Wondering whether any of the money you want to give WBEZ this week will wind up with Vocalo? Don't expect the folks running the fall pledge drive to tell you. The subject's being avoided by design--and when general manager Torey Malatia announced the strategy last month at a staff meeting, he made a some people angry. As I explained in an earlier story, WBEZ staffers are less than happy to be sharing their budget with the wayward kid brother they're forbidden to speak of by name. As are some contributors.
"We're not cross-marketing at the moment," Malatia told me when the current pledge drive began. "But it's nothing we're hiding." When WBEZ asks for your money and Vocalo doesn't come up, that's a "marketing strategy," not secrecy. "When we do talk about spending the money," Malatia says, "we say if you want a complete list of our investments it's on the Chicago Public Radio Web site." Malatia's president of WBEZ and Vocalo's common parent, Chicago Public Radio.
I hadn't actually heard any announcer say that. So to make sure I knew where to look online, Malatia walked me through the process. At chicagopublicradio.org I clicked on Support Us (it's on the upper left part of the home page) and scrolled down to Operational Investments. Next I clicked on Learn more about our 2009 programming investments and found myself at a list titled "Annual Investments Fiscal Year 2009." There it was, at the very bottom of the list -- "VOCALO.ORG -- WBEW 89.5 $2,299,324." The amount of this funding that will come from funds originally intended for WBEZ -- because separate Vocalo funding didn't live up to expectations -- wasn't disclosed.
Malatia makes the point that Vocalo, aka vocalo.org, isn't a radio station. "It's a social networking Web site with a station attached." So I went to the Web site and streamed the radio station through my computer at work. I wanted to find out if Vocalo was running a pledge drive of its own. It isn't.
And God willing, it never will, says Malatia, because "pledge drives are one of those things we're attempting to eliminate from public radio." He explains, "No one's figured out a way to eliminate pledge drives, and someone's got to figure it out. Pledge drives are based on a concept no longer valid. That concept is that there's nowhere to go but the station you're watching, or the station you're listening to. But if pledge drives drive people away now, they'll drive them away to other options."
Malatia seems to think of himself as the Robert Oppenheimer behind this particular research, and Vocalo is where he goes to experiment. The master experiment is to find out whether people who wouldn't be caught dead at a hoity-toity public radio station will become Vocalo loyalists so long as no one tells them it's a public radio station. But another experiment is to find out if a public radio station can pay for itself through online advertising. If Vocalo can manage it, says Malatia, word will spread like wildfire to public radio stations everywhere.
And if Vocalo can't? "If for some reason there is no way to do it, except through a drive," says Malatia, "we'll be in the unfortunate position of having to introduce a drive on a signal that's never had a drive. And that will be very difficult."
In other words, the money you give Vocalo now, even if you don't know you're giving it, is paying for R&D that one day could mean that WBEZ will never have to ask you for money again.
But in the meantime there's the current drive, and I've never heard the announcers so apologetic. I told Malatia that when I called to pledge I asked the volunteer at the other end of the line if Vocalo would get a cut, and she had no idea what I was talking about.
Malatia didn't like the sound of that. "That's a weakness we have to correct," he said.