JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. - East Tennessee State University's public radio station WETS-FM (89.5 MHz) set a record for on-air fundraising during its recent campaign. Just seven days after starting the fund drive, the station had raised $212,167-achieving 106 percent of its $200,000 goal.
The on-air drive began on Wednesday, Oct. 15, at 7 a.m. and ended on Wednesday, Oct. 22, at 9 a.m. The station did not engage in fundraising on Sunday. The total amount of time spent in on-air fundraising was only 49 hours out of the entire week.
The station, which offers an eclectic blend of news, classical music, Americana, blues, Latino and other programs, has been on the air since February 1974. At that time, federal funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting provided nearly half the funding for WETS. Years of Congressionally-mandated budget cuts have reduced the federal share of the WETS budget to less that 10 percent.
"One of the biggest myths about public radio is that listeners are paying for the service with their tax dollars," said station director Wayne Winkler. "The federal share of public broadcasting amounts to $1.53 per person per year. You can't even buy a newsmagazine for that amount. You can download one song from iTunes or Amazon for that amount, which will give you about five minutes of music. Most public radio listeners spend at least 20 hours per week tuned to WETS, so obviously our tax dollars don't nearly cover the cost of the programming we use."
WETS-FM offers award-winning news programs from National Public Radio, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as other pubic radio staples such as Car Talk; A Prairie Home Companion; Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me; and Mountain Stage (which recently broadcast its fourth program from the Paramount Center in Bristol). In addition, WETS offers locally produced programs, including Roots and Branches; Morning Classics; Blue Monday; Ritmo Latino; Women On Air; Studio One; and WETS Concert Hall.
The state of the economy caused WETS staff some concern in the weeks leading up to the campaign. "We were hearing reports from other stations that were conducting fundraisers," said Winkler, "and, while some of them were doing well, others, including several in markets similar to ours, were doing very poorly. We had no idea how the audience would respond."
Instead, the economic uncertainty may have benefited the station. "NPR is one of the most trusted news sources in America, primarily because it is not owned by any corporation but by the member stations and their listeners," Winkler explained. "In times like these, trustworthy news becomes even more valuable. The non-commercial nature of public radio is also a big advantage."
Unlike previous fundraisers which sometimes took as long as 10 days or more, there was no slow time during the campaign. "We started strong and stayed strong through the entire drive. Typically our slowest day for raising money is Saturday; this year it was the best day of the drive," Winkler said.
Winkler credits an increased awareness on the part of the public radio audience for the success of the drive. "There are fewer and fewer choices for diversity of information and entertainment available. Public radio is a great bargain; the listener gets to choose how much and how often to contribute. And, since the public radio audience is made up of some of the most enlightened and civic-minded people in our region, it's not really surprising that they have maintained WETS as a public resource for over three decades," he said.
Money raised during this campaign and the fundraiser scheduled for next spring will determine the budget for WETS-FM in fiscal year 2009-2010, which begins next July 1. "Even if you missed the on-air portion of the drive, you can support WETS anytime," Winkler said. "You can always make a tax-deductible contribution online at www.wets.org."