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Too Cool for NPR? A listener Speaks Out Against Chicago Public Radio's Fall Pledge Drive

Robyn Coffey

Illustration by Paula Salhany

Here are three words to strike fear and anxiety into the heart of any self-respecting culture junkie: "Fall Pledge Drive." Smart readers know it, that semi-annual phenomenon designed to psychologically browbeat and guilt-trip innocent WBEZ listeners, like you and me, into giving up our hard-earned cash to enable complete strangers to enjoy "free" radio programming.

It's an entire week of dread, mixed with the faint hope of tuning in to Chicago Public Radio during one of the brief segments of real news, and topped off with the torture of droning, repetitive announcers and overeager volunteers entreating us to call. Right now.

"CALL RIGHT NOW or world events might happen while we're busy talking!"

"CALL RIGHT NOW and, with your three-hundred-dollar donation, receive a chance to win a raffle ticket for a drawing where the prize may or may not be the opportunity to win a Nora Jones CD that you can buy at Tower Records for ten bucks!"

"CALL RIGHT NOW; because, if you're sitting there actually listening to the pledge drive, your social life is so boring you've surely got money to spare!"

Gone are our carefully pruned, immaculately spun, fifteen-minute, bite-size nuggets of intellectual culture. Without my public radio dose of what CPR's website (www.wbez.org) calls "engaging, thoughtful, and entertaining programs of depth, breadth, diversity and substance," I feel my white collar become grimy, my silver spoon tarnish. Normally I float through life with my head high in the clouds of chic worldliness, but the pledge drive forces me to look down at the backs of those I carelessly tread upon--the dull, faithful, diligently good-hearted members and volunteers whose donations enable public radio to make me smarter and cooler. Of course, it would certainly ruin my image, were I ever to donate money myself. I feel that by selfishly pirating non-profit radio stations I gain points in the all-important game of Art School Cool.

Two points for mentioning a topic that "I heard on NPR." This makes me sound hip and alternative.

Four points for successfully arguing a point using facts and sources heard exclusively during a one-hour segment of Talk of the Nation. This makes me sound modern and "with-it."

Seven points for getting an art school hipster to admit he's never heard of this incredible-awesome-alternative-underground-garage-soul-rock punk band whose albums have sold tens of thousands and are just the hottest thing in the scene right now, even though I only heard of them last night on the radio. This gains me respect and admiration.

Ten points for refusing to give money to support public radio because I'm too cool and unique to be a part of such a blas´┐Ż thing as the liberal intelligentsia.

Really, they should be grateful I listen at all. After all, I am a member of their most underrepresented listener group: a young, single female. I mean, if they catered to the 18-25 years-old with tempting rewards for pledging like expensive shoes, pharmaceuticals, and beer, we'd rock the drive just like we rocked the vote.

So, what's to be done about wanna-be sophisticates like me who refuse to support non-profit organizations? Sure, National Public Radio's website (www.npr.org) lists a few other forms of funding. Stations pay programming fees to carry nationally broadcast shows like Morning Edition, Talk of the Nation, and All Things Considered. NPR receives grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Science Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. But that money only makes up a part of their annual operating budget of $100 million dollars. If I don't pay, and people who want to be cool like me don't pay, where's the money going to come from?

I propose NPR hits up the Department of Homeland Security. With a budget of $300 billion and the means to toss it away on things like the National Security Advisory Color Alert Thingy and lining the pockets of various war-profiteering corporations, it can afford a few bucks to bring culture to the American masses.

The DHS's allotted spending on its "Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection" program has skyrocketed from $96 million to a proposed $777 million in 2005, according to the Under Secretary of Defense's National Defense Budget Estimates for Fiscal Year 2004. This is the program responsible for the sudden post-9/11 boom of "surveillance" conducted on American citizens by the CIA, NSA, and FBI. It allows these organizations huge liberties to spy on people, detain and question them without justifiable cause, and read their email and the books they check out from the library, whether they be suspected terrorists or your geriatric auntie.

If the American government found it in its heart to spare a few of the millions of dollars it's obviously got lying around, we would never have to suffer through another excruciating pledge drive. We could go on sucking up "engaging, thoughtful, and entertaining" programs like PBR and pretzels, and the military can go on covertly watching us do it with barely a dent in its financial arsenal.

As for me, I'm just going to put on the Nora Jones CD I got at Tower Records, crack open a newspaper, and maybe whine a little about the state of public broadcasting today. That's worth five points, at least.

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December 2004