BACK to NRC articles page

Charity-staff pay can leave listeners less supportive
By Bruce Mohl, 4/15/2001

WBUR-FM, Boston's NPR news station, sent me a letter recently asking for a $100 contribution and followed that up with a phone call making the same pitch.

Normally, I would be receptive. I like many of the station's shows and have contributed a small amount of money in the past. But this time I told the station's fund-raiser I wasn't interested.

It wasn't because of the departure of Christopher Lydon in February from ''The Connection,'' but because of what WBUR was paying Lydon before he left and what it was willing to pay him had he stuck around.

According to news reports, Lydon was making $230,000 a year as host of ''The Connection,'' and had been offered a financial package that could have increased his compensation to $330,000 next year.

I like ''The Connection,'' but I was stunned by the size of Lydon's salary and the fact that he and his producer still weren't satisfied; they wanted an ownership stake in the show. When Lydon and his cohorts at WBUR ask listeners like me to support the news, I knew salaries were an integral part of the news, but I had no idea they were such a large part.

After hanging up with WBUR's fund-raiser, I began to wonder if I was being fair. Was it appropriate to make a decision about supporting or not supporting a charity based on the size of an individual's salary at that charity?

Several experts I contacted said my reaction to Lydon's salary was not unusual. They said most people who give money to charities give because they have some personal or emotional connection to the charity, rarely analyzing how much money a charity raises or what it spends that money on. But if donors learn that someone at their favorite charity is earning a fat paycheck, the specialists said, donations can dry up.

''I don't know many people who will actually check out a salary, but they'll certainly react to it,'' said Bennett Weiner, chief operating officer of the Better Business Bureau's charitable watchdog arm.

Kate Berseth, who has done fund-raising and fund-raising consulting for more than 10 years, said donors tend to overreact to high salaries. All too often, she said, donors harbor the incorrect assumption that ''do-gooder charitable work'' isn't worth as much as for-profit work.

''You've got to have heavy hitters to make a difference,'' she said. ''People aren't going to listen to the news unless you have heavy hitters, and heavy hitters make heavy money.''

Berseth urges potential donors to do their homework. Find a cause you believe in, she says, and research carefully the groups to whom you are giving money to make sure they are spending it wisely. (Two good places to start are the attorney general's charities division and

Information on WBUR salaries is limited, primarily because the station's license is held by Boston University. As required by law, BU discloses its top wage-earners, but Lydon's former salary of $230,000 doesn't even come close to cracking the top five at BU, where the biggest annual paycheck is $651,661.

WBUR financial data, most of which is available to the public, shows the station raised a total of $15.3 million last fiscal year and hopes to raise $20.2 million this year. Contributions from listeners totaled nearly $7 million last year, or 45 percent of the total. The cost of raising that money (via on-air, telemarketing, and direct mail appeals) was $3.4 million, about 22 percent of the total budget.

For a nonprofit organization with a $15 million to $20 million budget, Lydon's $230,000 salary appears to be incredibly high. Indeed, WBUR's Web site said Lydon's salary made him the highest-paid host in all of public broadcasting.

Jeff Hansen, program director at KUOW in Seattle, stopped carrying ''The Connection'' because of Lydon's salary. He was quoted in ''Current,'' a publication that covers public broadcasting, as saying: ''I didn't want to have to explain to my listeners how it is that public radio can afford to pay someone $230,000 a year, and we're asking them for $30 to pay for this.''

WBUR general manager Jane Christo makes no apologies for the salaries she offered Lydon and his staff, although aides say those salaries are not typical at the station.

''We never imply that we're paying less than what other people receive or that our studios are less than commercial studios,'' Christo said. ''I think we're just like any other news organization, where stars and hosts make star salaries.''

But, in the fund-raising letter she sent me, Christo focused on the shows, not the stars. ''A small investment now will bring you months of the programs you count on and, with a $100 contribution, a brand new WBUR tote bag,'' she wrote.

WBUR's on-air fund-raiser last month - one of five it is running this fiscal year - raised $206,000 from 2,700 donors, an average of $76 per donor. Station officials say it was a success and a sign that the Lydon controversy hasn't damaged WBUR.

That may be true, but I couldn't help noticing that the $206,000 wouldn't have been enough to pay Lydon's salary.

BACK to NRC articles page