of sending the letters to listeners of the smaller stations, many of which are located in areas CPR doesn’t broadcast those national shows.
As a result, donations that could be going to their local stations are instead headed to Centennial on Denver’s south side, where CPR is located.
“What I find really distasteful about it is that their official response is usually, ‘Oops,’ and I have a hard time believing that this is a mistake,” said Sally Kane, general manager for KVNF public radio in Paonia, whose signal reaches Grand Junction and Montrose. “It seems like a really stinky tactic to just milk people when they’re not aware of it.”
Kane and other managers say CPR intentionally plays off the same National Public Radio affiliations that they, too, pay for in an attempt to fool listeners into believing it is the only station that brings that programming to their towns. CPR broadcasts in the Grand Valley and has a storefront at 414 Main St., but only an underwriting salesperson works there.
When called out on it by those stations, CPR’s response has been that there are few places in the state its signal doesn’t reach, and any fundraising overlap with local stations is unintentional.
While it’s true CPR has towers across the state, less than half of them carry NPR programs. The rest are repeater towers for its Centennial-based classical music station.
CPR President Max Wysick said criticism of his station’s fundraising letters isn’t fair. He admits the station routinely mails letters to listeners across the state, but he said he’s heard few complaints about it.
“The letter did not go to places where we don’t have coverage,” Wysick said. “CPR’s been doing these mailings for a very long time. The reason we do them is because the largest complaint to all of us in public radio is the on-air membership drives. Mail is a way of generating listener contributions without having to spend so much time on the air.”
Wysick said despite the poor economy, all public-radio stations in the state have continued to receive wide support from listeners, so to say his station’s fundraising methods have hurt other stations’ efforts just isn’t true.
But other general managers say because corporate underwriting has dramatically fallen for everyone, and Congress is considering cutting funding to public radio nationwide, all are relying more on member support. As a result, smaller public radio stations such as those in Paonia and Telluride have had to lay off workers, while CPR is hiring five new staffers for its Centennial office, including three new Front Range reporters.
According to the most recent 990 tax returns to the IRS, CPR raised more than $10 million in 2009, while the Paonia station took in about $356,000 that same year. The returns, required for all nonprofit groups, also show that Wysick earns more than $190,000 a year. At Kane’s station, three full-time staffers and three part-time workers combine to make about $180,000 a year.
Wysick said it’s not uncommon for listeners from areas of the state where another station also broadcasts to give money to CPR. In those cases, though, the station will ask if their donation really was meant for them. If not, it will be returned, he said.
“Whenever we have an overlap problem or a donor who’s making a contribution to Colorado Public Radio from a part of the state where there’s a question … we’ll contact them to make sure they mean to contribute to Colorado Public Radio,” Wysick said. “That’s how we’re trying to ameliorate the effect of an occasional overlap problem.”
Kane and other general managers called that hogwash, saying CPR routinely takes advantage of people’s unfamiliarity with how public-radio stations are organized. They say many listeners are under the false belief that all stations are part of the same network, confusing NPR with CPR and their local stations.
As a result, CPR’s letters highlight its NPR programming even in areas where it has no signal or only its classical music programs are carried. The general managers say CPR’s letter is worded intentionally to make listeners believe the national programs they hear on local public-radio stations are actually coming from them.
“It makes me exasperated for them (CPR) to solicit our donors here,” said Delaney Utterback, general manager of KRCC public radio in Colorado Springs. “It’s making it so I have to go on the air and defend our integrity.”
Earlier this month, CPR sent out fundraising letters to listeners in Utterback’s city even though few there receive CPR’s news programming. As a result, listeners of KRCC, which also airs NPR programs, called to question why CPR was soliciting their support. Some even accused the Colorado Springs station of selling its mailing list, a practice some nonprofits use to raise more money. Utterback’s station doesn’t.
“They’ve done this before, about six months ago and recently, and prior to that, too,” Utterback said. “But this last time, a number of our employees got letters, too. That’s how we found out about it.”
Neil Best, general manger of KUNC in Greeley, whose station has competed in fundraising with CPR for years, also questioned CPR’s tactics.
“It’s disappointing, perhaps disingenuous, a flat-out not-a-truthful statement,” Best said of CPR’s fundraising letters. “It’s not the way we choose to do things.”
Best said his station often gets complaints from listeners when KUNC begins a membership drive. On more than one occasion those drives began a few weeks after its donors received a letter from CPR asking for donations. Many of the donors send money in, thinking the letter’s from their local station, and then get upset when KUNC seemingly asks for more, he said.
Best and Kane said they know of no other state where the largest station goes after donors in other stations’ backyards.
“There are other states that have, for example, Nevada Public Radio, that are the big NPR-type stations, but they’re not as predatory, and Max (Wysick) really has a reputation of being predatory,” Kane said. “This is an area where that kind of predatory behavior gets a response big-time.”