Thank God it’s over. Today I woke up to the classical music station WFMT, the Chicago public radio station that is one of the very, very few for which we have listenable reception, and there was… classical music playing.
This is remarkable because for the last few days – more than a week, maybe two – WFMT has been having a funding drive. (It’s slightly spooky that there’s no information on WFMT’s website about the funding drive bar an extravagant thank you on the way in, so I can’t check how long it lasted.) Initially I assumed the drive would be like Children in Need or Comic Relief, and would last all of a day. For a day, I can easily put up with being asked every five minutes to donate, hearing the names of recent donors read out like a litany, being updated several times an hour on the total raised, and being urged to consider the importance of classical music to the cultural health of everyone in Chicago and in the world at large, in our present and our future. But after a week you wonder who out there is listening and still wavering:
– Should I become a Dollar a Day donor for a 12-CD expertly chosen Bach collection, a bumper sticker, and today’s bonus CD? (Though I should probably give the Bach collection away to the list of deserving elementary schools the station has collated, because after all I am such a discerning, and wealthy, listener that I already have a full Bach collection.)
– Am I so impoverished that all I can afford is to become an Arts Circle Member? (I have no idea what that means, but in fundraiser speak being in a ‘circle’ is, I think, the equivalent of being ‘the great unwashed’.)
– Or would I like to pledge at Leadership level, which sadly, does not entitles me to run the station and get rid of the annoying funding drive, but does entitle me to sit in the studio and ‘spend some time with us’?
There were many more options. Of course there were. And there were many twists on what might motivate us to call. Some hours there was the carrot that if we hit the total by a certain time they would stop fucking talking about donation and play some actual music. This was when it was at its most holding-you-to-ransom, with the TV-kidnapper style script: ‘I don’t want to keep talking about money. I’m sure you don’t want to keep hearing about it. Just pay up, I won’t cut off your child’s ear, and we can all listen to some nice music together.’
Other hours, some well-meaning but in practice hugely irritating business would pledge ‘Challenge Funding’ so that if enough was pledged by the public they would write a huge
cheque check. When Chicago Jewish Funerals did this earlier in the week, it ended badly. Not for the coffers, perhaps, but for the dignity of the female presenter allotted to do a three minute interview with the head of Chicago Jewish Funerals. He was a modest soul, and left her with nothing to do but emote about the loved ones she’d lost, how important it was to be able to trust your funeral home at a difficult time, and what a great guy this chap was. I have rarely been less edified.
Does anyone really pledge as a result of these things? I only tuned away from WBEZ, the Chicago talk radio station that makes This American Life when the funding drive got unbearable. But as well as driving me back to listening to Radio 4 on my iphone, it all makes me think very fondly of the BBC licence fee. As the NPR site explains, public radio stations get only around 16% of their funding from federal and other government funding (the foundations figure includes a federal government grant). Individual listener-subscribers give 32% – though how many of these sign up during funding drives I do not know. Wikipedia says they make audience numbers fall.
Mad Tea Party types want to defund public radio. Of course they do. But can you think of a better argument for big government than never having to hear another funding drive?