by Mitchel Cohen,
Chair, WBAI Local Station Board

In February (2010) I wrote a detailed report on the need to vastly improve WBAI’s “fulfillment” rate, as a first step towards stanching the hemorrhaging that could bring down the station. After much debate, there is now general recognition of the problem (and solutions) I’d outlined.

There are two kinds of fulfillment rates: 1) Pledges that have been made but that have not been paid — let’s call that Pledge Fulfillment Rate; and 2) Premiums that have been paid for and that have actually been sent out by the station — Premiums Fulfillment Rate. Both are crucial.

Recent improvements in the pledge fulfillment rate show that management is addressing that concern. As of July 2011, we have improved from around 66 percent fulfillment of pledges to approximately 76 percent. However, another 5 percent increase is still needed in the current fulfillment rate in order for WBAI to begin climbing out of the financial hole that the policies and poor management of previous officials at WBAI and Pacifica dropped us into. The pledge and premiums systems require major overhaul; minor reforms in the way in which pledges are garnered and premiums delivered are not sufficient to reclaim the more than $1 million in pledges that get “left on the table” every year at WBAI, as I’d outlined in my report.

Over the past decade, the systemic financial problems at WBAI (and other stations) – including the poor management, corruption, and the $1 million/year incompetence stated above – were masked by bailouts from other stations. But as the crisis deepens and all stations become unable to meet expenses (let alone pay off their debts), the mask is torn from the face. Pacifica has a very short time – perhaps as little as 6 months – to, to put it bluntly, take in millions of dollars more than it is shelling out.

With WBAI, KPFA and other Pacifica stations unable to meet expenses, some have proposed a triage of paid staff, even though they are performing necessary jobs. Whose job is more necessary, the Chief engineer, Premiums director or News director? Clearly, all are necessary. It is my contention that while prudent cuts at some stations may be needed for the purpose of rooting out corruption and waste, wholesale cuts for the purpose of balancing the budget are illusory and counterproductive. They will not accomplish what management is setting out to do by making those cuts; in fact, they are exactly the opposite of what is needed.

In October of 2008 the National Finance Committee directed that WBAI slash payroll expenses by 30 percent. While I and others at WBAI opposed that directive by the NFC (those cuts were vociferously demanded by KPFA’s Brian Edward-Tiekart and KPFT’s Mike Martin, the key figures on the NFC and approved by the PNB), a majority of the LSB unfortunately supported that wrongheaded “solution” for WBAI. They failed to understand the systemic causes for WBAI’s disastrous financial spiral and how to rectify it. They imposed on the station the same right-wing and anti-working class “solution” to this common and vexing problem facing non-profit corporations today. The cuts added to WBAI’s history of mismanagement a devastating blow from which we have been unable to recover.

This approach has actually worsened the already-difficult financial squeeze at WBAI. One simply cannot cut paid staff below a certain threshhold and still have viable programming that reflects the concerns and maintains the interest of the listeners.

So if wholesale cuts in staff costs do not address the systemic problem, what’s the answer? Pacifica needs to EXPAND its membership base while at the same time increasing fulfillment rates.

Any discussion on finances by the governing bodies (PNB and LSB) that does not start with “How do we increase membership … quickly?” is irresponsible and again misses the point. Especially with its 50,000 effective watt antenna atop the Empire State Building able to reach 18 million people, WBAI’s 170,000 listeners and 16,500 members are good figures to build on, but they do not represent a sufficient base to sustain the radio station given the fixed (antenna costs, studio rent) and variable expenses (wages, increased costs in benefits) in today’s circumstances.

At WBAI, each member contributes on average around $114 per year. (Actually, that figure needs to be delineated more clearly, as it is a mean and does not offer us a sufficient breakdown of how many contributed in the course of the year at each level. But for the purposes of this letter, it is a good enough estimate.) At KPFA, the figure is similar. So, where there is an anticipated $800,000 shortfall (KPFA), approximately 7,017 new members averaging $114 per member are needed to make up that difference.

Yes, there are other things to do simultaneously –

  • fundraising;
  • increasing fulfillment rates (by phone calls to those who pledged but who didn’t send in their contribution); [NOW BEING DONE]
  • concerts;
  • administration cuts;
  • re-negotiating WBAI’s current rent with the landlord;
  • professionalization of the website;
  • returning Gary Null to WBAI’s airwaves; [DONE]
  • putting shows on YouTube.

Those can reduce the deficits significantly, so that, should they be put into effect perhaps only 2,500 new members would be needed for WBAI (and also KPFA) to become sustainable.

There are a number of ways in combination to address this.

There has to be an improvement in programming and an air of excitement around it. We must have a culture NOT of money, money, money but of increasing MEMBERSHIP, of making new members (and old ones) feel wanted. The staff has a critical role to play here in generating that sense of excitement, of shared purpose, of organizing, of being on a mission. Good management would both inspire and coordinate those efforts.

To that end, I want to re-propose a project that Steve Brown mentioned 9 years ago – 3-month trial memberships for $1. (I was at that meeting as a delegate from the Concerned Friends of WBAI and wrote it up in my minutes of the meeting. The Program Director, Bernard White, rejected the proposal. Valerie van Isler, the GM at the time, was interested …. but as usual, the proposal was not implemented.) Yes, you heard me. Trial memberships for $1, with the goal of adding 50,000 such trial memberships to WBAI next year.

What progressive-thinking person would turn down a $1 trial membership? (There is no election coming up for a couple of years, so we can avoid entirely the question of whether trial members would be able to vote in elections.)

The point: We’d gain the contact info for 50,000 people, they would listen to the station, we’d send them a folio (remember that?) and renewal letter, and 17 percent would hopefully renew their memberships at the end of 3 months. The shorter time span would allow us to quickly promote renewal at full price.

Remember, each member averages $114 per year in contributions. A 17 percent renewal at full value of the trial memberships would add 8500 members, more than enough to offset the deficits and enable WBAI to begin paying off its $1.2 million debt to Pacifica to boot.

To make this work, we should offer a welcome gift with each new $1 membership; that is vital: without it, there will be little response. That should be something inexpensive such as a wide-appeal CD or DVD. I’ve checked with several mass-marketing experts (including Steve Brown) and they all agree that this is very effective when done properly – even though the temptation is there for Pacificans to mess with it. DON’T! Let those who know how to do this right run with it.

As Steve writes, the trial memberships can be most quickly and effectively solicited on air, specifically because we will not have to “sell” these people on WBAI — they know us, are already listeners, and aware of our programming.

The on-air pitch would be 30-seconds long with the sole purpose of referring listeners to the website where the full pitch would be made and the gift illustrated and extolled. The $1 would then be captured via PayPal. Steve has long ago submitted detailed instructions for the entire campaign along with on-air carts.

Additionally, the stations would organize listeners and staff to incite and invite people to become part of a “crusade” for the station. Teams of staff and listener volunteers would set up tables at events and communities throughout the listening area. If WBAI sends out just 5 teams per day x 300 days/year = 1,500 tables per year, each table would only need to average 30-35 new trial memberships per day.

All staff would have to “get out there” at least once-a-week and organize, create a buzz – to save their own shows and the station. We would put a “thermometer” onto the website, and use the air to let people know where the teams would be the next day. Again, create a buzz by using the airwaves for this mission.

Can we generate the kind of excitement among listeners as well as staff to embark on that year-long venture to save WBAI?

THAT is what is needed to create a sustainable WBAI and Pacifica. EXPAND THE MEMBERSHIP BASE BY 30 PERCENT. Remember, we do not have much time.

Mitchel Cohen
Chair, WBAI Local Station Board
revised, July 2011


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