Misc: September 2009 Archives


September 26, 2009

Last week my local public radio station (KQED) was fund raising again, and they've introduced a new gimmick where Ira Glass from This American Life calls up some poor listener and hassles them about why they're not donating to public radio. I've done a fair bit of thinking about this topic, so I'd certainly be more than willing to receive such a call.

I think the facts of the situation are fairly well agreed upon:

  1. Public radio stations produce programs and broadcast them over the airwaves.
  2. The programs are available to anyone with a radio receiver (non-excludable).
  3. My choice to listen to a given program does not increase the station's costs or interfere with anyone else's ability to listen (non-rivalrous).
  4. The station has a program where people can donate money, but only a relatively small fraction (10% is the number they claim) of listeners actually do so.
  5. The station sells some advertisements (they call it underwriting) and receives some goverment funding, but neither of these is sufficient to cover their costs.

I don't think there's any real controversy about the above; the only question is about what these facts imply. KQED's implicit (and sometimes explicit argument) is that if you listen to and presumably enjoy (an economist would say this is the same thing) then you have an obligation to donate. [Actually, they drift between this and the argument that you should give them as much as you would be willing to pay for the service, but that's pretty clearly crazy; it's hard to see what the ethical justification for them capturing the entire consumer surplus is.] They recognize a narrow exception if you can't afford it, but let's stipulate for the moment that you can do so.

I don't find this argument particularly convincing. Actually, it's not really an argument, just simple assertion: you use our free service, which wouldn't exist without people chipping in, so you have an obligation to chip in. Even so, we can plug other values into this equation to see how it holds up.

The wide availability of computer networks has brought us a huge number of products and services that are offered on a free basis: much of the software that runs the Internet is distributed for free, as are many web sites, blogs, etc. In many cases, those services are partially supported by grants and advertising, but in almost all of those, this support is nowhere near enough to cover all the costs, which are typically donated either explicitly or implicitly by the people providing the service. So, here we have a very similar situation (points 1-5 all apply) and yet my experience is that practically nobody donates money to support projects like this (for instance, I don't ask you to hand over money to read EG) and people generally don't feel like they have any obligation to do so.

So what's the difference? As far as I can tell, the principal way in which public radio is different from Web sites and free software projects is that in the latter two cases, the people providing the service have day jobs and are donating their time instead of expecting to be paid for it. This allows them to keep their costs a lot lower so the activity doesn't absolutely depend on donations to keep it operational. By contrast, because the people in public radio have this as their job, their costs are a lot higher. Maybe I'm missing something but it's not clear to me why the desire of public radio employees to get paid rather than working for free somehow creates an obligation on my part to fund their lifestyle.

Oh, one more thing: KQED's web server runs on Apache; I wonder if they've donated any money to the Apache Software Foundation. I don't see them on the sponsorship page (minimum placement $5K). Do you think we can get someone from ASF to give Ira Glass a call?

Full Disclosure: This is a little bit of a cheap shot, but only a little bit; Chicago Public Radio, which does This American Life, runs IIS, but this ad is airing on KQED, so I don't think it's a totally unfair point.