Great Journalism Isn't Cheap: What I Heard In Lamoille & Windham Counties

Oct 18, 2018

On September 27,  VPR’s Tell Me More Tour visited Lamoille County, hosting a public event at The Alchemist Brewery & Visitors Center in Stowe. On October 4, VPR visited Windham County with an event at The River Garden in Brattleboro.

Here are three questions I heard a lot during our recent stops in Stowe and Brattleboro as part of VPR’s Tell Me More Tour:

  1. Why do we have to hear so many messages from VPR’s underwriters?
  2. Why does VPR devote so much time to membership drives?
  3. Why does VPR spend so much time promoting itself?

So I thought I’d write down the answers I gave and invite you to continue the conversation with me. Because as much as we think we know how to support this service, we are always open to new and innovative ideas.

On the other hand, it’s important our supporters understand the tremendous cost of running a statewide radio network, available for free to anyone who wants to listen. That service is expensive and valuable, and it deserves our support.

VPR listeners at the Tell Me More Tour event in Stowe on September 27.
Credit Herb Swanson / For VPR

1. Why do we have to hear so many messages from VPR’s underwriters?

In Brattleboro, we heard from supporters who want us to drop all underwriting messaging and rely solely on individual donors. Some were concerned about the influence underwriters might have on the news coverage. Others did not like how it sounded and the time it takes away from other things.

VPR is proud of its nonprofit and business underwriters, and these short messages are a simple way to say "thanks." We pay careful attention to the language used in these messages, which are intended to inform you about a supporter and avoid subjective or promotional language.

Also, public radio spends just a fraction of the time on underwriting messages that commercial radio stations spend on commercials. Every program differs, but in general, you'll hear approximately one to two minutes of underwriting announcements each hour on VPR, and about the same amount of time devoted for promotions for events and special programs. Compare that to 10 to 15 minutes of commercials each hour on commercial radio.

The main reason I support underwriting in public radio is the diversity it provides to our funding sources. It makes up somewhere around a quarter of VPR’s revenues, or around $2 million. Combined with individual memberships, major giving, foundations and federal government support, underwriting helps make sure that VPR does not depend too much on any one funding source.

In that diversity, VPR finds its independence. I’ve worked more than a decade as a public media journalist and leader, and I can tell you that I have never seen a single instance where an underwriter influenced the stories I’ve been involved in making or supervising.

The Tell Me More Tour event in Brattleboro had a unique feature: a wedding!
Credit Victoria St. John / VPR

2. Why does VPR devote so much time to membership drives?

Once upon a time, membership drives were the primary way VPR and other public radio stations raised money. Over time, we’ve diversified how we are supported by our members. We’ve grown a sustaining membership program that makes up half of our membership, and VPR has one of the highest rates of membership, per capita, in the country.

Still, membership drives are a critical part of the support VPR needs. They are a crucial way to recruit new members and bring lapsed members back into the fold.

This fall, VPR tried to reduce the amount of time we spent on the air during the membership drive. Unfortunately, we came up short of our goal. We are evaluating and we hope to find the right balance of membership drive messaging to the programming you love.

Meanwhile, VPR is working with NPR and other public radio stations to search for new sources of revenue, especially online. Stay tuned!

Scott Finn talks with VPR volunteer Clark Callender, left, and another listener at the Tell Me More Tour event in Stowe.
Credit Herb Swanson / For VPR

3. Why does VPR spend so much time promoting itself?

You may have been listening for a long time, but our research shows that many listeners are relatively new, and don’t listen for many minutes a day, or they tune in and out throughout the day.

If we want them to remember VPR, come back and listen again and eventually become sustaining members, we have to repeat those messages.

On the Tell Me More Tour, we’re hearing that people want VPR to do so much more. With the decline in newspaper reporters, VPR is needed to cover the stories those reporters used to. That takes money. 

Here’s a cautionary tale I’ve been telling everyone: Last year, the newspaper I used to work for won the Pultizer Prize. It also went bankrupt.

Great journalism and good intentions are not enough. We have to be creative and dogged in supporting local media, like VPR.