Public radio resorting to end-of-year appeals

With higher education bracing for budget cuts and fund-raising dipping below already "modest" expectations, the area's public radio stations are trying end-of-the-year campaigns to help them stay in the black.

WEKU on Eastern Kentucky University's campus, for instance, ran a one-day pledge drive Friday and reprised it for an hour on Saturday. And WUKY, broadcast from the University of Kentucky, launched a direct-mail campaign to urge loyal listeners to spare extra change by the end of the year.

But there remains uncertainty about whether WUKY will be able to line up key corporate sponsors for its largest annual fund-raiser in 2009.

The public radio stations, which produce Kentucky news and air National Public Radio programs and music, rely on fund-raising and program underwriting by companies and foundations for about 60 percent of their budgets.

At WUKY, an additional 30 percent comes from UK, said station manager Tom Godell. That funding took a 3 percent hit earlier in the year when universities had to tighten their budgets. And Gov. Steve Beshear announced another reduction plan Thursday that would call for at least 2 percent cuts. They could go deeper unless the legislature approves an increase in the state's cigarette tax, the governor warned.

All this comes in the wake of NPR's announcement last week that its difficulty in keeping underwriters has contributed to a $23 million shortfall. NPR will lay off more than 60 of its people and cancel two shows, Day to Day and News and Notes.

"It's a difficult time for a lot of folks, and we're among those," said Roger Duvall, WEKU's station manager.

Through the first five months of the fiscal year that began in July, WEKU has run about $10,000 behind last year's fund-raising level, Duvall said.

The station relies heavily on its regular pledge drives in the fall and spring of each year, but it has occasionally added a brief one- or two-day on-air push for funds in December to solicit additional donations, he said.

"It's not totally unprecedented," Duvall said of the move to spend air time Friday and part of Saturday asking for money to make a dent in the $10,000 shortfall.

WEKU hasn't lost any major program sponsors — which are mostly Kentucky-based firms — but it is "running just a couple thousand dollars behind" in the under writing budget.

In addition to paying for a staff of 13, the station shells out roughly $200,000 for national NPR programs and dues. The station has a total budget of $1.2 million, Duvall said.

WUKY, meanwhile, has mailed out hundreds of requests to listeners asking for a last-minute donation before Dec. 31.

"The response has been very gratifying," said WUKY's Godell, whose station's annual budget is about $1.4 million. "In difficult times and especially in an election year, this is when NPR really shines. And people recognize that."

Giving to WUKY is down about $5,000, while underwriting is about $2,000 below last year's pace, Godell said.

"We set very modest goals. We had a sense of where things were heading. And we are tracking pretty close to our modest goals," he said.

The biggest test could be the annual "Heard it Through the Grapevine" wine-tasting fund-raiser that will be scheduled for late January or early February. That event generally nets WUKY $40,000.

"We've been having a hard time finding sponsors, but from what I understand there might be some things in the works," Godell said. "That's going to be critical."

In the meantime, the stations — like all news media — will continue to experiment with presenting news and features online and through new ways, such as podcasts.

"This is one of the most exciting times to be in public radio because there's all this stuff going on," said Godell, citing WUKY's high-definition digital broadcasts and its experimentation on "It's kind of like Charles Dickens wrote — it's the best of times and the worst of times. All this potential and the worst economic crisis in decades. But we've still got to try to do all this great stuff."