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Michael Nelson

Michael Nelson is contributing editor and columnist for The Daily Memphian, the political analyst for WMC-TV, and the Fulmer professor of political science at Rhodes College. His latest book is "Trump's First Year."

Take the pledge to stop nagging us, WKNO

By Updated: October 11, 2018 8:22 PM CT

When my wife was a girl, she and her seven brothers and sisters liked to trick their sweet, unworldly grandmother into posing for the camera with her middle finger held high. They told her it meant, “I love you but I don’t like what you’re saying.”

In that spirit, WKNO, I’m giving you the finger.

I love you, 91.1 FM. But I don’t like what you’re about to say, again and again (and again) for the 11 days that begin on Monday – namely: “We know how many of you are listeners, and we also know how few of you pledge.”

You’ll call it your “fall membership drive.” I have some names for it of my own, the G-rated version of which is “264 hours of nagging.”

We know it’s coming for the same reason we know the eagles are coming to Reelfoot Lake in January, the FedEx planes to MEM late tonight, and Christmas music to the mall in ... a day or two? Since Marconi invented radio (or so it feels), pledge drives always happen this time of year and they’re always the same.

Other things change. In the decades that public radio (and television) have badgered us for money for long stretches of time, here’s a very short list of innovations in media, music, and news: Sirius, Spotify, cable and satellite television, YouTube, Netflix, podcasts, online news sources, Facebook and its progeny, and on and on.

And still, twice or more each year the same sad song: “We know how many of you are listeners, and we also know how few of you pledge.”

Apart from perhaps not knowing how many of us are listeners because come Monday morning we’ll turn the dial to sports talk or one of the hundred-plus stations on Sirius, has it occurred to anyone that there are reasons why such a small percentage of public radio listeners pledge?

One is surely the relentless programming throughout the year of all-day, all-night classical music, which has been WKNO’s default setting from the beginning of time.

I love classical music. But for 15 hours every weekday? Aren’t there other kinds of music to mix in during the day and night? Or how about adding some calm, thoughtful, information-rich local talk shows to the 91.1 programming mix?

I don’t need WKNO to make the same mistake Gannett did when it decided that Memphis wasn’t the cultural and economic capital of the Mid-South and folded us into something called the Tennessee Network.

For that matter, how about a new version of “Car Talk” with hosts talking about vehicles that are still actually on the road? “Click and Clack,” whose reruns continue to air for an hour every Saturday morning, stopped making new shows six years ago.

The only new thing I hear on WKNO relating to Car Talk is when the station invokes the “Car Talk Vehicle Donation Program” to ask me a dozen times a day to give the station my “car, truck, or boat.”

Really? Even Oral Roberts never asked for my car.

I’m also put off by the sanctimony.

WKNO relentlessly brags that it is “non-commercial.” Reader, have you ever timed the commercials – sorry, “descriptions”–the station’s announcers give on behalf of their advertisers – oops, “program sponsors”? By the time the plug for Comcast, Semmes-Murphy, Prairie Farm cottage cheese, The Commercial Appeal (and yes, The Daily Memphian), or some other sponsor is over, roughly 15 seconds has often gone by, about the length of many television commercials.

Local news cut-ins on WKNO-FM (few and brief as they are) are as much Nashville as Memphis. If I want to hear “WPLN’s Blake Farmer reports” more than once per week I’ll go to that station’s website or move to Nashville, which is what the N in WPLN stands for.

I don’t need WKNO to make the same mistake Gannett did when it decided that Memphis wasn’t the cultural and economic capital of the Mid-South and folded us into something called the Tennessee Network.

In WKNO radio’s favor, it at least airs regular programming, however uninnovative it may be, between the long spells of pledge drive nagging. When WKNO-TV raises money, it basically puts all its regular shows – the shows its audience watches week in, week out – on the shelf and runs Yanni concerts, oldies highlight reels, and self-help programs.

Think about that strategy for a minute. The station’s regular viewers find something else to watch because these pledge-drive-only shows are on instead. And people who don’t usually watch WKNO but tune in for, say, “The Ed Sullivan Show’s Greatest Hits” find out after the pledge drive is over that the station they were persuaded to support only airs that kind of program when it wants their credit card number.

Economists have an answer to the question of why most listeners don’t donate: it’s called the free rider problem. In a nutshell, I can listen to WKNO all day every day, never give a nickel – and no one will know that I’m riding for free.

No doubt WKNO would do better if it had more money to, for example, flesh out its news staff with more reporters and do other forms of local programming. Christopher Blank has diction to die for, but he’s only one person.

How to make that happen? Here are a couple of modest proposals.

Start at the same point as WKNO will when it goes on the air Monday morning: “We know how few of you pledge.”

Economists have an answer to the question of why most listeners don’t donate: it’s called the free rider problem. In a nutshell, I can listen to WKNO all day every day, never give a nickel – and no one will know that I’m riding for free.

One economist, at least, offered a solution to the free rider problem some years ago: Mancur Olsen, in a book called “The Logic of Collective Action.” Olson pointed out that it’s the “no one will know” part that is the problem. The solution is to ask people for money in settings where others will know if they’re freeloaders (a truer name) or not.

So instead of merely broadcasting nag after nag for days at a time, WKNO-FM, have your volunteers call past, current and prospective donors on the phone and ask them to say yes or no to an actual human being.

Send your staff, board members and active supporters out across the city all year long. Speak to any group that will have you whether it’s on Sunday morning, Tuesday noon, Thursday night, or days and times in between. Make your pitch and then ask people to put their hand up if they are willing to donate $50, $100, $500 and so on.

Give them a pledge card and a coffee mug as soon they raise their hand. If they try to free ride in that setting, their friends, neighbors and colleagues will see what they are doing. And they will be more likely to become listeners who are out there and make a pledge.



<strong>Michael Nelson</strong>

Michael Nelson

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WKNO 91.1 FM Public Radio Public Television

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