Recently I spoke with Felix Teitelbaum, general manager of WRFI, Ithaca’s community radio station. (Not online, as perhaps is most common in communication today, but on line: coincidentally, in terms of proprietorship, at Ithaca’s community food store.)
I thanked him for the coffee cup I’d received (hand-delivered to my house by a station volunteer) for my donation to WRFI’s annual pledge drive.
“Also, I’m glad to see you because there’s something I want to mention about the pledge drive,” I said, and Felix smiled pleasantly, although perhaps as if bracing himself slightly, politely.
“I think the pledge drive is too limited,” I said. “I think the station should hit it a lot harder.”
His smile suddenly turned to one of surprise, and he laughed.
“That’s the opposite of what I expected to hear,” he said.
It’s true that pledge drives on most stations are a drag. The requests are unspecific and sound scripted and all the same: “If you enjoy our programming, and rely on it, you need to know we rely on you, too - without you, there is no us, so please pledge today.”
WRFI’s drives strike me differently. The pitches are voiced by volunteers, not professionals, and sound personal and real.
My suggestion to Felix was to augment the authenticity of the voices with details or descriptions of actual needs.
The reality is that no single $60 donation is going to make or break a station. A station’s survival is not an issue for any average individual. So, what are the issues? What good is one person doing by giving?
This week I visited Felix at WRFI in downtown Ithaca for a discussion of the station’s needs.
Felix said, perhaps most fundamentally, that simple survival can indeed be an issue. He cited a community radio station in Illinois that recently shut down. With insufficient funding for equipment, office, and other needs, it could not keep a signal on the air.
Even popular and historic stalwarts can falter. WBAI is a non-commercial, listener-supported station serving New York City since 1960. Its continued existence has been tenuous in recent years, however, not just for basic financial needs, but because of resulting contentiousness among staff and supporters.
Felix noted that WRFI is in no such peril, despite what he called a “laughably small” budget. His immediate concern is not for continued existence, but for continued improvement in serving the public. He repeatedly referenced WRFI’s mission of devotion to community interests, not commercial ones.
He said, however, that with a bigger budget, WRFI could reach more of the community. Since its start, the station’s signal has failed to reach major segments of the area; for car commuters (a major part of any radio audience, he said), it can go in and out.
Improvement might involve transmission from a new tower, which of course would cost money. It might mean a new frequency on the dial, which would require regulatory filings and other paperwork taking countless hours of administrative time. Currently Felix is the sole paid employee for as many as 30 hours weekly.
Good programming also costs money, especially programming the station creates. WRFI features extensive local programming every day. It produces a local news show on weeknights, hosted by news director Michayla Savitt and a host of volunteers, and recently began a morning show for news and current affairs three days a week, with plans to expand to five. Both the range and quality of the programming depend on resources and volunteers.
Even unpaid volunteers cost money, for recruitment and training.
Felix cited the value of volunteers, who truly run WRFI. He is pleased with the station’s outreach and assignment efforts, while hoping to do more.
“We’re doing more and more,” he said of every aspect of station operations. “But there are so many projects,” both present and potential, he mused.
With more money and staffing, he said, the station could have more help for its technicians; research new programming; develop current programs and talent; and look (and apply) for new grants and other sources of support.
When I spoke to Felix of the example of my own interest in WRFI, and how it could possibly be addressed more strongly at pledge time, he seemed interested (as always) in development and growth: in doing more and doing better.
“We don’t want to have an air of desperation,” he said, especially as it does not pertain. Instead he returned to the notion of service, of the desire “to be here for everybody in the community,” as creatively and completely as possible, with goals that are aspirational but achievable.
“Help us get there,” Felix said, is the message.