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How Public Radio Stations Fund Events (and How Yours Can Too)

event sponsorship, Membership, Corporate Support, Major Giving, General Management, philanthropy

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We’re seeing a clear trend in public radio: more stations are experimenting with live content events, and we’re doing so in new and interesting ways. We’re also trying new ways to fund our events. A funding source can greatly affect how an event is executed, who the stakeholders are, and what it’s trying to achieve.

Over the last year, I co-authored a national survey of 14 stations around the country that included the question: where does your money come from to support content events?

We asked stations to evaluate six funding sources as unimportant, marginal, important, and most important, and followed up with interviews to understand the rankings.

We’ll also share how stations can successfully pursue categories of event funding that are not already part of their mix.

Here are the categories and the percentage of stations that deem them to be “important” or “most important” sources of funding:

Funding Sources for Public Radio Events 2.png

1st place: Sponsorships

It’s not surprising that sponsorships are ranked as the top funding source. Sponsorship programs have well-established templates for funding, with proven track records for marketing outcomes. Consider this: Stations with a corporate support or revenue team that thinks beyond the scope of traditional media impressions and agency sales have the highest event sponsorship results. If your station isn’t optimizing its potential for event sponsorships, take time to identify, evaluate, and package your assets and connect them to the right prospects. Also, make sure your sales team has the tools to tell the right story about how live public radio events can benefit sponsors in powerful ways.

2nd place: Partnerships

Many stations are successfully leveraging partnerships with like-minded nonprofits to reach receptive - and often new - audiences, as well as save on event costs. In particular, cultivating strong relationships with performing venues can lead to significant savings. Partnerships with outside media organizations can reduce promotional expenses. Hospitality services that include food, wine, and/or reception needs are consistently identified as advantageous.

When pursuing partnerships, consider this: Cultivate institutional partners as content partners. Connect with leaders of the organizations that interest you by inviting them to lunch or receptions at your station. They can use your station and its work as part of the story they tell to their stakeholders. Your station is likely seen as a powerful force for good in the community and has great name recognition. That’s value you bring to any partnership.

3rd place: Tickets

Some stations were surprised this wasn’t ranked first on the list. In larger markets, national touring public radio shows with recognized hosts can make tickets a more significant source of revenue. At the local level, ticket prices are lower and are often kept that way to attract new or nontraditional audiences.

Consider this: Local stations that produce consistent anchor events for public affairs topics are able to make tickets a more meaningful revenue contribution. But it’s still the musical and cultural events that can attract market ticket prices more readily than public affairs programs. Often a modest ticket fee serves as a vehicle to collect audience information and reduces audience attrition that is painfully prevalent at many free events.

4th place: Donors

Donors with special interests can make big things happen for station events. While they’re frequently protected for annual giving, that doesn’t mean there’s not an essential role for donors - and potential donors - to play in station events. Be thoughtful about connecting with donors-to-be to accelerate their loyalty. Create pre- or post-event receptions that redefine the VIP experience: not just for the top givers, but for your new VIPs: "very invested partners.”

Use these receptions to cultivate targeted individuals, identify potential new donor relationships, and cultivate diversity (in its many forms) within donor groups. It may take some persistence to dislodge the traditional notion of “exclusivity” connected to such events. But when you do, it will be worth it.

5th place: Operational Budget

Two decades ago, operational funds with discretionary budgets would have been the way most events came to life in public radio. This source of funding is often justified with the understanding that events are mission-driven and mostly break even. Public radio stations that generate a low number of events still maintain this position, but those with a higher number of events have needed to diversify to other funding sources.

More stations are creating event departments that are integrated into operational budgets and goals. Stations with designated event people or teams create consistent templates that can be nimble and serve the needs of cross-departmental groups. Event staff are also best positioned to lead informed efforts to explore additional event revenue with more measured results. 

6th place: Grants

Note that grants are still considered important by 50% of the participating stations, although regularly coordinating this funding source can be tricky. An event often turns around faster than the lifecycle of a standard grant timeline. Often, grant money that goes towards an operational budget will help justify event expenses from that budget. This frequently supports the spirit of a grant without needing to articulate the specifics of an event in the application process.

Consider this: Grant-funding organizations often have newsletters and communication methods that highlight the impact of their support. Some stations go beyond the traditional grant-reporting requirements to contact the granting organization’s communication team directly with information on their events. This can get your events program imbedded with a granting organization, especially if it’s timely and has audience survey data with a measurement of impact.

As you consider your station’s events as they compare to these national averages, don’t feel you need to follow the funding priorities outlined by others. Instead, study the advantages your event team is able to shape and use this data to cultivate new funding sources where it make sense for you and your market.

Tony Bol worked for Minnesota Public Radio for 25 years and developed its performance programs department. He worked with a Prairie Home Companion and created other programs such as Wits, MPR Custom Travel and the Broadcast Journalism Series. Today he heads up Culture Casts and works with National Public Radio's touring program.


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