Strategy Is Not Enough: The Importance of Changing the Culture of Public Media

Membership, Corporate Support, Major Giving, General Management, diversity & inclusion

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Once in a meeting with a senior manager of a station I worked at, I was discussing why I felt that the structure and culture of the organization could do a much better job of fostering respect, empowering innovation and providing psychological safety to its employees. Though new ideas were often seen as threatening and feedback was rarely well received, I was daring to speak up because I believed that these changes were imperative for creating the collaborative spirit of innovation needed to ensure the long-term survival of the station. 

Well into the conversation, the manager said, “you know, you’re in a tough spot.” Immediately, I thought of a dozen different things he might be referring to, but, not wanting to assume, I asked him to elaborate. He explained that even though I had been working there for almost three years, I still had to prove myself. 

This was an organization where people were often shamed for being “too sensitive,” and fear of perceived failure routinely drove management decisions. Perhaps he meant to be helpful by suggesting that if I only kept my head down and worked hard there for a decade the other senior managers would finally take me for my word and respect me. But I went back to my desk and cried. 

In that moment he’d confirmed one of my darker fears about our industry: Our overwhelmingly traditional, white, patriarchal culture is killing public media.

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The State of Our Institution

Membership, Corporate Support, Major Giving, General Management, diversity & inclusion

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I dare ask, my fellow colleagues, are we not institution builders?

Do we not see ourselves as a “society” of media makers with peculiar “customs”? At the very least, don’t we “set in motion” the constructs of well-designed and articulated best practices and core values?

In doing so, we take great pride in the intentionality from which we create content, the teams that produce, and the well-manicured models employed to monetize. All of this and so much more, we exclaim, in the name of public service.

This racist-drenched and pandemic-entrenched society has come upon a “reckoning.” At once, that bend in the arc of justice is revealed to not only be stubborn towards justice but rooted in design, intentionality and maintenance, suggesting the end game - covertly and with a wink - has been achieved.

It was James Baldwin, the great American literary who confessed:

“I don’t know how most white people in this country feel, but I can only conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions… You want me to make an act of faith… on some idealism which you assure me exists in America which I have never seen.”

Public media is an American institution not spared of these charges. The titans of our institutions are overwhelmingly white. I’ve heard it said that we suffer a “whiteness problem” despite years of inclusion, diversity, equity and access efforts. Like Baldwin, I don’t know how we feel, I can only conclude what we feel from the state of our institutions. I say we, for like so many of my colleagues of color, it can be argued that we have co-signed this institution-building by our very presence and efforts and yet failed in molding it to at least reflect a shared space inclusive of our images and voices.

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Leveraging The CARES Act for Corporate Sponsorship

Corporate Support, calendar year-end, COVID-19

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Prospecting new sponsorship leads during this time is a challenging proposition. But the resulting necessity (and freedom) to think outside the box can also be a silver lining. Several stations report doing just that as they successfully prospect and secure sponsorships from new nonprofit or social-service-oriented clients. The prospecting they are doing is from a source that might not seem obvious: The CARES Act. 

Signed into law back in March, 2020, The CARES Act was designed to provide fast and direct economic assistance for American workers and families and small businesses, and to preserve jobs for American industries. Recipients in your area likely include many small businesses and a good number of nonprofits. For-profit businesses -- which presumably have marketing and other traditional business functions already built in -- may be more likely to spend their assistance right away. But that may not necessarily be the case with many nonprofits. Indeed, especially when it comes to social-service oriented nonprofits, many received an influx of cash and still have money to spend by the end of the calendar year.

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Surefire Ways to Secure an Appointment With a Sponsorship Prospect

sales strategy, Corporate Support

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You’ve completed your research and believe you are looking at a company that is fairly likely to be interested in a public media sponsorship at this time.

What do you say when you call for an appointment? 

Your goal is to create immediate interest for further discussion. Engage the prospect. It is that simple. Don’t try to sell them over the phone. Sales research has shown that you have between 10 and 30 seconds of attention span with which to earn the right to advance your call. This means you have to maximize the impact of every word. 

Use your hard-won prospecting and researching. It is critical that the person on the other end of the phone know you have given some thought to why a public media sponsorship could help his or her company. Don’t use a canned speech! This is the opportunity to differentiate yourself by showing that you have an idea of the issues they are facing. Instead of saying, “This is so and so from WXYZ, would it be possible to meet with you to talk about how public radio and our online and digital media could help your business?” You should focus on specific business issues they might be facing

The basic components of your opening statement should contain:

  • Who you are and where you’re from
  • A question or statement to demonstrate that you have done your homework and to engage the prospect
  • In very simple terms, how public radio and its digital media offer differentiated benefits to the client
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How WBEZ Made Strategic Changes in Fundraising to Win This Year’s Benchmarks Award

Benchmarks for Public Radio Fundraising, Membership, Corporate Support, Major Giving

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For a station to reach and sustain its full fundraising potential, it must make smart investments in talent and programming, and create strategic growth in all areas of fundraising. 

That’s what’s been underway at Chicago’s WBEZ over the past five years. And the station’s success as a result has been telling. WBEZ was given this year’s Benchmarks Award, which recognizes sustained revenue growth and overall fundraising and corporate support excellence. From FY15 to FY19, WBEZ’s total gross fundraising revenue increased 61%. Total net fundraising revenue increased 54%, showing the station’s ability to spend its fundraising dollars wisely. 

Increase Share of Listening

While overall listening to broadcast radio is down across the country, WBEZ increased its own share of listening by 13 percent over five years. This was achieved with a disciplined approach toward programming, promotion and positioning. The station revised its program mix to ensure it was more “on the news” each day, and strategically encouraged a daily listening habit on the radio and smart speakers. 

Individual giving can only be as strong as the loyalty of the audience, and the strength of fundraising starts with listening.

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Public Media: Existing Within the Shadow of White Supremacy Culture

Membership, Corporate Support, Major Giving, marketing, leadership, diversity & inclusion

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White supremacy is all around us. If you are aware of this, congratulations, you are on the road to recovery; the first step is admitting it. If you are struggling to grapple with this concept, know that you are not alone. This statement may challenge your inner spirit, causing denial and a sense of panic followed by a twinge of anger. I know this because I have felt it. These powerful, pessimistic feelings show up in our actions, and interactions with others, when merely the ideas of racism and racial bias are hinted at. This is how white supremacy wins every time.

Conversations around systemic racism in our society are far from new. Mountains of data, studies, and reports offer stark evidence that, in the United States, the systems we all rely on were intentionally designed to marginalize and oppress Black and brown people. Yet little progress has been made to change them. Why? Because white supremacy has been the standard throughout. We default to beliefs, actions, and characteristics that promote and uphold whiteness. If it’s not white, it’s not right.

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The Corporate Support Proposal That Most Often Leads to 'Yes'

sales strategy, Corporate Support, prospecting

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Corporate support proposals are often thought of as a key part of the selling process. In fact, they are part of the implementation process. Your sales efforts will include the conversations you have with a prospect to understand what they want to achieve with a sponsorship, and how they are currently marketing to meet those goals. 

The proposal is what comes next. It’s a written statement of the conceptual agreement you’ve already gained in your needs analysis with your prospect. When a proposal is done well, it’s easy to get to ‘yes.’

Before All Else: The Needs Analysis

If you have not reached a conceptual agreement and understanding with the client before presenting a proposal, your written document is unlikely to meet your client’s needs and may waste both of your time. A well-conducted needs analysis and meeting of the minds with your client before you write your proposal is the critical foundation for any proposal.

What Your Proposal Should Accomplish

The purpose of a proposal is to:

  • Demonstrate that you have listened to your client, understand what they need and how they are marketing, and feel confident about what you can provide.
  • Reaffirm the conceptual agreement and understanding already gained from prior meetings/conversations.
  • Explain the options you have and how you can help the client reach their stated goals.
  • Clearly state the sponsorship investment you’re inviting the client to make.
  • Formally sign off and launch the partnership.

Additionally, your proposal can serve as a persuasive document that can be shared with others who have not been part of the decision-making process.

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Underwriting Category Trends for Q4

Corporate Support, COVID-19

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With communities continuing to re-open/adjust across the country and schools back in session in some shape or form, corporate underwriting teams are keeping a close eye on changes to local business spending, working to identify shifting and new corporate sponsorship dollars at the start of Q4. Here are a few observations from the field:

Performing Arts

While the overall landscape here is still fairly bleak, a few markets are seeing a minor resurgence in performing arts dollars, with some local arts organizations working to market virtual or socially-distanced outdoor events throughout the fall and leading into the holidays. 


For the most part, museums and historic sites are back open for business in many markets, and many of these organizations are spending at pre-COVID levels. 


Several markets report an uptick in business from private or parochial schools, many of which are offering in-person education instead of virtual, and are looking to build awareness about these offerings. Private tutoring is also a growth area, as well as office supply stores since families, educators and professionals are stocking home learning/working spaces for the foreseeable future. Traditional bricks-and-mortar education clients are looking to market products and services that help them differentiate their virtual learning game.

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How to Pivot Your Corporate Support Practices to Meet This Year's Challenges

sales strategy, Corporate Support, COVID-19

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The disruption to the public media underwriting landscape caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has been significant. These changes have opened opportunities to pivot how we do business in ways that could also have lasting benefits. Greater Public CEO Joyce MacDonald recently sat down with Paul Jacobs, VP/General Manager of Jacobs Media as part of the PMDMC Summer Series to discuss Here is some of their best advice to take on the challenges brought by 2020:

Pivot to … E-Commerce 

The businesses that support public media have been turned upside down, and the rules for how they can engage and message their customers are changing weekly. It’s as difficult for them as it is for us. Messaging has shifted from “come on in” to “go online.” E-commerce is the way forward and will drive companies’ marketing decisions and changing budgets for the foreseeable future. 

This includes holiday shopping in Q4. In fact, the holiday shopping season has begun! Companies like Walmart and Target have already said they won’t be open on Thanksgiving Day. Like many companies - large and small - they are shifting their selling points to digital. 

This means that those businesses without a digital plan are really scrambling, and that most likely includes some of the smaller businesses that buy local public radio. What can you do to help your local sponsors promote their e-commerce offerings and connect listeners to their online storefronts? Can you create a shopping guide for the holidays, a shopping app, or other specific sponsor-facing solutions? Check out this example from Louisville Public Media.

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A Tale of Corporate Support Sponsorship in FY20

Corporate Support, COVID-19, digital sponsorship

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Once upon a time, early in FY20, many public radio stations were enjoying their best corporate revenue year ever. They needed more inventory to sell to keep up with demand, and to grow and diversify their corporate revenue and corresponding client and prospect lists. 

Then, along came impeachment. 

Midway through FY20, the impeachment hearings were upon us, and with many sponsorship messages preempted for live coverage, stations struggled to make good on their existing and prospective sales. They needed more digital and off-air inventory to sell!

Suddenly, everything changed. 

Then, as the last quarter of FY20 approached, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted corporate support operations as never before. In an instant we were back to having more inventory to sell than we knew what to do with. We were forced to think creatively about tactics to keep sponsors engaged and on-the-air as listening shifted and the economy tanked, all the while thinking about new ways to support the small local businesses suffering the most in our respective communities. Stations couldn’t imagine they needed new inventory to sell!

But they did.

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