Free Riders, Givers, and Heavy Users: Predicting Listener Support for Public Radio

By Bailey, George | Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, December 2004 | Go to article overview
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Free Riders, Givers, and Heavy Users: Predicting Listener Support for Public Radio


Bailey, George, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media


The economy of public radio in the United States has been changing from dependence upon government tax dollars to self-sufficiency based on audience service. In the largest recontact study ever conducted for public radio, 30,834 public radio listeners who kept Arbitron diaries in 18 major markets were interviewed. By linking questionnaire responses to Arbitron diary data, the study determined the predictors of which listeners become givers and which givers contribute at different levels. Giving is driven by reliance upon public radio as measured by listening behavior, along with the realization that public radio has become personally important to the listener. Consistent with economic theory, giving to public radio appears to be driven by impure altruism.

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In the last two decades, the economy of public radio in the United States has been changing from dependence upon government tax dollars towards self-sufficiency based on audience service. According to audited financial data compiled by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, tax-based support for public radio dropped from 72% of income in 1980 to 33% in 2001. Federal tax dollars passed through CPB dropped from 30% to 14% of public radio's income, while state tax dollars expended by universities dropped from 23% to 12%. In the same period, listener contributions increased from 10 to 32% of public radio's income, while underwriting increased from 8 to 19%. In 2001, listener support reached approximately $200 million, double the 1991 amount when adjusted for inflation (Thomas, 2003).

Some academic critics have expressed their discontent with the evolution of public radio towards a self-sufficient medium. McChesney (1995) predicted that "there will be no more government-subsidized broadcasting in the United States by the end of the [1990's]. I believe this is unfortunate and that it is very much in our interest to be expanding through any number of measures the nonprofit and noncommercial media sector" (p.1). His concern is that public broadcasting, without tax dollars, would target an affluent rather than working-class audience, since upscale viewers and listeners have more disposable income to contribute. Thus, public broadcasting will eventually succumb to market forces and no longer provide an alternative to corporate media (McChesney, 1999).

McCauley (2002) observed, correctly, that NPR's intelligent programming appeals to a highly educated audience: "A quick review of NPR's history reveals a network that has virtually been forced, by strictures of funding and politics, to serve one particular audience and serve it better than anyone else" (p. 67). Yet, in the tradition of McChesney, he considers it inappropriate that NPR should target an erudite audience.

Less doctrinaire observers like Loomis (2001) point out that all sources of funding, including government tax dollars, come with their own costs: "Critics question a funding system that requires broadcasters to regularly lobby Congress for financial support. The broadcasters question the logic of having to continually delegate resources to raise funds from community and business sources" (p.524). Accordingly, public radio managers have turned to their own audiences, asking for support from those listeners who use the service.

Stavitsky (1995), who has chronicled the development of audience research in public radio, summed up the situation pragmatically: "Nonetheless, the fiscal realities of contemporary U.S. public radio--indeed of public radio worldwide-dictate that stations must be cognizant of their appeal to listeners who support them financially, and thus audience research will remain an essential management function" (p. 186).

Each year public radio strives to become more self-sufficient based on its own audience. Yet no individual listener has to send money to public radio. The programming is freely distributed on broadcast channels.

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Free Riders, Givers, and Heavy Users: Predicting Listener Support for Public Radio
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