Thursday, October 23, 2008

WTJU and the Marathon Muddle

So tomorrow morning I get to kick off the on-air fund drive at WTJU, 91.1 FM Charlottesville, VA. Most public radio stations just fund raise around their regular programming -- with good reason. It doesn't disrupt the listener's routine. And the on-air announcer gets to talk to the same listeners he/she's been conversing with throughout the year. There's already a relationship there, which just helps the message get through.

At WTJU, we have an all-volunteer air staff. It's our greatest strength, and our biggest weakness. It's our strength, because each announcer gets to program their own show. WTJU's program content is (in my opinion) unparalleled in overall quality. Many of WTJU's announcers have a broad and deep knowledge of the music they play, giving the listener insightful commentary as well as some well-thought out and engaging programming choices.

It's our weakness because, well, most of our announcers have day jobs. They're not involved in radio professionally, and many aren't particularly interested in what other stations are doing. And that can lead to bad radio.

During a fund drive, that can be fatal. When WTJU was primarily a radio club for University of Virginia students, it ran non-stop classical music the first week in December when most students were studying for mid-terms. Eventually the Classical Marathon became a tradition, and in time the other genres at WTJU demanded their own marathons. And when the station started raising money on-air, the marathons seemed the time to do it.

Eventually the jazz and classical marathons were combined into a fall marathon/fund drive, and the rock and folk marathons united into one in the spring.

Three things keep these weeks of special programming from being effective fund raisers. Can you guess what they are?

1) Each genre of music only appeals to a portion of the audience. So when the station goes completely classical, three quarters of its audience goes away. And the same thing happens when it goes all jazz, or all rock, or all folk. So we're trying to fund raise to only a fraction of our total audience.

2) The focus is still on the special programming. Many of our announcers are so excited about creating a special marathon show, that they spend most of their on-air breaks talking about the theme of the show, or the importance of the recording just played, or the one coming up. The fund raising message gets crammed in as an afterthought (or sometimes not at all). Some of our listeners have been completely unaware that we were doing a fund drive at all (based on conversations with some listeners after the fact).

3) Our listeners aren't hearing from the announcers they trust. I'll be doing a show on Saturday evening. I'll be talking to people who are used to hearing a different announcer and a different genre (if they don't tune out right away). How effective will my message be to them?

Now some people will give, and that's fine. But chances are we won't see a lot of first-time pledgers, and I know that we won't reach everyone who would be interested in supporting the station.

Even with all that, though, I hope you'll join me tomorrow (either online or through the radio) for the start of the 2008 WTJU Classical and Jazz Marathon (and fund drive). I passionately believe that WTJU is a rare treasure, and I will do my best to help this station reach its goal.

And make no mistake: the financial need of WTJU is real. Over half of our operating budget has to be raised from either underwriting or listener donations. Which means the support (or lack of it) from our audience will make or break the station.

WTJU continues to serve the community because the community supports WTJU. We probably won't articulate it very well, but the most important question we can ask over the course of this marathon is simply this: Are you a paying member of this community?

- Ralph

Day 128 of the WJMA Web Watch.

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