JACKSON — While many broadcasters are seeing their advertising budgets shrink, corporate contributions to the Foundation for Public Broadcasting in Mississippi to underwrite programming are on the rise.
“Corporate donations have been very strong from the very beginning,” said Thorne Butler, director of development for Mississippi Educational Broadcasting, which includes the Mississippi Authority for Educational Television (ETV), Public Radio in Mississippi (PRM) and the Radio Reading Service of Mississippi. “We’ve been very fortunate to have the level of support we’ve received from the business community in our state.”
In 1970, the Mississippi Legislature authorized ETV. In 1984, PRM was authorized. The Foundation for Public Broadcasting in Mississippi was created in 1986.
The FY2001 budget for Mississippi Educational Broadcasting (MEB) was $11.8 million. Television programming and production accounted for $4.47 million; the learning services division reflected $1.38 million; radio programming and production was $729,000; and the balance was divided between technical and support services, according to Larry Miller, executive director of MEB.
Thorne said 76% of the budget is derived from state funds; 24% from private donations.
“Underwriters have realized the value we have to offer them,” Butler said. “Because we’re very uncluttered on the air, underwriters are the only corporate mention. They’re not fighting with Pepsi or Wendy’s. And our reach is tremendous. We have eight transmitters from one station that broadcasts over the entire state and reaches markets outside our borders, like New Orleans, Mobile and Memphis.”
Mississippi Chemical Corp., underwriter for ETV’s “Mississippi Outdoors” since 1986, has been a “star contributor all these years,” Butler said.
“Mississippi Chemical made a very smart marketing decision to position itself as a friend of the environment and a friend of the state, and it has paid off,” he said.
Melinda Hood, spokesperson for Mississippi Chemical, agreed.
“Mississippi Chemical has enjoyed a wonderful relationship with the Mississippi ETV for almost 15 years,” she said. “ETV’s staff members are knowledgeable and helpful and dedicated to their jobs. ETV provides program options for area viewers to enhance our learning process and learn much about our state. ‘Mississippi Outdoors’…displays Mississippi’s abundant natural resources. ‘Farmweek,’ ‘Mississippi Roads’ with Walt Grayson and ‘Mississippi Business Today’ all speak positively for our state and its history and current economics. ‘Masterpiece Theatre,’ ‘Nova,’ ‘Mystery,’ ‘Nature,’ all the musical specials during the holidays are wonderful, entertaining and educational. Their children’s programming is exceptional. It offers children fun while providing learning opportunities they need. In our opinion, Mississippi ETV enriches the lives of all Mississippians.”
So far, BellSouth is the only Mississippi corporate contributor to the foundation’s Fund for Excellence, which requires a minimum $10,000 annual commitment. (The McLean Foundation, a non-Mississippi-based, nonprofit corporation, is the only other contributor to the fund.)
“When BellSouth came into the Fund for Excellence, there was no quid pro quo, no contract for mentions on any of the programs. They just said ‘we’re going to support you, period’,” Butler said.
Patsy Tolleson, spokesperson for BellSouth Mississippi, said “BellSouth’s support for The Foundation for Public Broadcasting provides multiple economic benefits to Mississippi communities.”
“Their services help shape communities by involving residents, providing critical educational services and increased quality of life. As a corporation, we strive to improve the quality of life and create an atmosphere that will result in stronger and richer communities, so combining our corporate philosophy with support of ETV/PRM makes sense,” Tolleson said.
William Fulton, director of PRM, said membership drives, held every spring and fall, raise more money each time. At the same time contributions are increasing, so are listeners.
“According to the latest data from last fall, only six commercial stations had better numbers than we did,” Fulton said.
Danny Cupit, owner of Fenian’s Irish Pub in Jackson, said he advertises on PRM because “it provides an opportunity to increase the public’s exposure to Celtic music.”
“Fenian’s is a Celtic pub, and Celtic music is played there on a regular basis,” he said. “The show to which we contribute plays Celtic music. We thought it would not only expose the public to more Celtic music, but that it was also a good opportunity to support public radio in Mississippi.”
Kurt Brautigam, spokesman for Mississippi Power Co., a corporate underwriter on PRM, said the company has advertised on the station for several years for two reasons: “First, it allows us to support the type of programming public radio brings to Mississippi, and second, it allows us to reach a targeted statewide audience with our name and a brief message. We feel it is worthwhile for us and for our state.”
While there’s been much talk about “going digital,” Fulton said there’s no rush to make changes.
“There’s a significant difference between analog TV and high definition TV, but there’s not that much difference between radio as it is now and digital radio,” he said. “In fact, analog FM radio sounds pretty darn good, so there’s not as much eagerness to move into that. Plus, there are some problems with digital radio. If we went to digital radio, people probably wouldn’t notice that much of a difference and it’s not that much of an issue right now.”
PRM isn’t broadcasting on the Internet, but plans are “to move in that direction,” Fulton said.
“That was the hot thing for a long time, and still is an interesting issue,” he said. “We will do it, and we certainly want to, because who knows where it might lead? But Web listening is just not as much as people thought it would be. I think most people do what I do — sit down at a home computer with a regular old radio on. There are more interesting things we can do with the Internet. We’re moving toward that by making news stories, music and other audio available on demand.
“An interesting figure came out from a conference I attended in San Diego last fall, when somebody said that the most listened to public radio station on the Web is KPLU in Tacoma, Wash. It was the 14th most listened to radio station in the world on the Web, not only the regular broadcast, but online. But do you know how many people represented the AQA, or average quarter-hour audience? 114. That’s not a significant number.”
The state’s radio reading service, which is provided by a sub-carrier on the regular signal and picked up with special receivers provided by PRM, has about 5,000 subscribers. Two paid employees and 120 volunteers man the reading service, which covers the entire state. Blind or print-handicapped Mississippians who apply for the service are sent a receiver at no charge, Fulton said.
“We are so proud of the radio reading service division, and not enough people know about it,” said Miller.
Butler said attracting more members remains the foundation’s biggest challenge.
“Nine out of 10 people who listen to and watch public broadcasting do not support it financially,” he said. “It’s true for any non-profit that the support comes from the noble few. We have a lot of c
tition from sources like The Learning Channel, The Discovery Channel and The History Channel, but we still offer non-interrupted commercial-free television and that, along with our quality, keeps us afloat. But in order for us to progress, we need more members.”
Other underwriters include American Guild of Organists, AmSouth, Books-A-Million, BellSouth Mobility, Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Mississippi, Broad Street Baking Com