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The Mailing List Debate Reaches Minnesota
By Brent Wolfe
July 23, 1999
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The Corporation for Public Broadcasting's inspector general is investigating the nation's 723 public TV and radio stations to determine how many have traded membership lists with political parties and campaigns. Some members of Congress, as well as the president of the CPB, have condemned the practice.

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Read the testimonyof CPB President Robert Coonrod.

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Minnesota's two largest public broadcasters, Minnesota Public Radio and KTCA Television, have traded their lists with other non-profit organizations, and MPR acknowledged that on one occasion, in 1995, it traded donor names with the Democratic National Committee. Public broadcasters around the state worry the controversey could jeapordize their federal funding.

PUBLIC BROADCASTERS IN THE TWIN CITIES such as Minnesota Public Radio and KTCA television supplement their fundraising efforts with direct-mail appeals. To support these efforts, they rent and trade mailing lists to target likely contributors. Some 24,000 non-profit organizations around the country engage in list exchanges or list rentals to support their direct-mail efforts. Donor-list exchanges are usually handled by third-party "list brokers." In a trade, the broker sends out mailings for each group, but the organizations never see the actual donor lists. Both MPR and KTCA use list brokers to send mailings to potential supporters.

After a review of its practices over the past five years, MPR confirms in a written statement that it made a brokered trade of 10,000 names with the Democratic National Committee in 1995 - a time when public broadcasting's federal support was in jeopardy. On two other occassions, MPR also purchased names from the DNC and once in 1998, it bought 5,000 names from the re-election campaign of Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone.

House subcommittee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) said he expects to introduce legislation to make it illegal for pubcasting stations to swap donor lists with other nonprofits, and wants CPB to sanction stations that swapped with political groups. Tauzin said he'll cut back a pending CPB authorization bill that proposed funding increases for public broadcasting.
MPR is considered to have the largest membership list in public radio at 88,000. In its written statement, MPR says its review of past practices found no other ocassions where it exchanged names with partisan political organizations. MPR representatives declined a taped interview for this story.

MPR as well as other public-broadcasting organizations insist that trading and sharing donor lists is a legal practice. However, MPR says it has never sold its membership list to any organization and that it will no longer trade names with "any partisan political organization". Preliminary indications from a CPB survey show that approximately 30 public television stations have exchanged member lists with political organizations.

KTCA Vice President of Development and Communications Glen Fisher says KTCA has not exchanged lists with any political parties or campaigns but the station did buy lists from political groups afiliated with parties on both sides of the political aisle. Fisher says KTCA wants lists from groups that fit with its programming.
Fisher: Cultural programming would relate to lists from cultural organizations like orchestras or theaters or science museums or art museums. Also, because there is a lot of nature and science programming on our air, lists from organizations that are involved in conservation and researching into nature and science do fairly well for us also.
However, Fisher says KTCA has exchanged portions of its list of 105,000 members with some organizations that advocate political positions such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Handgun Control, and the World Wildlife Fund, among others. A Corporation for Public Broadcasting spokesperson says 53 public broadcasters in the top 75 media markets report engaging in list swaps with different groups.

Representatives from Both KTCA and MPR say members can request their name and address not be traded and that those requests will be honored. KTCA's Fisher says most people don't seem to mind.
Fisher: They seem to understand that it's important for organizations like ours that are seeking support from the public to use their lists in that way.
But some Republicans say the trades with the Democratic National Committee make it look like public broadcasters support Democrats. Republican State Representative Mike Osskopp says the swaps give ammunition to people who don't like public broadcasting.
Osskopp: You know, you have people out there who question the reliability of what you do based on your political philosophy. And then to turn around and blatantly admit that that's what youre doing, yeah, we're a liberal organization. We're aligned with the Democratic Party and to prove it, we're going to give our subscriber list to the Democratic National Committee. That's dumb. That's just dumb.
Most smaller public broadcasters, including those in Minnesota, don't have the resources to engage in sophisticated mailings and list exchanges. Mary Wilder, Director of Development of 3,000-member KSMQ-TV in Austin, says her station won't give out member names to anyone.
Wilder: We get to know a lot of our members. They trust us to be straight with them. We have a lot of people, when they send in their membership, that say "please do not give our name to anyone else." If we send out a mailing and it comes back "please take us off your member list," we try to meet those requests because the last thing we can afford to do is alienate any of our members.
Wilder fears the current controversey will make it more difficult for public broadcasters to get money from Congress at a time when they need extra help to convert from analog- to digital-broadcast signals.

Paul Damberg, development director at KUMD Radio in Duluth, agrees. He won't trade his membership list but he doesn't see why members of Congress should care if public broadcasters are sharing their lists.
Damberg: They are reducing and limiting the amount of funding that we get from them, which is causing stations to have to become entrepreneurial to find other funding and then they are saying, "oh, but wait a minute, you can't do that." You know it really isn't fair to the stations in the system as a whole.
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting has promised a congressional subcommittee that CPB's inspector general will contact all public broadcasters receiving federal funds to investigate their practices with donor lists. The CPB expects to complete its survey and issue a report to Congress next month.

CPB President Robert Coonrod has made it clear where he stands on the issue. He told a congressional subcomittee this week that despite the need to raise increasing amounts of money, public broadcasters can't afford to risk public trust with the appearance of political involvement.