WFAE targeting donors

By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Since losing its state funding in 1991 and spinning itself off from UNC-Charlotte a year later, WFAE has developed an unusual mix of financial support that depends equally on corporate sponsorships and annual gifts from listeners.

Now, to cushion the ups and downs of the economy and address future needs, the news-and-public affairs station wants donors to think about making gifts that will have a long-term impact.

“We’re trying to alter the mindset of our listeners,” says Roger Sarow, president and general manager.

WFAE generates roughly 45 percent of its annual budget of nearly $2.66 million through underwriting, another 45 percent from members making annual gifts and the rest from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and interest income.

That mix is unusual, Sarow says, because universities or state governments still own roughly two-thirds of public radio stations and provide roughly one-fifth to one-fourth of their funds.

What’s more, he says, most public radio stations count more on local members for financial support than on sponsors.

But as one of five public radio stations then at UNC campuses that lost their state funding during the 1991 recession, WFAE has learned to cope, Sarow says.

“We have been able to gear up,” he says. “We’ve worked aggressively to grow the underwriting income since 1991, and our structure allows us to go out and add staff to do that marketing.”

WFAE has a full-time underwriting staff of five people, plus a three-person staff for membership, which now totals 12,000 active donors who contribute about $100 a year each.

Both the underwriting and membership staffs also work on the station’s on-air drives in the spring and fall that raise $220,000 to $260,000 each.

Still, WFAE, which attracts 153,000 weekly listeners who tune in six to eight hours on average, has long-term needs, Sarow says.

The station, for example, has nearly completed a $160,000 renovation of its studio, and this fall will revamp its transmitter at a cost of $600,000.

The U.S. Department of Commerce provided nearly half the needed funds, which WFAE is matching with gifts from members and its board, and by asking some donors to make gifts in addition to their annual contributions.

Efforts to cultivate bigger donors have paid off, with the number of donors giving $500 or more growing to more than 200 from only a handful three years ago.

WFAE wants to build an endowment and is part of the Major Giving Alliance, an informal group of public radio stations that helps develop materials and support they can use on their web sites and on the air for planned and major gifts.

“We’re trying to raise consciousness among our listeners that it would be a perfectly appropriate philanthropic choice,” Sarow says, “that they might consider a multi-year gift or help with equipment or capital or endowment or include us an option in their will.”

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