A pledge drive is a fundraising technique used by public broadcasters in both the radio and television media. During a pledge drive, a station's programming will be regularly interrupted by appeals for assistance from viewers and listeners. The length of a pledge drive varies, although most last around a week. Many listeners and viewers find pledge drives extremely irritating, thanks to the constant program interruptions.
The need for pledge drives arises from the fact that most public broadcasting stations and companies need assistance to keep running. Although many governments and organizations offer grants and other assistance to public broadcasters, these grants typically fall short of the operating costs of public broadcasting, and so broadcasters turn to the public to ask for help. This is viewed as an alternative to running commercials, which would disrupt programming year round and potentially turn the station into a private, for-profit company. Incidentally, there is a difference between commercials, which advertise products, and underwriting spots, brief announcements from station sponsors which may not legally include specific product advertising.
During a pledge drive, programs are regularly interrupted by station staff, who ask members of the public to phone in or use the station's website to make a pledge. Traditionally, people promised to pay a small sum of money every month, making a “pledge” to have a staked interest in the station's survival. In modern pledge drives, people can also just donate a lump sum. Over the course of the pledge drive, the staff also provide regular updates about how much has been donated, and how many new members have been added to the station. Many stations also read messages from callers.
In return for their pledges, people are entered into drawings for various prizes, which may range from radios to mugs. Most of these prizes are small and simple, designed to keep people connected with the station. People who donate especially large sums during a pledge drive may be able to pick a prize like a jacket emblazoned with the station's name; often prizes are donated by community businesses which support the station.
Many public broadcasting stations take advantage of programming from companies like National Public Radio to flesh out their offerings, and many of these syndicated media support local pledge drives by including appeals for funds in their programming for a week every year. Local stations can include these appeals in their pledge drives, or cut them out and replace them with local programming, if desired.
People who find pledge drives annoying need not despair: public broadcasters have recognized that viewer and listener numbers tend to decline during pledge drives, and many have attempted to respond to this. For example, some stations appeal for funds during station breaks year round, rather than interrupting programming for a week. Others promise that for each day's worth of funds donated over the course of the year, they will cut a day off their pledge drives.