A pledge drive is an extended period of fundraising activities, generally used by public broadcasting stations to increase contributions. The term "pledge" originates from the promise that a contributor makes to send in funding at regular intervals for a certain amount of time. During a pledge drive, regular programming is followed by an appeal for pledges by station employees, who ask the audience to make their contributions, usually by phone or the Internet, during this break.
While public broadcasters are partially or completely government-funded in some nations, there are some countries, such as the United States, where some funds must come from donations from the public. Stations in these parts of the world commonly hold pledge drives about two to three times each year, usually lasting one to two weeks each time.
Pledge drives are especially common among U.S. stations. Although the federal government of the United States, primarily through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), and corporate underwriting provide some money for public broadcasting organizations like National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), they are largely dependent on program fees paid by their member stations. These stations require funding in turn from listeners and viewers (as well as local corporate sponsors) for not only these fees, but also other daily operating costs, and stage regular pledge drives in an attempt to persuade their audiences to contribute donations.
A hallmark of pledge breaks is the "pledge room", where the speakers deliver their message as volunteering individuals answer ringing telephones in the background. Frequent updates are provided as to the amount of money that the pledge drive has raised so far, which is also (on television stations) shown on a numeric display. Small prizes such as mugs and tote bags (known as "thank-you" gifts or, euphemistically, as "premiums"), as well as entries into drawings for larger awards, are also offered by many stations in return for pledging certain amounts of money.
Pledge drives have been controversial for most of their existence. While pledge drives are an effective method of raising money for stations, they usually annoy viewers and listeners, who find the regular interruption of what is ordinarily commercial-free content to be a nuisance. Audience numbers often decline during pledge drives; to compensate, most television stations air special television shows during these fundraising periods. This practice began in earnest in the mid-1970s due to CPB funding cutbacks that were the result of political pressures and the recessions of the time, as well as increasing inflation. As the proportions of government funding in stations' budgets continued to decline over time, such programs became more elaborate in order to sway people who would otherwise watch public television only sporadically (or not at all) to tune in, and possibly donate money in response to appeals during program breaks.
Originally, such programming consisted of arts presentations such as classical music, drama, and documentaries. However, the audience for supposedly "high-brow" fare began declining steadily during the 1980s and 1990s due to older generations (to whom such programming mainly appealed) dying off, while younger ones were largely uninterested in the arts, for a variety of reasons having to do with the eclipse of "high culture" in American society. In order to appeal to such a largely Euro-American, middle-aged and affluent demographic (the so-called "Baby Boomers" and "Generation X"), PBS has resorted to specials such as self-help programs with speakers such as Suze Orman, nostalgic popular music concerts, and special versions of PBS' traditionally popular "how-to" programs.
Generally speaking, the phenomenon is less pronounced on American public radio stations, primarily because of the high popularity of the news and talk programs on that medium and the routine-based patterns of radio listeners that are much more easily disrupted than those of television. Much of the focus is placed upon the "drive time" NPR news programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered, which have the highest ratings of all public broadcasting in the U.S. This is in contrast to PBS member stations universally holding their drives during weeknight prime time and on weekend afternoons and evenings, and not during the daytime on weekdays or weekend mornings, when children's programming is typically scheduled.
However, in light of intense competition public broadcasting faces from a greatly expanded media environment, other stations, especially radio, have aimed to eliminate pledge drives altogether, or significantly reduce their length, by asking for contributions throughout the year during regular station identification breaks. On radio, such programs as ATC may have one of their planned stories deleted simply to extend the length of the fund-raising "pitches".
In a more recent trend, some stations also advertise that pledge drives will be shortened by one day for every day's worth of contributions donated in the weeks leading up to a drive. Additionally, some radio stations have started using prospect screening during their pledge drive to identify potential major donors for later fundraising activities.