WABE-FM finishes spring fund drive with $1.1 million in new pledges, braces for GPB's arrival


Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

90.1/WABE-FM, facing new competition next month from Georgia Public Broadcasting at 88.5/WRAS-FM, finished its spring fund drive with more than $1.1 million in new pledges and more people signing up to provide regular monthly donations.

"It exceeded everything I had hoped for," said WABE's chief operating officer John Weatherford.

The pledge drive ended before the surprise GPB announcement May 6 in which GPB will take over the daytime programming on WRAS's 100,000-watt FM dial slot starting June 2. GPB will directly compete with WABE in mornings and afternoons with "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" and air news/talk programming from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. when WABE opts for classical music. Over time, GPB could potentially siphon off individual pledge dollars and underwriting support from WABE.

Weatherford said GPB's desires to enter the Atlanta radio market were not surprising but how it happened certainly did.

At the same time, he didn't convey nervousness to me. "In the end," he said, "it will make WABE stronger and better, maybe even faster than we would have done things."

Over the past decade, Weatherford's special focus has been expanding local news coverage from a couple of staffers to more than a dozen. "I worked several years," he said, "to get Denis O'Hare here. Steve Goss didn't come overnight."

At this early stage, he wouldn't speculate how GPB's arrival on the scene would affect WABE down the road.

He said he has worked with GPB in the past but not so much any more. He said before joining Public Broadcasting Atlanta, which runs WABE and PBA 30, in 2004,  he consulted with both GPB and PBA and knew current president Teya Ryan's predecessor at GPB Nancy Hall. There was more cooperation between the two organizations before Ryan came in 2009.

"It seems there's a little different atmosphere with the current leadership over there," he said, though he said his relationship with COO Bob Olive is cordial.

For instance, Weatherford said, the two news operations used to coordinate but that changed in recent years. "They moved on. We moved on. We don't have that relationship anymore."

(Ryan, in an interview the day the GSU partnership was named, said nothing but nice things about WABE. "They do a great job. We have a lot of friends over there. Our television stations coexist in town and both do quite well. There is a big audience for public media.")

For now, WABE is happy that its spring fund drive went well but given a major change in the way people are contributing to the station, comparing year over year pledge numbers is not apples to apples.

The key change: a year ago, WABE began asking donors to provide smaller monthly amounts to the station, which potentially could bring in more money to the station. Psychologically, for instance, giving $10 a month instead of a single annual $100 donation seems less onerous, but actually gives the station more money in the end. These are called "sustainers."

This method of donation collection has become increasingly common among non profits. Past studies have shown this improves donor retention and increases overall donation amounts over annual pledges. The basic gist: it's easier to maintain donors than it is to find new ones - no different than customers in the for-profit sector.

"We're had a remarkable response," Weatherford  said. Last spring, 42 percent of people who donated became sustainers. That percentage, he said, was expected to go down, falling to 36 percent in the fall and 27 percent this past spring. Overall, more than 12,000 people have signed on to be sustainers.

Last year's pledge total of $2 million included "sustainers." Anyone who keeps on giving money in the "sustainer" program is no longer counted in the pledge totals. That's why the dropoff to $1.132 million isn't particularly meaningful.

This also meant the number of donors dropped to 10,965 from 15,393 a year ago.  About 2,960 of those donors signed on to the "sustainer" program.

While this sounds like the great system because it no longer means having to bug folks to make a new contribution every year, there is a major flaw caused by all those identity thieves stealing credit card numbers from places such as Target.

Credit card companies have been handing people new credit card numbers and many folks are changing credit cards without informing all parties (including charities such as WABE) who regularly takes money of out said credit card. So WABE receives "rejects" when they try to get their monthly donation and have to go through the arduous process of tracking the person down. That can be labor intensive.

"We hope they leave a valid email," he said, "but not always. If not, they left us a phone number. But if it's a home phone number, we have to call after hours. We hate to bother people like that." During pledge drive, they asked people who changed credit cards to call in and ultimately received a lot of responses.

I looked over Public Broadcasting Atlanta's IRS 990 form (which I picked up earlier this month from the station and is not available online) and audited financial statements (which you can read here.) The financials combines both TV and radio operations but from what I'm told, radio generates more of the income than TV.

For the fiscal year ending June 20, 2013, Public Broadcasting Atlanta's revenues and public support fell 5.3 percent: $12,973,670 from $13,695,230. Some of that had to with the "sustainer" program. Instead of getting all the spring pledge money upfront, a lot of it ended up being spread out over 12 months and only a small portion of the money was counted in fiscal year 2013. Individual contributions, which represent 47 percent of total revenues, fell 4 percent to $6.075 million while corporate underwriting, which represents 31 percent of revenues, fell 3.7 percent to $4.063 million.

Monies from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which is taxpayer funding, dropped 5.4 percent to about $1.39  million, or about 11 percent of total revenue. About 8 percent of the station's support is in-kind donations.

Expenses went up 3 percent, largely a result of increased production and programming costs.

The number of employees was largely unchanged from FY 2012 at 87 from 88.

Net assets fell to $8.9 million as of June 30, 2013 from $9.4 million on June 30, 2012. Still, the trend has generally been upward in terms of assets, which was $1.26 million in 2000.

Weatherford said he anticipates financials will look better for FY 2014, which ends at the end of next month.

The top paid staff for fiscal year ending June 30, 2013 are President and CEO Milton Clipper ($296,815), Weatherford ($236,003) and Director of Underwriting Jared Blass ($183,904). Clipper's total compensation rose 2.7 percent year over  year. Weatherford's compensation is up 5.5 percent. Blass's compensation fell 2.2 percent.

Charity Navigator, which ranks various charities based on financial transparency and efficiency, gave Public Broadcasting Atlanta a rating of 53.74 out of 70, or three out of four stars. The site currently uses the previous year's Form 990 to calculate its ranking. (If you log in, you can see the actual Form 990.) Over the past 13 years that the site has tracked the company, this is the second highest score it has received.

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