Some public broadcasting stations have instituted “no exchange” or other conservative policies for their lists of donor names in the wake of this summer's controversy over the swapping of such lists with those of politically affiliated organizations. Others have attempted to make it easier for donors to opt out of having their names shared, and a few have terminated their list brokers.
TV station KAET in Phoenix, for example, has started testing a policy in which it no longer exchanges its donor lists with other nonprofit organizations and is only renting compiled lists that are generated by applying demographic profiles to certain neighborhoods. Using a new integrated marketing division owned by the Arizona Republic, a daily newspaper in Phoenix, the station mailed a test of 30,000 pieces this month to geographic clusters based on projected profiles.
Tex Stuart, assistant marketing manager at the station, said that although it was too early to forecast results, he expected the compiled lists wouldn't generate as good of a response rate as the lists the station previously had obtained through rental or exchange.
“It's going to get more costly,” he said. “Some of those exchange lists were productive lists.”
A few other public broadcasting stations have implemented similar policies or have restricted their list exchanges so they only swap names with local cultural organizations in an effort to avoid accidentally approving an exchange with groups that raise money for political purposes.
“Some of the stations are in the process of trying to figure out what their policy is going to be,” said Dick McPherson, president of McPherson Associates Inc., Malverne, PA, an agency that provides direct marketing services for a co-op of 12 public broadcasting stations. “In most cases, it will probably be a more conservative exchange policy.”
Renting lists is more expensive than exchanging them, however, and public stations could lose an important means of controlling their costs if they can't use their own donor lists as currency to acquire new names. Large public stations can generate 25 percent of their income from direct mail solicitations, according to the Public Broadcasting Service. McPherson said his clients mail about 8 million to 9 million pieces a year.
Some stations also have made extra efforts to communicate their list policies to their donors and some have made it easier for their donors to opt out of having their names included on exchange lists. WCET, Cincinnati, mailed opt-out cards this month to all of its members, giving them the choice of either opting out completely or allowing the names to be shared only with “comparable nonprofits,” such as the local art museum or the symphony. The station also included an opt-out card in its monthly program guide, which its members will receive by the end of this month.
“We are being much more proactive in terms of giving people a way to opt out,” said Phil Meyer, director of public information at WCET. He noted that the station does not sell or rent its names to third parties — it only uses them in exchanges “on a very limited, controlled basis.”
KLRU, Austin, TX, which neither rents nor exchanges its donor lists, included a letter from its CEO explaining this policy in its program guide this month.
Meanwhile, stations are awaiting the possibility that new federal regulations will be implemented restricting their use of donor lists. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Washington, which distributes federal funds to public broadcasters, conducted a survey of the 349 public broadcasting stations this summer and is expected to give a report to the House telecommunications subcommittee by the end of this month, before Congress returns to session.
At issue is whether some stations might have violated Internal Revenue Service rules prohibiting nonprofits from engaging in political activities when they exchanged lists with political organizations, rented lists from those organizations or rented their donor lists to those organizations. At least part of the problem, according to Meyer, is the interpretation of the phrase “political activity.” WCET, he said, has rented political lists from both Republicans and Democrats for its own donor acquisition campaigns, but Meyer said WCET has interpreted that to be permissible under current law.
“We don't think that's political activity,” he said. “We think that's trying to build our own membership.”
Meyer said, however, that WCET will comply with any new CPB guidelines, even if they are more restrictive than the current law. Stations that don't comply can be cut off from access to the $300 million Congress allots to the Public Broadcasting Service.