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Community Broadcaster: To Pledge or Not to Pledge

How the coronavirus pandemic is impacting community radio futures

The author is membership program director of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. NFCB commentaries are featured regularly at

A wave of city and state shutdowns in response to the spread of COVID-19 have brought education, leisure and industry to a virtual stop nationwide. And, as part of local life, college and community radio stations are facing tough questions that could resonate for months to come.

Spring is a fertile time for community media. For stations, this is traditionally when on-air fundraising takes place. However, with anxieties high and attention elsewhere, many outlets are pressed to make choices about the pledge drives they depend on. There are no easy options.

The National Federation of Community Broadcasters hosted an online nationwide COVID-19 response meeting with community radio stations. Many are opting to delay on-air fundraising. Others have chosen to move forward with fundraising broadcasts. All have bottom lines they must consider before making the call.

[Read: Community Broadcaster: COVID-19 Concerns]

There are no right or wrong answers when it comes to pledge drives in the midst of a crisis. Many of these decisions come down to local conditions. A station’s internal urgency does not make the choices comfortable ones.

For those going forward with on-air fundraising, the reasons are quite clear. During a major news story, attention is on media like a radio station for analysis, updates and breaking coverage. In short, people know right then why their stations matter so much. And when a station offers music, they’re providing shelter from stress and uncertainty more than ever. It stands to reason why a station would choose to speak up now and remind audiences how much these stations make a difference.

Economically, while there are shaky stocks, employment jitters and worries about a recession now, in a month to two months’ time, whatever storm clouds we forecast today will likely be fully upon us. The gamble of asking today rather than tomorrow does not seem unreasonable.

For a station opting to postpone on-air fundraising, such a call makes just as much sense. Listeners are very upset by the news cycle. Some may be looking at a layoff or furlough. Kids are at home, adding expense to a household. As a result, asking for money can feel unseemly for some stations. Compelling people to donate when they may not have the money can also feel uncomfortable.

There are alternatives of course. Some community radio stations are modifying their approach, focusing their energies on direct mail, online and email to solicit dollars, while minimally interrupting the regular schedule to make appeals.

Every community radio station, though, is grappling with the effect the coronavirus will have on their local economies. In some cities, some of community radio’s most loyal underwriters, such as bars, restaurants, promoters and event spaces, are all adversely impacted by COVID-19-related closures. Even if your town is one of the rare ones not closing down businesses and public gatherings, most of our area businesses are dependent on commerce, air travel and enterprises that serve the public. With warnings about unemployment and no end in sight, many community radio managers are rightfully worried about future fundraising.

NFCB and Greater Public have offered fundraising guidance to stations in the wake of the coronavirus. Ultimately, success may lie in community radio’s ongoing relevance to its audience.