Pledging the Core; A Story of Success (1 of 3)

The Problem

A number of PBS member stations, along with their audience, maintain a love-hate relationship with their time-tested approach to pledge programming. By and large, pledge drives built around specialty programming have been financially successful across the board. Obviously, our member stations appreciate this. But what about viewers who tune in to watch their favorite PBS programs—shows like Nova, Nature, or Antiques Roadshow—only to be met with unexpected programming, accompanied by a pledge break?

Their experience was often a negative one, says Caroline Basso, director of development and marketing at WSKG in Binghamton, which serves 21 counties in New York and Pennsylvania. Disappointment “was a really common theme” in communication from viewers during pledge drives. “The number of comments about ‘What am I watching?’ kept coming in,” says Basso. “They were disappointed because that’s not what they turned to us for.” Caroline Basso

Though WSKG’s pledge programming was always a financial win, Basso couldn’t shake the feeling that it came at the viewer’s expense. “My philosophy in fund-raising is that it should be donor-centric. It should be about our audience, just like the content we produce is about our audience,” she says. The negative comments made her feel hypocritical. “Having such a strong philosophy built around the audience and then changing up the schedule and saying we need to make some money—that was really hard. Our audience comes to us to provide them something, and then we turn it around because we need to make money.” She wondered if there was a way to raise money for the station without diffusing the audience’s trust.

Pledging the Core

Enter “Pledging the Core.” PBS is in the middle of a multi-year project in which select member stations like WSKG are testing new schedules that combine pledge strategies with core programming. Could this methodology result in stronger relationships with viewers?

Basso hoped so. The past approach, she says, “appeared to be very transactional. It wasn’t bringing the types of relationships that we wanted to build.” Almost a year ago, WSKG began to test the waters with soft fundraising appeals built around the shows that attracted viewers to PBS in the first place, in their natural time slots. It wasn’t successful at first—at least not financially. But on the relationship side, things improved tremendously. “The comments we were receiving were not negative anymore. People appreciated that we kept our core programming intact,” she says.

Rather than tuning in, seeing a pledge drive, and changing the channel, regular PBS viewers would be met with fundraising appeals before, after, and during their favorite shows. “Instead of cherry-picking specific core programming for certain genres, we created on-air messaging and placed that messaging into the core programming, in those spots where they fit,” says Basso.

The Result

Those audience members who responded were already fans of the station. When they inquired into making donations, they often selected ongoing gifts as part of a sustaining member program. “Instead of that quick infusion of money all at once around a specific TV pledge, we started seeing a steady, monthly income flow,” Basso explains. “It gave us a lot more flexibility in testing new things in our fundraising model. We’ll go through iteration after iteration until we find what works with our audience and our resources.”

The viewers are happier, too. “I haven’t had one complaint this fiscal year from a viewer about us manipulating the schedule,” she says. Maintaining audience trust further impacts fundraising. “When we began to be transparent with the fundraising changes we were making—and created that dialogue with our audience—that’s when I saw a better response to our on-air appeals.”

A Long-Term Perspective

Like many member stations who have tried alternative fundraising efforts, Basso insists WSKG’s willingness to experiment wasn’t because the old system wasn’t working. The old pledge drive approach was definitely infusing the station with donations. “If you’re asking, ‘Is this raising money short-term?’ The answer is yes. Some people might not have thought it was a problem because of that,” she says. But ultimately she and the station decided they needed a broader view.

“If you look at the long-term and look at the segment of the audience that you’re reaching, that’s when you start to see the problem. It didn’t fit with the mission or the foundation on which I believe public broadcasting was founded,” she says. With its renewed emphasis on pledging around its educational core programming, WSKG has found a way to raise money and build strong relationships—without ignoring its values. Its financial year won’t end until July, but in that regard, the program is already a success.

Questions? Contact Tracy Ferrier with PBS Development Services at tbferrier@pbs.org or 703-739-5065 orCaroline Basso with WSKG at cbasso@wskg.org