KQED discovers excludability

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Like anyone else who listens to public radio, I've often felt that donating money would be a lot more attractive if you could just make the pledge breaks stop. Of course, since radio is a broadcast medium and you're only donating a small fraction of what they want to raise, that's not really possible. Technically speaking, I suppose they could set up some alternate, encrypted broadcast, but that sounds like more trouble than it's worth since conventional radios can't do any of that stuff and while satellite radios can do encryption not that many people have them and of course those who do aren't exactly the typical public radio demographic. It's of course obvious that Internet streaming could be used to provide this service, but that's not really that great a substitute either, especially for those of us who tend to listen to radios in our cars. However, KQED, at least, seems to have decided it's worth a try; this time around they are offering a pledge free streaming option, at least sort of.

I say "sort of" because it's not like anyone who donates gets access. Rather they're positioning it as one of their "gifts":

Public comments about our on-air fundraising drives have not been ignored! KQED has listened and is proud to have developed technology to respond with an alternative. The new Pledge-Free Stream is the first attempt by any public radio station to offer listeners the satisfaction of giving without pledge break interruptions. We believe it is critical for our organization to recognize how we can best serve you -- our members and listeners. Through this launch of the Pledge-Free Stream, we will be evaluating listener interest and feedback to inform us on the viability of this product in the future.

A few observations about this plan. First, it seems to reflect a rather different view of the role of the pledge breaks in KQED's programming than I would have expected—and certainly that I have. As suggested above, I always figured that the point of the pledge break was to hassle you to donate some money and that once that purpose had been fulfilled they would naturally stop with the hassling, except that with radio it's kind of an all-or-nothing proposition. That always seemed implicit to me in the exhortations from the announcers that once they hit their fund-raising goal they would go back to regular programming. However, that's clearly not how KQED sees things, since they're actually requiring you to separately pay for pledge-break freeness:

Because the Pledge-Free Stream is a separate gift item, you must select it when making your donation. For example, if you'd like to donate $75 and receive the KQED Wave T-shirt, you would still need to select the Pledge-Free Stream and give an additional $45, for a total of $120.

And since they do pledge 3x a year and this "gift" only applies for this pledge drive, you're looking at paying $135/year not to listen to fund raising.

So, why isn't KQED just providing this service to anyone who pledges?

At this time, we are not offering the Pledge-Free Stream as a free gift. Current members and recent donors will also need to give an additional donation of $45 to receive this service as a separate thank-you gift. Since this is the first time KQED or any public radio station has offered a pledge-free stream, it is important for us to accurately measure public interest. By your response and the number of people who donate for this gift, we will be able to evaluate how to offer the Pledge-Free Stream in the future. Your feedback will help us improve our service to you, as well as understand the value of this gift. There is also a substantial cost that KQED must cover to produce this secondary stream, from equipment to doubling the number of announcers. The funds raised through this service will help offset those costs.

As far as I can tell, the cost rationale is basically bogus. There's a fixed cost to producing the extra content, but as soon as they offer it to anyone then they've already incurred that cost. [Also, how high can it really be? They programming being preempted is largely national programming they pay NPR or PRI for plus the interstitial announcements they need to run.] As for the costs of hosting this, if we assume that they're running a 32kbps stream and every listener uses the system 24x7 they would be able to host the service on Cloudfront for something like $.05/listener-day or about $1.00 for the entire pledge period. Really, it's far less since nobody listens 24x7

The opening part of this paragraph seems to me to suggest a more likely likely rationale, namely that they're trialing a subscription service and want to see what the market will bear. There's actually one more factor to consider that they don't raise at all: I've been talking as if forcing people who have already donated to listen to pledge breaks was all loss, but arguably it's not. If nothing else, it forces those people to listen to a lot of free advertising for the station's sponsors (and especially to listen to the announcers pimping the various "gifts"). Allowing people to opt out to some extent diminishes the value those sponsors are receiving for funding the pledge drive, and perhaps diminishes their willingness to donate.

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