DENIAL, OF COURSE, is the first stage.
“For those who are just waking up, welcome to our October pledge drive!” my radio trilled, and I groaned and pressed my pillow hard over my ears. Maybe if I couldn’t hear it, it wasn’t happening.
“This is [insert name of local National Public Radio reporter] and today I’m here not to report the news as we faithfully do EVERY SINGLE DAY INCLUDING CHRISTMAS…isn’t that right, [insert name of another NPR reporter]?” “Oh that is right, [insert cute insiderish nickname of first reporter]…” “No, today we are taking a pause in honor of YOU, our listeners—our bosses!—because YOU are the ones who pay our bills! YOU are the ones we rely on to keep the lights on and the correspondents reporting from Ghana and Pakistan and Bahrain!”
And you are the ones I’m turning off, I hissed. Anger stage.
They’re right. We do pay the bills for independent radio; that’s how it stays independent and therefore increasingly valuable, in this age of media megaconglomerates and faux news and consumerist everything. Truth be told, I love NPR: its boldly boring economic and foreign policy reporting, its pretentiously correct pronunciations of Van Gogh (“vun-khokh”) and Dakar (“da-kaaaar”), the supreme superiority of Nina Totenberg’s brain, the exquisite nasal dweebitude of Peter Overby’s voice, the mellifluous authority of Ofeibea Quist-Arcton’s name. From global breadth to intellectual depth, NPR richly satisfies me as a news source.
Worth paying for? Absolutely—especially in an age of diminishing public funding. That’s why the pledge drive represents a double shot of annoyance, at once reminding me of my debt of conscience and depriving me of my morning news.
And so I moved into an odd permutation of the bargaining phase. Yeah yeah, I’ll pledge, just quit nagging me already, I carped inwardly, as a hundred tawdry dodges formed and died. I’ll turn to the other NPR station! Better yet: I’ll stop listening to NPR completely!
This was the wrong track and I knew it: I was going to make the call, really I was, it was the right thing to do, of course I would call—the moment a matching gift offer was announced.
No: I’d make the call when the premium was something I really wanted! Not the Morning Edition coffee mug, not the NPR reusable grocery tote, no noooo…I would hold out for the 100 percent hemp tee emblazoned with the Japanese characters of NPR’s Tokyo affiliate; characters I figured would cast NPR sophisticates like myself in just the right worldly light but which possibly translated to I am not a shithead.
This bargaining stage, I confess, drove me to new heights of perversity. It’s okay if I don’t give as long as I make myself listen to as much of the pledge campaign as I can. (I know, I don’t get it either—though my childhood priest might.) The hair-shirt approach filled me with guilt and familiarized me with NPR’s every last little fundraising tactic…but it also led to what turned out to be by far my savviest bargaining strategy: I will give if the radio hosts get through an entire day without doing anything stupid.
I mean, it was possible. The spots actor Alec Baldwin recorded last year were genuinely funny—the one where he threatens to reassign veteran weekend anchor Scott Simon to helicopter traffic reporter without your pledge; or the one that promises a new “Hollywood Level” pledge premium where Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal will come to your house and mow your lawn.
Instead I got a highly respected local reporter suddenly, randomly, launching into a number from Oklahoma!—a cruel cognitive ambush that made me sit down and take stock. Really [insert name of slightly less-highly respected reporter], it’s come to this? I thought disconsolately. Show tunes?
It would be easy to pinpoint this as the moment the depression stage set in. But in my heart I knew my depression wasn’t NPR’s doing. No, it was shame. Finally…shame. The shame that knows a bald-faced freeloader when it sees one. The shame that This American Life host Ira Glass counts on whenever he calls a nonpledging listener—he’s really done this—and busts him on the air. That subterranean well of shame that bubbles deep within each of us and that NPR had finally—through the self-immolation of a journalist’s dignity perhaps?—drilled deep enough in me to mine.
Shut us up! such tactics seem to beg, and indeed are -accompanied by admissions from NPR hosts that the sooner you give, the sooner they’ll stop. Like the awful guitarist in the New York subway whose sign reads, “Will stop playing for $$,” NPR cunningly exploits its listeners’ abhorrence of the campaign into the savviest strategy for its success.
It’s like loving an addict, I grumbled as I punched those involuntarily memorized numbers into the phone: Loving NPR but loathing the methods that sustain it. Yeah, I pledged. Yeah, it’s worth it. I guess you could call it acceptance.