Credit: WBEZ

Some people would rather starve than beg, but public radio got over that hurdle a long time ago. But when the WBEZ pledge drive that wrapped up Tuesday was launched, its hat-in-hand appeal to its audience took a new approach that in some minds—including mine—went too far.

A friend told me he heard a WBEZ announcer invite listeners to contribute to the station “along with all the other charities you give to.” He heard announcers invoke the “charitable organization nature” of WBEZ and call the station a “philanthropic institution.” 

As WBEZ, though legally a nonprofit, isn’t in the business of feeding orphans or distributing medicines, my friend believed WBEZ’s calling itself a charity was a stretch. What it gives, thanks to our tax-deductible dollars, it gives back to us in the form of high-quality radio. That’s a transaction I’ve happily helped underwrite over the years, but I’ve never confused the station with the International Refugee Committee or Doctors Without Borders. 

I listened in and heard the same pitch-announcers reasoning with me that since “you give to a lot of charities,” why not us? And reminding me that the station is “part of your charitable giving anyway.” 

So I e-mailed Jillian Shepherd, who oversees WBEZ pledge drives, and told her I was a little put off. She got right back to me.

First, she acknowledged the obvious, which is that that “we are defining ‘charity’ as ‘charitable institution’ or ‘non-profit institution.'” She went on: “As you know 50% of our funding comes from individual donors, and I wanted to make sure that our audience knows that besides being a media organization, we are dependent on donations that are tax-deductible.” 

But thanks to that deduction—and the programming—a pledge to WBEZ is self-interested. It isn’t made to help the needy. 

Or was I splitting hairs?

The nice thing about WBEZ is that it’s willing to split them.

“However,” Shepherd added, “I certainly appreciate the nuance and I can understand that perhaps some people in our audience are bristling at that, which of course I don’t want. I’ve instructed everyone to favor the word nonprofit from here on out.” 

And according to my friend, a more attentive listener than I am, he hasn’t heard the charity pitch since.

Any radio station willing to compliment me on a nuance is a station I need to help keep up and running.This pledge drive’s over but I suppose it won’t be the last one.