Veteran journalist Jay Price knew he had a lot to learn about radio when he left newspaper reporting six years ago to join WUNC, North Carolina’s largest NPR affiliate. But he soon discovered a difference beyond the medium: the powerful connection the station had with its listeners.

Before a taping of the NPR quiz show Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! in Durham, Price recalls, WUNC president Connie Walker “got up to give the introduction, and 3,000 people got to their feet and gave her a standing ovation.”

This was nothing like the grudging respect or outright hostility Price knew from his years at The News & Observer: “I went, ‘Oh, shit! This is a different world.’ ”

Listener donations are a big part of how WUNC rebuilt its cash reserve, which dropped to under $700,000 in the 2008 fiscal year. By 2021, the reserve stood at $19.7 million, roughly 19 months of operating capital.

Hannah Gage, a former broadcast executive who chaired WUNC’s governing board from 2015 through 2021, said the station had begun work on a plan for how to allocate the money (invest, save, spend) before the pandemic hit in 2020.

With corporate underwriting down, and amid a drop in listening because of less driving, WUNC budgeted for a big loss in the next fiscal year and expected to have to use some of its reserve. Instead, the station banked another surplus of close to $2 million, thanks mostly to donations from members.

“It does point to the thing that the station is incredibly proud of, and that is the listener support,” Gage said.

WUNC has one of public radio’s strongest membership programs, thanks in part to a shift in 2010, when Director of Development Regina Yeager decided to switch to a then-new approach that was working at other stations.

Instead of one-time pledges, WUNC would emphasize “sustaining” memberships, which spread donations out through automatic payments over a year. It was a calculated risk (fall drives boosted cash early in the station’s fiscal year), but Yeager was seeing limits to how much pledge drives could grow.

“At first it was kind of scary, to tell you the truth,” Yeager said, but “50 percent became sustainers right away and the February drive hit again. It just worked out by the end of the year that we were really OK.”

WUNC regularly signs up well over 80 percent of contributors as sustainers, and also records high percentages of renewals and increased gifts. The sustainer percentage has reached as high as 87 percent, board minutes show.

Only a couple of other stations even reach percentages in the 70s, said Jay Clayton, who advises stations on fundraising and runs a national benchmarks program for the industry group Greater Public.

“That’s the sort of support that will get stations through tough times when maybe listeners can’t give,” Clayton said.

Yeager said WUNC currently has about 47,000 members, and nurtures its membership with events (75 to 100 a year, pre-pandemic), frequent communication, and on-air giveaways like the trips to Paris that listeners know from pledge drives. She sees it as a kind of virtuous cycle: Listener donations support programming, which generates even more support.

“For that reason, our audience is so loyal,” Yeager said.

Fundraising takes considerable resources; accounting for more than 20 percent of WUNC’s $11.7 million in expenses last fiscal year.

It also pays off. Board minutes reflect regular reports from Yeager that revenue is exceeding goals. Between individual donations and corporate sponsorship (also called underwriting) “contributions” make up more than 90 percent of WUNC’s revenue, with the rest coming from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and other grants.

Since 2008, contributions to WUNC have doubled — to $12.9 million in 2021 — while expenses have grown by a smaller amount, with surpluses going into the reserve.

Nora Casper, WUNC interim president and finance director, called the reserve strategic, and said the station had been considering investment options to “build ourselves a revenue stream.”

She said WUNC also wanted a cushion to avoid having to make cuts during downturns, and cash on hand to “take advantage of opportunities that pop up if there was something that made sense, like a signal [acquisition].”

Meanwhile, meeting minutes show that board members have asked often about plans for the reserve: putting part into an endowment, for instance. One of the possibilities mentioned during meetings was the UNC Investment Fund, which includes the $5 billion-plus endowment of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

For fiscal 2021, as Pensions & Investments Daily reported, the fund returned a record 42 percent. While that return was an outlier, the broad S&P 500 index has averaged almost 10 percent annual returns over the past 30 years, as the financial website The Motley Fool reported.

Melanie Sill is a Triangle-based independent journalist and former top editor of The News & Observer, Sacramento Bee, and Southern California Public Radio-KPCC. She was founding executive director of the NC Local News Workshop at Elon University.

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This piece is part of a larger look at WUNC’s future. You can read in full here.