This is my favorite time of the year. Because it’s the only time when there are no public broadcasting pledge drives.

But wait. While I was typing this sentence my mainstay NPR station announced it was beginning its “December celebration” of a “Favorite Things” weekend. They don’t say “pledge drive,” but there it is: the frequent interruptions, the awkward banter between two hosts who have said the same things so often they descend into rote babble, the clever-yet-guilt-inducing recorded appeals from NPR celebrities and the bribery of a “thank you gift” at certain giving levels (albeit with holiday CD twists).

Not a “pledge drive?” If it walks like Sylvia Poggioli and talks like Sylvia Poggioli, it ain’t Ray or Tom Magliozzi.

Now, no season is safe.

Don’t get me wrong. I love public broadcasting. I happily donate to not only aforementioned news and jazz KPLU Tacoma/Seattle, but also news and information KUOW Seattle and classical KING-FM Seattle, which went the public radio route last year. I give to stations in cities to which I travel regularly, even though it seems pledge drives follow me from one city to another, in sequence, like a clueless stalker who never tires or shuts up. I donate to KCTS 9 public television (where you actually get to see, not imagine, the awkwardness behind the rote babble).

I even write analysis pieces on education technology for the NPR/KQED education website MindShift. I have earlobes in the game. But I grimace whenever the begging starts.

There has to be a technological solution. If KING-FM can modify its on-air programming to be more like Internet radio, there must be some app or device to allow me to listen to broadcast signals in real time, un-annoyed, once I’ve donated. And I challenge the Seattle tech community to develop it.

Some humble starter ideas:

Public Radio Fastpass. Very unlike the Disney theme park ticketing system of the same name (except for the time-saving concept), the Fastpass is issued immediately upon donation. This unique alphanumeric code is punched into a web app (for live streaming) or a control module/device for speakers through which passes live broadcast audio. Activated by the annually re-issued donor code, the web script or module recognizes, compresses and edits out, in real time, pledge breaks which begin and end with a signal inaudible to the human ear.

The only potential flaw is what happens when an hour of programming only takes 40 minutes. In those cases, the app/device switches to a pledge break-free live HD Radio signal which has the added benefit of containing all the programming that was replaced by rote babble.

It turns out KQED San Francisco has actually tried something like this, directing pre-drive donors to a live alternate web stream. But it’s only one station and doesn’t help those who rely on broadcast signals, such as while driving.

Audio TiVo. Some original XM Satellite Radio models had the capability, as TiVo does for television, of letting you pause live broadcasts. Now we need a digital radio that lets you pause and fast forward. It wouldn’t require much in the way of changes at the broadcast stations: just use multiplexing to send a time-advanced version of the live signal before it’s on the main broadcast channel. Ten minutes ought to do it. Anyone accidentally listening to the wrong signal in real time will simply be fashionably early to work or dinner.

Tip to manufacturers: Only sell these slight-time-shifting radios directly to public radio stations. They will become the most coveted donor premium ever.

I tried to ask my Facebook and Twitter peeps for more ideas. I know there are podcasts. I know there are stations with alternate, non-mainstream programming on HD Radio (I own a desktop model). I know I can find a cassette tape recorder at a garage sale. Arvid Hokanson, KUOW’s assistant program director, even suggested a delightfully low-tech solution for very special donors: have a local public radio personality (such as KPLU’s Dave Meyer) sit with them on their commutes during pledge drives, filling in the breaks with conversation.

But I want to hear programming, especially news, in real-time without erudite street urchins proclaiming, “Please sir, we want some more!” I don’t care who builds it or get credit for the idea. Just make it. And give me one.

Heck, I’d donate to its Kickstarter project. And do have Alec Baldwin or David Sedaris promote the funding campaign — it’s the only good in broadcasts that are otherwise pledge-breaking bad.

Frank Catalano is a consultant, author and veteran analyst of digital education and consumer technologies whose GeekWire columns take a practical nerd’s approach to tech. He tweets @FrankCatalano and consults as Intrinsic Strategy. His favorite public radio program, after the daily NPR news shows, is WNYC’s Radiolab

 

 

Comments

  • Guest

    Podcasts, Frank. The pathetic eleemosynary whine of public radio is but a tap of the 30-second button away when you’re listening to a podcast.

    Frankly, the whole notion of needing millions of dollars to run a series of transmission towers and expensive studios just to get me audio and video is completely outdated. I don’t even use a radio in my car; my mobile communication device provides all the programming I want with none of the ads, none of the begging, and none of the other nonsense on which conventional broadcasters rely.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      Podcasts, unfortunately, don’t work if you want to listen to news programming in real time. NPR apparently doesn’t release the podcasts of its news programs (Morning Edition and All Things Considered) to its website until after they air in the last time zone. And there’s the matter of not getting any of the local news coverage, such as that reported by KUOW and KPLU. Podcasts are great for feature shows, though, such as Radiolab.

      • Guest

        That’s a shame. I personally avoid listening to news in real-time; my friend Jon has pointed out literally hundreds of cases in which breathless reporters have said misleading, incomplete, or just flat-out stupid things in an effort to report the news quickly. I prefer the kind of curated reporting that emphasizes intelligence and accuracy over speed, and at least for now that’s available in podcast form.

        As for local content, I found that KUOW has its local news available to pod: http://kuow.org/rss

        • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

          It’s a bit difficult to get much benefit out of traffic and weather, not to mention important breaking news, that’s delayed by a few hours. (And, sadly, there’s no avoiding occasional stupidity in any medium, especially when all the details of a story are still developing.) Be nice to have a solution, tongue-in-cheek or not, versus a workaround.

          • Guest

            Traffic and weather are available on one’s smartphone: Google Now provides up-to-the-minute updates on how long my commute is to take and what the weather will be, for example. Traffic-enabled GPS systems help me navigate around slow areas. Here again, it is not necessary for me to contribute money to hear a man read general information when my phone does that for free. (Furthermore, most “traffic reporting” concerns roads on which I do not drive, and I do not consider it necessary to fund the reading of such information to me.)

            Instead of pouring more money into outmoded information distribution models, I encourage all to embrace the creative destruction that is right there in our own pockets.

      • http://twitter.com/jetcitystar Isaac Alexander

        Frank, what type of real time news do you believe you “want” or “need” to listen to?
        As for NPR not releasing news programs until after they air on the last time zone, NPR is only hurting itself.
        I subscribe to the KUOW and KPLU podcasts. I listen to the episodes maybe the next day. I don’t see a need to absolutely listen to a show “live” as it happens.
        I totally agree with you that NPR stations are not being user friendly AT ALL by continually asking for funding all the time. Why station managers have chosen not to address this is absurd.

        • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

          Isaac, I think I may have already addressed the opening question elsewhere in the comment thread. While I like podcasts, I frequently also listen to on-air broadcasts in real time while driving or in a hotel, or the live stream if I have decent Internet access when traveling. I know I’m not the only one, even among GeekWire readers. And pledge drive breaks are ubiquitous across both.

          • http://www.blockbeta.com Robbin Block

            And what about live call-in? Won’t work with a podcast.

          • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

            Plus election coverage and news about rapidly developing stories (such as Hurricane Sandy). I do rely on Twitter for breaking news headlines, but often want more live coverage depth, especially on stories of personal interest or importance. Good point, Robbin. And as others have noted, this is less about listening habits than preventing the relentless scourge of over-pledging.

    • Paul_Owen

      The trolls are focused on the wrong issue. This isn’t about broadcast towers or delayed playback. The real question is who is going to pay for research, fact checking and writing the articles that you enjoy. It doesn’t matter when or how you consume it, you want talented human beings to do it (until we develop a robot that can ask John Edwards what he did with the money). If subscriptions don’t work for you, the ads on the right side of this page might be the answer for you. (BTW, there’s no workaround on skipping pledge breaks on terrestrial radio but KPLU does a better job with recurring subscriptions, shortening their drives to 4 rather than 10 days).

      • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

        Agreed. And I’m happy to pay for it. I just would like to find a tech fix to being endlessly reminded after I pay. (As KPLU, which I otherwise like, has kindly extended its Favorite Things “weekend” to noon Monday.)

      • 4theisland

        “BTW, there’s no workaround on skipping pledge breaks on terrestrial radio . . .’

        Would it be just too gauche to suggest turning the radio off?

  • Whowhatwhen

    Seeing as public radio is just a shill for liberals they will not be getting my money.

  • BrentR

    The fastpass idea seems totally doable. You could probably simplify it to have it shift during a pledge drive break onto an alternate programming stream rather than deal with time-shifting, etc. Maybe give users the option of selecting ‘best of’ episodes of favorite shows, music, etc. (along with the option to not shift, if donating is sufficient to ease the pain of listening to the pledge requests). Having a registered app that did this would give the stations lots of opportunities for other customer insights as well. Could make gift pledges more attractive, maybe open up more options for day sponsorships, etc.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      Brent, the app idea — perhaps an exclusive one for paid-up donors/members — would be brilliant. KQED has an app, but specifically says that it does not work with their pledge-free stream due to authentication issues. But if the app were solely for donors (and authentication “baked in”), it could access an alternate main live stream with either current or “best of” segments covering pledge breaks and, as a smartphone app, allow for connecting via Bluetooth to even car radios. We’re getting there. I am ever hopeful.

  • http://www.blockbeta.com Robbin Block

    Having volunteered for the community radio station KBCS in Bellevue, I understand the pledge drive tedium from both sides of the microphone. I would love to see a tech solution as well; in this way, we’d only be speaking to the people that haven’t pledged yet — somewhat like drip mailing. And sorry if I’m broadening the argument, but it also seems that stations need to get more creative in how they approach both pledge drives and funding in general. Maybe national NPR gets it, but many smaller stations rely on the same-old and expect better results.

  • Beaky

    I just quit listening. It had reached a point where every time I turned on NPR, it was East Coast Jewish people talking about Israel. Which, quite honestly, I care about NOT AT ALL…

  • NickN

    I don’t have the solution for pledge drive circumvention. What I do is give a single donation promptly at the end of December. I never give during a pledge drive. I still have to deal with the endless junk mail, but if everyone ignored the little pledge drive drama and gave at the end of the year,perhaps that would discourage more drives.
    If you give during a drive, you’re agreeing there should be drives.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      My point is not the drive (though clearly I agree they’re annoying, and I rarely give during one). No matter when you give, you should be able to basically flip some kind of technological switch and have the “asks” go silent. A man can dream, can’t he?

  • Public Radio drone

    Guess what? We hate them, too!

    Public radio pledge drives will end when public radio is actually publicly funded. Public broadcasting, as we remind you every pledge drive, gets the majority of its funding from listener donations, not the government.

    Public libraries don’t do pledge drive because they actually receive the majority of their operating revenue from the public via – gasp! – taxes. If you don’t like pledge drives, then write your congressperson and tell them to adequately fund public broadcasting.

    Our government spends a fraction (less than 10%) of what most other “developed” nation spends on their public broadcasting systems. http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/10/04/if_you_think_big_bird_is_breaking_the_bank_be_glad_youre_not_paying_for_schnappi

    Here’s an idea: how about requiring commercial broadcasters to pay a nominal user fee for their (currently free) enjoyment of the public airwaves – you know, like when you want to use a public park, you have to pay?

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      Hey, I understand the fiscal need for pledge drives. Just give me a way to bypass them once I’ve given and am already a “member.” That’s all I ask.

  • AllesK

    Love the pledge-free radio on KQED. While driving I used the bluetooth connection to my iPhone to avoid the broadcast. Best investment I’ve ever made!

  • Public Radio Gal

    Speaking as an employee at one of your friendly local stations, I would absolutely love for this to be an option. Get to work, Seattle techies!

    The only problem I see with this? Such a high percentage of public radio listeners are old. So old that they don’t like to use the Internet. So even if there were an option for members to stream straight-up programming online, we’d still get a high volume of complaints from strictly terrestrial listeners.

Job Listings on GeekWork