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Here and Now

An IOU for NPR

May 15, 2003|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

It was after 10 p.m. on a Sunday night, and I was in the car, cruising on the 405 and listening to Pledge Drive on KPCC-FM (89.3).

A special presentation of "This American Life" had just ended, and now two announcers had arrived with the inevitable news from the kitchen: They needed dollars. My dollars. In fact, if I didn't give money to KPCC, right now, "This American Life" might disappear.

Anyone who has been "stealing" National Public Radio as long and consistently as I have knows what to do here: Change the station. Or, you can take the less cowardly, more self-actualized route: Don't change the station. Instead, allow yourself to feel bad. Tell yourself: I would give to NPR, but I evidently spend my money on shallower things. This is who I am.

I used to give to NPR, but that was years ago, and after much internal struggle I believe I've come to terms with it. I had had the long journey through all sorts of Pledge Drive-induced feelings: guilt and self-hatred, followed by rage, numbness, irritation, shortness of breath (later determined to be a panic attack unrelated to NPR), then glee for some reason, a brief interval of sadness, followed by my trusted fallback position, mild gloom.

Now something else has kicked in -- Pledge Drive as entertainment. What I mean is that I enjoy listening to otherwise sober NPR announcer types badger and wheedle me for money, the way certain friends get pleasure-at-a-remove from the annual Chabad or Jerry Lewis telethons.

Standard NPR Pledge Drive rhetoric involves a mixture of self-effacing but earnest begging and hard-core liberal guilt-tripping -- with gifts.

You get the gift of knowing your hard-earned dollars support, say, "All Things Considered" and its roster of reporters-whose-names-are-fun-to-say (Lakshmi Singh, Snick Paprikash). You also get a souvenir gift. It used to be coffee mugs and T-shirts, but now it seems the gifts are getting more inventive. For a KPCC pledge, for instance, station pledge of $10 a month, I could receive a "This American Life" paint-by-numbers kit.

Let me say that I know nothing about raising money except that I would be bad at it. I also understand that NPR member stations rely heavily upon the charity of listeners, whose donations can account for the majority of a station's operating budget -- which includes license fees for programs like "This American Life" and the cost of producing local shows, etc. I further realize that stations use Pledge Drive as a rough ratings barometer, gauging a show's popularity by how many people pledge while that show is airing.

I know all of that, and yet I don't pick up the phone. Maybe I'm waiting for a clearer signal of NPR's doom -- for a Pledge Drive that sounds like this:

"OK, we have to raise $110 ($124 Euro) in the next 30 seconds or reporter Sylvia Poggioli is going to get thrown off her flight from Rome to Amsterdam, where she had intended to report on the latest developments in Slobodan Milosevic's war crimes trial at the Hague. Unfortunately, we only had enough money for Sylvia's cab fare from her flat to the airport, so we're kind of in a bind. Now we know that you are the kind of intellectually curious, textured person who relies upon NPR's news coverage to make informed-sounding comments at dinner parties. And all we're asking for is $60, five bucks a month. If 50 people call in the next 20 seconds with a pledge of a measly five bucks a month, Sylvia Poggioli will be able to board her flight. Five bucks -- the cost of one ice-blended at Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf (including change left in tip jar). So make your pledge right now. There's a planeload of people going from Rome to Amsterdam waiting for you to become an NPR member ... "

Now that would certainly be something to contemplate, driving the freeways late on a Sunday night.

Paul Brownfield can be contacted at

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