30th Anniversary - Selling the Invisible and Intangible: 30 Years of 'Making the Case'
It was a new adventure in communication, a novel thought. This thing called public radio meant exactly that: radio that belonged to and was partially financed by the public. Long before “interactive” entered the national lexicon public radio had been calling upon its listeners to interact, to be actively involved with and support the programs they listened to. In central Illinois, during the 1970s, public radio was ahead of its time and, admittedly, the listeners weren’t altogether ready.
A promotional insert in the State Journal Register detailing the opening of WSSR in 1975 included a story about the value of “Investing in Thin Air, air filled with good music, challenging discussion, in-depth news analysis.” It was the first appeal that WUIS made to listeners for financial support. The following year the station hosted its first on-air “pledge week” asking individuals in the community to become members – financial supporters – of public radio programming. A mere 612 people signed on, and the appeal raised only $11,000 in revenue, far below what station leaders had hoped to generate.
“I knew we had a large audience of listeners, but they just couldn’t seem to understand that they needed to contribute,” explains Dale Ouzts, the station’s first general manager. At the same time, the WSSR budget was often targeted by the university administration when funds were needed to supplement other programs. “We had to constantly fight for our budget,” remembers Ouzts.
Through the 1980s and 90s, WUIS faced significant fiscal challenges, and fundraising grew all the more crucial to the infrastructure of the organization. In the1980s, the station recognized the need to hire a staff member dedicated specifically to fund development efforts. Following part-time Development Director Marcella Kiesler, Shelley Ford Kerley was hired in July 1986 as the station’s first full-time fundraising employee. Fresh and energetic, this bright young college graduate was brimming with new ideas. It was the age of direct mail, and WUIS was ready to target its market, appealing to supporters of the arts community specifically. The station partnered with numerous local groups and organizations to reach the elusive listener.
On air fundraising remained extremely important, and Shelley prepared for her first on-air fund drive that fall. She remembers being more than a little anxious. “I had never done a fund drive before. The night before it began I had a terrible nightmare. I woke up in a cold sweat and panicking. I was absolutely convinced that I had forgotten to call any volunteers to come and answer the phones the next morning. It took me a good five minutes to convince myself I had called them and they would be there.”
Shelley did more than remember to line up volunteers. During her tenure, on air fundraising dollars increased 77% and underwriting revenues increased 150%. The station was maturing into a much more sophisticated fund development organization.
In 1992, Jeanne Enlow Urbanek, a deeply committed long-term employee, took over the reins as development director. Her term would mark be the beginning of some major programming events for the station and significant fundraising opportunities as well. “I became development director in September and we hit the ground running because we had just found out that we would be hosting NPR’s top rated Whad’Ya Know?”
While the station enjoyed the spotlight as the venue of choice for a few key NPR programming events, WUIS focused on the local angle when it came to fundraising. The station began to call upon its members to make the case during the fundraisers. The impact of the personal appeal yielded immediate returns. “We started with some of our larger donors and they were thrilled to be asked. Listeners enjoyed hearing their friends and people they knew from the community. This prompted more people to pledge more money, and it generated a lot challenges,” remembers Jeanne. “During my eight fundraisers as development director we hit our goal every time.”
While listeners were becoming more willing to lend financial support, political tides were turning against allocation of government funds to support public radio and television. In late 1994, Congressman Newt Gingrich embarked on a campaign to zero-out funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting by the year 2000, charging that the organization leaned too far left for him and others firmly planted in the more conservative camps. Federal funding for public radio and television would begin to steadily decline. Meanwhile, state budgetary pressures were forcing a reduction in university funding as well. Yet, while public funding was slipping, the listening public was gaining.
According to former Station Manager Rob Gordon, ironically, the Gingrich plan was one of the best fund development initiatives ever waged. “He did the not-for-profit sector an enormous favor. What was so fortunate about the Gingrich experience is he didn’t succeed in eliminating funding, and he made the people who cared about public broadcasting more aware of the need to support it. He helped make the case for support. The community was much more aware of the fragility of public broadcasting, and the experience made the industry stronger overall.”
Although fundraising remains a constant challenge, today the station enjoys widespread support throughout the area. The listening public that once couldn’t quite grasp the concept of investing in “thin air” now generously pledges some $200,000 annually to support this vital news and information medium. Nonetheless, the financial pressures may change, but they never subside, and with every fundraiser the words “listener-supported public radio” are more than a catch phrase, they represent the true foundation of WUIS.