Was I imagining things, or did the WBEZ announcers sound cheerier than usual during the membership drive that ended last week? Maybe it was the fact this spring’s drive was reduced to just five days on the air—after days of hints to listeners to go online to make their pledges. Maybe it was the campaign’s success: the revenues it raised—$1 million—soared 33 percent above the 2016 spring total, and that drive was considered a good one.
Or maybe it was just a general sense that life is so bad it’s good. Donald Trump’s in the White House, fake news imperils democracy, and there’s not much partisans of openness and truth can do about it except support the journalism they trust. So they do.
As soon as Trump was elected, donations and subscriptions started pouring in to favored media. The head of ProPublica told me last December he’d seen a “very dramatic increase in smaller donations.”
When Trump tweets dismissed the New York Times in February as a “dishonest” and “failing” newspaper, the Times pointed out that it had been enjoying the biggest jump in digital readership in its history. We might call these defiance dollars, and they seem to be also showing up in Chicago.
“We saw a little boost [in contributions] right after the inauguration,” says Kassie Stephenson, WBEZ’s vice president of marketing and membership. And that was before Trump proposed the “hard-power” federal budget that would cut off funding completely to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Stephenson thinks the success of the spring drive reflects that threat. She can’t say to what degree because, she explains, the membership rolls were swelling long before Trump—up to 83,300 as of last December, a 22 percent rise in two years. What’s more, 70 percent of WBEZ’s donations from listeners are now made online, which means far fewer phone bank volunteers getting an earful from the public about whatever outrages are fueling its generosity. But Stephenson’s pretty confident.
She tells me Trump doesn’t particularly imperil WBEZ because CPB covers just 6 percent of its budget. “The broader issue,” she says, “is the smaller public stations that get a significant portion of their funding from CPB. The fear is that all these smaller stations in rural areas will go away.”
Meanwhile, at WTTW, “we’re definitely seeing support across the board,” says marketing veep Anne Gleason, “but I don’t want to say our March pledge drive has something to do with Trump.” She’s not saying the March pledge drive had nothing to do with Trump—she’s not saying that at all. But she’s more reluctant than Stephenson is to put two and two together. “Anecdotally, for sure we’re definitely seeing positive support,” Gleason says. “It’s kind of a huge deal across social media channels. And every day we get some kind of message—’Oh, I’m putting a check in the mail today,’ or ‘I’m going to the website.'” The website is chock-full of invitations to sound off. “Sign the Petition,” it says. “Share Your Story.” “Take Action.”
“Trusted. Valued. Essential,” says the I love WTTW website. “Help us make a strong and compelling case for continued federal funding and support of public media.”
Gleason explains that WTTW gets more financial support from its listeners than it does from Washington, but if the White House follows through on its threat and stops funding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the programming CPB underwrites and WTTW counts on would be devastated. That’s the danger. Yet during recent pledge drives, neither WTTW nor WBEZ wagged a finger at a bogeyman. WTTW focused on “who we are and what we do,” says Gleason, and the peril to what they do was left unspoken.
But it wasn’t as if the audience didn’t know.