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Community Broadcaster: Time to Support Community Radio’s Pledge Drives

Support is a direct investment in the community

This fall, community radio stations are seeking donations. There are many reasons to give.

Around the United States right now, community radio stations have begun or are about to kick off their on-air fundraising campaigns. For the uninitiated, the radio pledge drive is a short period of time when noncommercial stations, which legally cannot depend on advertisers, focus their on-air time on raising operating capital for the station through donations, notably those from listeners. Audiences give their tax-deductible contributions, which stations turn into everything from its operating expenses to programming to the future.

As an avid noncommercial radio listener, former station manager and news director, I confess I love pledge drives and tune into them often. Some listeners roundly complain about on-air fundraising. But rarely on broadcast media do you hear the sort of genuine love for a community that you do during a campaign like this, because people are parting with their hard-earned money for something bigger than themselves. It’s a quintessential American story, if not a very human one.

If you hear these financial appeals on your local station and tune them out, metaphorically or literally, please stick around. You are likely to discover many gems this fall. You will also be reminded of the importance of community radio.

It is the stuff of Saturday Night Live parodies, but radio pledge drives are a tradition any seasoned radio fan knows well. As a program director, people’s generosity never ceased to touch me. Hearing a community radio station’s pledge drive is like hearing the soul of a neighborhood. You’ll catch the local musician reflecting on what a station means to the area scene and how it provides a venue to be heard. City nonprofits and businesses come through to share stories about local radio. You may even hear a local child dropping off coins she or he collected to contribute.

People give for all kinds of reasons, such as enjoying the programming, what a station brings to a town, or just the idea of local media. Some may take years before they give while others do so the moment they’re asked. An experience I will never forget is meeting a cancer patient dropping off a donation. At Stage Four of the illness, he was nearing the end, he said, and wanted to give because he’d listened 40 years and had never done so. He even came on air briefly to say, essentially, don’t be like me and regret not helping out sooner.

Image by David Dewitt

I never blamed that gentleman for not giving. It is easy to take stations for granted. There are many examples why you should not ignore community radio, however.

As local commercial radio may soon pull up stakes in communities, the importance of community radio is only growing. These stations offer an important gathering place, where local music and culture rarely has space on any venue anymore — print, television, podcast, etc. — community radio remains important.

Beyond politics, we live in uncertain times. Community radio stations give residents a chance to talk about what’s happening around us and to give a perspective we do not normally get to hear. You get programming free of sensationalism. Then there are the catastrophes such as hurricanes, fires, floods and earthquakes during which stations provide essential information.

Where so much of music programming depends on the playlist and algorithm, community radio relies on local DJs curating by hand the sounds you hear. It may be a cliché, but you really can hear the difference between a Spotify playlist of, for example, jazz or indie and the choices made by a knowledgeable music host. Your musical experiences on community radio are sure to be diverse and inspiring.

Cities and towns across America get outstanding content and presence from community radio. However, most community radio is almost wholly locally funded and depends on the contributions of listeners.

A financial planner friend once told me community radio is a great investment because we all want to place our money in institutions we believe in and where we have the most resonance. If local media and intellectually curious programming intrigue you, perhaps this fall is your chance to invest in your local community radio station or to find a community radio station that jibes with your tastes.

I encourage you to try an app like TuneIn and find a community radio station you’re not familiar with. If you don’t know a station, I have many in my TuneIn list. When you listen in during their fundraising, you will hear local voices, culture and issues. Perhaps that’s a day you’ll give them a call and randomly donate. The person on the other end of the phone will be delighted by the new friend from afar, and you will have helped a scrappy little organization out.

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