Hawaii Public Radio keeps the faith with its listeners

Beth-Ann Kozlovich
Hawaii Public Radio staff and volunteers man their stations as part of the biyearly pledge drive. Courtesy Photo

HONOLULU—Hawaii Public Radio (HPR) is having a pledge drive. Not earth-shattering news; it happens predictably every six months. Yet the surprise that seems to overtake some listeners in the first few days is troubling. It’s often the ones who’ve been listening for years who seem to complain—at least to me.

Since 2008, one of HPR’s stations, KIPO, has enjoyed a hugely improved signal and I’ve noticed fewer people seem to accost me in parking lots or grocery stores to express their displeasure at what they can and can’t hear. But the vitriol in complaints seems to have ramped up lately. The recession and the particular snarkiness it has fostered may well be the cause. In the big picture, though, these exchanges are far outweighed by enthusiastic support. A few times every recent drive, I seem to be right there when a peeved someone happens to call.

Last night, it happened again. A new volunteer I’d just met was asking about something on a pledge form when the phone rang. I watched the man’s face shift from hopeful anticipation at taking a pledge to discomfort at the realization that he was about to become the recipient of a small time rant.

“We only have two drives a year,” I hear him say. He covers the mouthpiece, and whispers to me, barely audibly, “She wants to know what months.”

I whisper back.

“Only April and October,” he tells her. “I’m sorry.” He hangs up the phone, somewhat crestfallen and looks up at me. “She said to tell you that every time she turns on her radio, you people are having a fund drive.”

“That’s okay,” I say and smile at him. “At least we know she’s listening.”

What she may not be hearing is that HPR spends less time fundraising on-air than most public radio stations—or that in this age of corporate mega media, semiannual public radio pledge drives are not only an exercise in station sustainability, they’re a vital antidote to the craving for one human voice resonating with another to find the beauty in the ordinary.

Radio is a simple and old fashioned medium. It’s reliable, or, to use this pledge drive’s motto, it’s “Tried. Tested. True.” It’s portable, inexpensive, and accessible. Best of all, you can close your eyes and just let the words, nuances, tones, and colors of the sound paint pictures inside your head; and in the case of public radio, feed your soul. That’s worth perpetuating.

Which brings me to this spring’s HPR T-shirt. On it are the first seventeen numbers in the Fibonacci Sequence, named for Leonardo di Pisa, also known as Fibonacci (but you can call him Al). The series mirrors the numerical arrangements of nature in everything from flower petals to pineapple scales, pine cones to nautilus shells. It’s found in every living thing.

The Fibonacci Sequence starts with the number 1. Each new number is the sum of the next two: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, you get the picture. The ratio between the numbers is .618034 or .62 for convenience when the lower number is divided by the next higher number and, yes, this works far more accurately with the higher numbers. The result is the Golden Ratio or the Divine Proportion and it shows up in the Parthenon as well as the bones of your hand. So what does this have to do with radio and why is it on the T-shirt?

It’s science meeting beauty, nature calling to itself, and humans needing to resonate with other humans. It’s necessary.

We’re all emerging from the toughest and most financially devastating recession seen in generations. Over the last 18 months, much of the control we thought we had over our lives turned out to be in someone else’s hands—not that we’re all victims, mind you. Whatever our circumstances, most of us can still recognize beauty: in a child’s face, a succulent growing at the side of the road,  a sunset, or even a radio program that can take you down the street or halfway around the world for a different take on truth and art.

Nothing comes for free and that includes public radio. Someone somewhere has to bear the cost and every six months, a pledge drive is a normal confirmation that sometimes the wackiest business models work—especially if you can ditch nine-tenths of your fairness expectations; nationally only 1 in 10 listeners actually contributes to the programming costs. And while HPR’s pledge drives contain a good bit of fun, the end goal has to happen. And for all concerned, the quicker, the better.

HPR’s longstanding tradition of early finishes—frequently on the eighth or ninth day of a planned 10-day campaign—has happened for most of the last decade. Are we complacent? Not on your life. We are, however, realizing that this drive is different and not because we have the largest semi-annual goal ever: $785,000 to pay for the next six months—worth of programming bills plus replacement of aging computers, back up equipment, and planned infrastructure improvements.

Unlike any pledge drive in recent memory, thoughts of a successfully truncated pledge drive have been openly discussed on air from the first pledge break. Why? Getting back to what “normal” we still have is very attractive, especially for those who understand the simple facts of HPR.

HPR is independently-operated and community licensed. It receives no support from National Public Radio (NPR), nor is it owned by NPR. NPR is a program provider, one of several from which Hawaii Public Radio purchases some of the programs available on both stations—KHPR and KIPO. Each week, HPR also produces over 90 hours of local news, news features, talk, music, and spoken word programs.

HPR receives no subsidies from the state or city government nor the University of Hawaii. HPR is not funded by PBS Hawaii. The truth is, 59% of the $3.7 million budget comes from individuals and membership, 26% comes from business underwriting, and 1% comes from foundations. Concerts, outreach activities, and car donations make up 6%. The remaining 8% comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The bottom line is that it now takes $212 per hour to operate the station.

If the pledge drive is the mechanism, the underlying principle is faith. In the almost 30 years HPR has existed, it has kept faith with its listeners. No matter how long it has taken, or whether a bend in the road may have forced a delay or a detour, HPR has tenaciously moved toward the goal of creating the statewide public radio system members want and Hawaii needs.

The latest example came last Tuesday: boosters for both KHPR and KIPO were installed on Mt. Kaala and now many on the North Shore are hearing KIPO. The signal is reaching parts of Kauai unimpeded. The KIPO Maui Project, which may take up to 24 months to complete, is also underway. On Hawaii Island, residents are enjoying several improvements finished earlier this year.

It’s the good faith of promises fulfilled that makes the hundreds of community leaders, businesses, organizations, and other public-radio-addicted individuals volunteer to pitch, answer phones, cook meals, or donate thank you premiums. It’s what really makes the phones ring until the pledge goal is met as one listener calls in support and calls out for a little more humanity. Especially now.

That alone is worth the T-shirt.

For more information on how to pledge or volunteer, visit http://www.hawaiipublicradio.org/hpr/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=3663&Itemid=244.