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WETS-FM begins fund drive, offers many ways to support public radio

Contributed • Apr 23, 2018 at 10:28 PM

The phones began ringing early Monday morning in the studio of WETS-FM (89.5 MHz), East Tennessee State University’s public radio station.

Volunteers will be manning the phone banks as listeners call with pledges and contributions in support of WETS. But that’s only the second phase of the campaign. Listeners have been making contributions at the station’s website, www.wets.org, since last week, and some supporters won’t need to call at all.

“For the last several years, we have seen a significant increase in the number of sustaining members,” says Wayne Winkler, the director of WETS since 1993. “Sustaining members make an automatic monthly contribution of $5, $10, $20 or whatever amount they choose. These contributions are not tied to the on-air fundraiser but continue every month. For a lot of people, it’s easier to contribute $10 each month than to make a one-time contribution of $100.”

WETS-FM, like virtually all non-commercial public radio and television stations, depends on listener support to maintain its programming. Federal funding, distributed through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, makes up less than 10 percent of the WETS budget. The cost of programming, most of which originates from National Public Radio and the British Broadcasting Corporation, is borne, for the most part, by listeners. During the fiscal year 2017, that cost was $361,652.

At public radio stations across the country, the method of raising money is fairly standard as announcers go on air and ask listeners to call and contribute with credit or debit cards, or to make a pledge to be paid later.

“Our first on-air fundraiser at WETS was in February of 1979,” recalls Winkler, who was a newly hired announcer at that time. “We raised something like $15,000 and thought we were on top of the world. During the last fiscal year, WETS raised just under half a million dollars. We’ve gotten better at this.”

One reason for that success is the growth of the audience for public radio nationwide. According to the Pew Research Center for Journalism and Media, the top 20 NPR affiliates in the country had a weekly audience of about 10 million in 2017, up from nine million in 2016. 

Winkler attributes that growth to the quality of NPR’s news coverage. “Morning Edition has the biggest audience of any morning news program, radio or television,” he says. “NPR’s coverage of the 2016 presidential election generated significant growth in our audience numbers, but more than a year after the election, the audience numbers continue to rise.”

More listeners means more contributors, and in the 2017 fiscal year, WETS raised over $100,000 more than in the previous year. “The election had a lot to do with that,” says Winkler, “along with the fact that there were renewed calls for ending federal funding for public broadcasting. That always stimulates listener support.”

“There have been threats to end public broadcasting funding since the 1970s, and every so often Congress does reduce the appropriation. If it happens, it happens. It would hurt the system as a whole but it’s not going to put us out of business. I think our listeners would step up to make up the loss.”

Winkler acknowledges the assistance of University Advancement, which coordinates all of ETSU’s fundraising efforts, and the ETSU Foundation, which manages the money raised by WETS.

“Most of our sustaining members would like to keep their monthly contributions going indefinitely. We can set that up easily enough, but when the card expires, it’s often several months before the contributor renews that membership with a new card. It’s an inconvenience for the member and a loss of money for us.

“Working with ETSU Advancement and Foundation, we were able to establish an electronic funds transfer, which makes a monthly payment from the member’s checking account,” Winkler added. “Of course, the member can make changes or end the contribution at any time, but most prefer to let it continue. That way when we go on the air to ask for contributions, those members know they’re already making an ongoing contribution.”

The WETS spring fundraiser will continue through Friday, April 27, at 7 p.m. Contributions can be made by calling 888-895-9387 (WETS), or online at www.wets.org.

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