Skinnin’ the Rubes

If you were to shake the ol’ Reverend’s family tree vigorously enough you’d be sure to have a few shady characters drop out of it, and at least a couple of outright con men. And some of their insights have been passed along through family lore. One of those is to be sure that you know just what your “mark” is looking to gain in any scheme; another is to be sure just how much you can skin out of them before they wise up and you have to skedaddle. Maybe my kin weren’t that good at it, as they tended to leave town in the middle of the night with no forwarding address. But for those who are slick enough you can generally milk a rube dry before he hollers.

With all that in mind I’ve been following the latest money-raising scheme over at KUT-FM this past month with great interest. The stated purpose of the “not-a-pledge-drive” was to raise funds to complete the much ballyhooed Public Media Studios, a $9.8 million 20,000 sq. ft. extravaganza that is needed to rescue station personnel from their basement dungeon. And I mean that seriously: The main complaint I heard during that week was that they don’t like being in the basement location where they’ve been for years and years. Apparently once they are sprung from that dungeon they will settle into that new two-story glass-walled studio facility, which is actually adjacent to the also new $54.7 million Belo Center for New Media. A link showing the whole shebang is here:

Considering how many years all this has been in the planning it might be asked why in the world KUT feels the need to suddenly decide to start asking for money to complete such a grandiose project. But getting answers to that is problematic—the powers-that-be over at KUT don’t seem to be as easy with answers as they are with requests for money. And it leaves me to wonder if it might relate back to that first rule from my con men ancestors: Know what your mark wants to get out of the deal. In a published article that came out shortly before the pleas for money started (, station manager Stewart Vanderwilt alluded to wanting something more than just blueprints and pretty drawings to show the public.

“You always want to go into the public phase with as much accomplished as possible,” he states. But what he doesn’t state is just why a public phase is even needed. Is it really feasible to imagine that the Belo Center project would ever have gone forward without all the needed finances in place? I think it would have been an interesting meeting to have sat in on when it was suggested that they just start building and then hope they would get enough pledge dollars to complete it. High-level financiers aren’t really known for their laughter, but I can only imagine the guffaws coming from that room.

So why the need to do the not-a-fundraiser? I would say the answer is, why not? After all, there’s never enough money for an enterprise such as KUT, and if you have an occasion that might even remotely justify it then you just go for it. And what do the marks—errr . . . listeners—get out of pledging money to a project that is obviously already well-funded? I think it depends most on the amount of money being pledged. For those pledging relatively small amounts, say $100 or less, I would say the answer is that they really buy into the spiel that their donations are actually necessary to make good things possible. I think it’s part of all our better natures to help those that we believe are truly in need. And the on-air pleas for money are very effective, and deliberately stated to reach people on the personal level that makes a person think they are actually helping someone in need. The fact that even a minor bit of research shows the fallacy of that is immaterial when you have a DJ that you enjoy listening to every day pleading with you to please send some money then the first response is to do so. Members like that used to be the backbone of KUT, as well as at other public stations across the country. But with the new rules for “enhanced underwriting” and third-party fundraising, they are probably a minor part of an operation such as KUT now. I’d be very interested to know just how much of the million dollars-plus that was raised that week came from pledges of $100 or less, but KUT will not release information such as that. It might wake too many people up . . .

The next group would be those who pledged $500 or more. Those people were breathlessly told that they would get their names added to a wall in the new studios, a thrill that somehow escapes me. But that’s what this level of marks/listeners gets out of their money—an ego boost. And I would suppose that if you are the sort of person who dreams of having your name up in lights somewhere then maybe this is the next best thing. And I suppose that at this level the whole tax-deduction aspect would come into play. But I would still think there must be some bigger “bang for your buck” out there somewhere. But, again, it’s all in knowing what your mark is looking to get.

And then there’s that ever-mysterious upper-level type of donors, those I would never classify as marks. These are the folks who have bought their way into one of the “Leadership Circles.” There are a number of different levels there—starting at $1,200 and going up to the Vanguard Circle (that one will cost you a minimum of $25,000). I would think at that sort of altitude that mere ego boosts never come into play. If you have that kind of bucks to throw around then your ego is probably getting boosted every time you look in the mirror. Which is probably pretty often. . . . That kind of money gets you some actual clout, plus you get to play with the big boys. Big boys being station managers and the others in your circle, where you get to look down at all those in the lesser circles below you. And you also get in on the action, because this is where a big slice of the money donated that week came from.

I listened to a lot of that fundraising, and pretty much every day there would be a “matching funds challenge” of some sort of another. I know that on at least two days there were matching funds of $90k or more. And on the Friday finale there was one of $100k+. Those funds alone would add up to a big part of the total reached. And since those matching challenges always seem to magically get met, who’s to say how much more is actually donated from the Leadership Circle. Again,KUT won’t divulge those figures; better for you not to know.

So at the end of the week, the total posted on the KUT website was a cool $1,175,198, surpassing both the printed goal of $1 million and the goal stated on-air of “just under” a million. And all in just a five-day span, pretty impressive all around. Or as Kenya Lewis at College Radio United remarked to me: “$1 million in 5 days? Must be nice to be an NPR affiliate!” But I doubt that the NPR affiliation had much to do with it. It was mainly just a matter of keeping the two rules of the con in mind.

But it is the college-radio aspect that really makes this whole spectacle so ironic. KUT’s license is held by UT Systems, but they are the very antithesis of an actual college radio station. In essence they are a commercial station operating under a public radio license. But there is an actual student-run station on campus at UT Austin—tiny little KVRX. And the same week that the not-a-pledge drive was going on an interesting article came out about KVRX, and college radio in general, in the Austin Chronicle, Austin’s alternative weekly. A link to that story is here:

In that story author Luke Winkie laments the decline of college radio, citing such instances as KTRU at Rice, KUSF at University of San Francisco, and WRVU at Vanderbilt, as well as the proposed sale of KVRX’s transmitter earlier this year. So far that has gone nowhere, and since their license is shared with another station, UT would have trouble selling the actual license. But KVRX is definitely having money issues: The article lists them having expenses so far in 2012 of $131,522, which is about half of what KUT was raising each day of their fundraiser the same week. Can you imagine how it would be if the radio fans who donated so much to this bloated construction project had just tuned up the dial to 91.7 and donated the same money there, even for just one day? Or if KUT management would for just one moment turn their eyes across campus to where KVRX is sitting and find a way of using their incredible fundraising ability to assist this training grounds for future radio talent? But I wouldn’t hold your breath while waiting. I seriously doubt any of the students down that way are in the Leadership Circles, and that’s where KUT’s attention is focused.

So now KUT has raised its million bucks in five days, and very conveniently their next actual fundraiser isn’t until next fall. Plenty of time for everyone to recover from whatever economic impact their generosity might have brought about, no matter which level. That’s very important, and it brings us back around to that second rule from my shady relatives—the one where you have to keep in mind just how much you can skin out of a particular rube before they get wise to your scam and start hollering. I’ve been watching KUT work this type of bit for several years now, and I keep expecting the basic members to look around and see just how they are being used. This particular week would have been the perfect time for that. Common sense should tell you that multimillion-dollar construction projects are not dependent on last-minute listener donations to move forward. But KUT knows their game so well by now that they really don’t bother to cover that up. They know too well what their marks want to get out of the deal, and they know just how far to push. I could only wish that my distant relatives could have done so well. Then I might have been born into a Leadership Circle!

—Rev Jim


One Response

  1. Reblogged this on Seniors for a Democratic Society and commented:

    The Reverend Jim on the new face of “public radio”

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