Public Affairs Director Jim Blalock in WETS Studio. (Tony Duncan/Johnson City Press)
WETS-FM’s spring fundraising drive is under way and will continue through April 18.
On the air since 1974, the public broadcasting station at East Tennessee State University recently celebrated 40 years of expansion of its operations and programming. On Wednesday, it kicked off its 2014 drive with a appreciative nod to the listener support that has made that growth possible.
From the renovated house where the station’s original staff of five people played classical music from vinyl LPs to the custom-built facility where FM, HD and Internet streaming now take its programing around the world, Station Manager Wayne Winkler said it is WETS’s listeners who have provided the lion’s share of the station’s funding.
“Without the financial support of our listeners during our fundraising campaigns, none of this could have been possible,” he said.
Winkler said less than 50 percent of the station’s annual operating budget comes from the university, 7 to 8 percent from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a small but growing percentage from business underwriters and the remainder from listeners, who contributed $225,000 to its fall fundraising drive.
Going into its fifth decade of public radio broadcasting, Winkler said, “If we can do that again, we’ll be in good shape.”
Through next Friday, WETS will briefly interrupt its programming to ask its listeners to make tax-deductible donations or pledge contributions for “their public radio station” by calling the station toll free at 888-895-9387, or by donating online at www.wets.org.
A ritual familiar to public radio fans across the country, Winkler said the history of WETS’ biannual fundraisers dates back to 1979, when the Federal Communications Commission first permitted non-commercial “educational” broadcasters to raise funds live on the air.
“Compared to the funding provided to non-commercial broadcasters in other industrialized nations,” Winkler said government allocations for public broadcasting was miniscule from the outset of the CPB in 1967 and has been reduced in the years since then with some members of Congress and even some presidents calling for its elimination.
The move to allow public broadcasters to raise money from their listeners has proved beneficial, however, freeing stations from the restraints of tight government budgets and allowing listeners to provide support needed for expansion.
“That first fundraiser really opened our eyes to the possibilities,” Winkler said. “We spent a few days asking listeners for money and raised a little over $15,000. We were thrilled, especially when we learned ETSU wasn’t going to cut us by that amount.”
While the university has been consistent in its support of WETS, Winkler said in times of government cutbacks, listener contributions have played a critical role in the station’s operation. And in the early 1990s, it was listener contributions raised in a campaign led by Winkler’s predecessor and mentor, the late Station Manager Richard “Dick” Ellis, that allowed WETS to build its own facility.
Winkler said WETS listeners are responsible for transforming the station from a tiny operation in one of the smallest markets measured by Nielsen Audio to a state-of-the-art content generator with national reach.
“Now, we not only offer news and information around the clock, we offer more music than we ever did before and it’s available online as well as on HD receivers,” Winkler said.
Looking forward as WETS marked its 40th anniversary in February, Winkler projected, “In the next 40 years, we expect there will be more of the same kind of technology advances we’ve seen in the last 40 years. It’s going to get pretty exciting.”
Volunteers are needed to help answer the phones at the station through next Friday, and Winkler invited anyone interested in helping to call the toll-free pledge line to schedule a time.