October 25, 2010

“Help me destroy public radio” and other lessons in postmodern fundraising

National Public Radio has poked fun at its own earnestness and nerdiness plenty in recent years. But Alec Baldwin’s new fundraising segments take the irony to a new level, putting the whole culture of public broadcasting — including us listeners — on trial. And a funny thing happens along the way.

Funny being the operative word. There are several spots in the series, which was produced by This American Life host Ira Glass and his friends at WNYC, along with Baldwin. This one made me laugh out loud, as did this one.

And that’s an important lesson right there. To make someone laugh is to give them a little gift — it’s an act of generosity and intimacy. And in the context of a fundraising pitch, isn’t generosity exactly the point? Baldwin and Glass are modeling the behavior they’re trying to elicit from us: they’re starting the exchange, offering us a gift in the hope that we’ll offer one back.

Humor is also a way of getting past our rational defenses. Laughter is an emotional response, involving different parts of the brain than those activated by a rational appeal. If the fundraising organization makes an argument, I can always make a counterargument. But if it makes me laugh, we’re already in a kind of relationship. (My old philosophy professor Ted Cohen wrote a great little book about the ways jokes both depend on and foster a sense of community.)

So why don’t more cultural and educational institutions use humor as a fundraising tool? If being funny can model generosity, soften us up, and create community, then why are these public radio promos an anomaly, even during recessionary times that would seem to call for every arrow in our quiver?

I’ve written before about the default seriousness of most cultural organizations and the anxiety about relevance and status that I think underlies it. These fundraising spots may be exceptions that prove the rule. Baldwin and Glass have stepped outside the institution’s accepted ways of thinking about itself and its relationship to its supporters: they’ve broken unwritten rules, especially the very sensible one about never insulting your donors. ...

But the success of these spots (which I hope to get data about for a future post) tells us that the old rules may not hold anymore. We live in an age of irony. Satire is a dominant mode of critique, and self-satire is a way for the producers of cultural content to co-opt external critiques and fold them into the content itself, disarming those who might want to gripe or challenge from the outside.

This is one of the hallmarks of contemporary culture: even the smart stuff embeds its own parody. (At the local circus I took my kids to this past weekend, the elegant contortionist’s act was followed by a heavyset clown’s proud and “serious” attempt to emulate her. It did not go well, which is to say it was hilarious.)

So in this climate, self-satire isn’t an admission of inadequacy — it’s an assertion of relevance and confidence. In fact, for many audiences it’s a more convincing assertion than simply declaring yourself to be relevant and important (which is what public radio pledge drives have always done).

We could go further and speculate that, for some audiences, declaring yourself to be relevant and important is a sure sign that you’re neither. Those audiences are probably on the younger side, and as they grow into the members, subscribers, and donors of the future, taking oneself seriously may start to backfire.

Which is why Baldwin is the perfect persona for these spots. In one of them, he’s in character as TV boss Jack Donaghy from 30 Rock, a show that epitomizes the loopy, subversive logic of postmodern storytelling, with its shifts between spoof and real emotion. Baldwin famously helped Saturday Night Live lampoon public radio by appearing as the flannel-shirted guest on a cooking show where everyone is so clueless and self-absorbed that they don’t know when they’re being lascivious.

But he has also guest-hosted a real public radio show with big ideas on its mind, Studio 360, and last year he became the voice of the New York Philharmonic’s weekly radio broadcasts (a role he plays disappointingly scripted and straight).

So that burnished baritone brings with it both high-culture credibility and populist mockery of those values. The new promos trade on that duality brilliantly, and in so doing they call our attention to some new realities. Cultural organizations can no longer afford to plant their flag in the high ground of seriousness and expect everyone to rally around the cause. We urgently need to loosen up, to widen the tonal bandwidth of the discourse by which we try to convey our values — and our value relative to other nonprofit institutions and causes.

If we did, what would an art or science museum membership brochure look like? Or a dance or theater company’s renewal mailers and gala invitations? Heck, what would the gala look like, and other member and donor events and programs?

Or, closer to the heart of the matter, how would our interpretive texts need to change — our program notes, exhibit texts, web videos, and smartphone downloads? Most of the discussion about those interpretive materials has centered on whether they’re comprehensible to the layman: whether people understand the words being used and the references being made. But maybe the real question is whether the voice feels natural, human, authentic, and generous — whether it establishes a sense of community.

I only realized how radical the Alec Baldwin promos are when I heard one of the live pledge-drive hosts at WBEZ, my local public radio station, make his own attempt at establishing community. After playing a testimonial clip from a member in which she used the word “epitome,” the host enthused, “If you’re going to belong to a club, don’t you want it to be the kind of club where people use the word ‘epitome’?”

I’m not criticizing the station, which after all gave us Ira Glass and NPR’s other irony-meister, Peter Sagal. But in the bright light of the Baldwin spots, the host’s pitch seemed dated, premised on a 20th century picture of what kind of club I might want to join. People who use words like ‘epitome’ may or may not be my kind of people. People who make me laugh, and can laugh at themselves, probably are.

Of course, I’m a statistical sample of one. How are you hearing cultural organizations and their fundraising messages these days?


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