Let’s take a break from pledge break: An open letter to KQED

Robert M. Kaplan loves public television and radio, but hates pledge drives, particularly unnecessary ones, like the one KQED, his beloved station, launched recently. If you do the math, the longtime faculty and health sciences administrator insists, some stations don’t need the pledge money as much as they let on and they should stop shaming patrons for watching. “With revenues exceeding expenses by about $25 million, should we feel guilty about watching ‘Masterpiece Theatre’ without coughing up extra cash?” he asks.

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Get ready. Another PBS pledge drive started on Saturday.

As an avid fan, I gain immeasurably from the high-quality dramatic and educational content of public television and proudly support our local station (KQED). But, during pledge weeks when the commentator says, “and now a message from your local station,” I reflexively scramble for the remote and begin pounding on the mute button.

To be clear, public television and radio stations need money. The federal funds these public stations formerly enjoyed have dried up and we need to find new revenue streams.

The stations I am talking about include all that fall under the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) umbrella. That includes the Public Broadcasting System (PBS, with about 350 local television stations, including KQED) and National Public Radio (NPR, with about 1,000 U.S. radio stations, including KQED and KAZU).

These stations need money, but what used to be quarterly PBS pledge weeks now seem continuous. Worse, the content is losing appeal. True, “Les Miserables” was a remarkable achievement in musical theater. But Victor Hugo’s classic characterization of the destitute loses its magic after the 30th viewing. And there’s something uninspiring about interrupting the perfectly choreographed flow with what sounds like begging from KQED’s “master of the house.”

As a warmup to the actual fundraiser, KQED offered a Sunday afternoon presentation by lay financial advisor Suze Orman. Orman, who has no formal training in finance (although she holds a bachelor’s degree in social work), offered strongly authoritative advice on investments and then explained that donations to KQED will be rewarded with a free template will and trust.

Unfortunately, financial advice is complicated because we all have individualized aspirations and unique circumstances. One size does not fit all. Might distributing generic wills steer bequeaths toward nonprofits like public television? It feels like a conflict of interest.

Orman assured the audience, asserting, “If you can’t trust me, who can you trust?”

Orman’s infomercial was followed by a chorus of aggressive associates directing viewers to call the “number on their screen” and make a donation — NOW! It was reminiscent of Tom Selleck appearing on CNN to persuade seniors to accept reverse mortgages.

On Saturday, the menu shifted to nostalgia music. The December pledge break featured host Wink Martindale and performers Frankie Laine, Roger Williams and the Four Lads. Although you might have heard these names, can you hum their songs? I can’t, and I am in my mid-70s.

These artists hit their peak in the early 1950s. Those who experienced early teen imprinting on 1950s tunes are now well into their 80s. This tells us something about the target audience for pledge week. According to the 2020 census, those over 85 make up barely 2% of the U.S. population. So why would PBS devote so much effort to reach such a small fraction of the population? I hope it’s because it wants to honor senior citizens. But I fear PBS financial advisors are strategically appealing to those whose estates will soon be divided.

So let’s return to the key issue. How much money does KQED need?

According to documents filed with the IRS, KQED is far from bankrupt. The company’s 2020 IRS Form 990 (the most recent year for which filings are publicly available) reveals an end-of-the-year net fund balance of $310,388,329. Contributions that year were greater than $98 million and total revenue was nearly $116 million.

The expenses are considerable, but they do not match the revenue. And employees appear well compensated. Although board members serve for free, the average annual salary of the 16 program officers approaches $250,000. I have no problem with good pay.

Robert M. Kaplan.

But with revenues exceeding expenses by about $25 million, should we feel guilty about watching “Masterpiece” (formerly “Masterpiece Theatre”) without coughing up extra cash?

As a PBS lover, I hate to be so cynical.

It remains the best place to get reliable and nonpartisan news, along with superb coverage of the arts, the sciences and politics. For sure, we want KQED and its sister stations to thrive. Building a necessary reserve is wise. But should loyal devotees be pressured only to bring the station’s nest egg to a record level?

On the other hand, unlike KQED, many public broadcasting stations are failing to reach their fundraising targets. Just last week, NPR announced it will need to lay off 10% of its workforce. With many faithful listeners turned off by the current pledge drives, public broadcasting needs creative new approaches that might attract a broader demographic base.

Those approaches might include tastefully curated ads at the beginning or end of programs. Many viewers might prefer that to irritating pledge-break begging. Let’s work together to sustain these stations while allowing them to maintain the grace and dignity that characterizes the content of their program offerings.

Robert M. Kaplan has held senior faculty and administrative positions at UC San Diego, UCLA, the National Institutes of Health, and Stanford University. He lives in Pacific Grove with his wife, Margaret Gaston, and their two dogs.

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