Why one NPR show wins my support but the other loses out

I’m a sucker for NPR shows that offer t-shirts in exchange for a donation. I like supporting the podcasts I listen to on a regular basis, and when one of them offers a t-shirt, I immediately pull out my wallet.

I’m not exactly sure why I do this, especially since I don’t wear t-shirts all that often. There is something about the combination of seeing a fun design and supporting a show that I listen to on a regular basis that just appeals to me. I give a monthly donation to my local NPR station (WBUR in Boston), but this doesn’t directly support most of the shows that I am downloading directly from their websites.

As it would happen, today two different shows whose podcasts I subscribe to put out t-shirt-for-donation offers. One immediately had me ready to pull out my wallet, and the other left me cold. It immediately got me thinking about what makes me donate.

Ironically, the one that left unconvinced was Freakonomics Radio, and this was in the context of an entire episode on altruism and what makes people give.  The podcast is produced by the authors of the Freakonomics books, Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, and each week they pick a topic at the boundary of economics and normal life and explore “the hidden side”.

I liked the Freakonomics books, and their podcast from WNYC (distributed by APM, not NPR) covers some generally interesting content. In the past, they have never raised money from their listeners, but presumably the general public radio cutbacks have cut into their budget, and they are now seeking listener contributions. They took a very “Freakonomics” approach, bringing in some experts who had done research on what makes people give and discussed what options might work for the show.

Some were tongue in cheek – apparently people give more to attractive women, so they had a model (female) and an actor (male) pitch donations, even though you couldn’t see them. Others were more practical, like raffling off an opportunity to have dinner with the authors. None of this had much effect on me until they mentioned the t-shirt. I’m a sucker for a t-shirt, but somehow I wasn’t convinced. I wasn’t sure why.

Then, 30 minutes later I got an email from another podcast, 99% Invisible. Last year, I received a t-shirt in return for supporting their Season 3 Kickstarter campaign, which was one of the most successful NPR fundraising efforts ever (actually they are distributed through PRX, not NPR). Today I learned they are raising funds for Season 4, and they are looking to expand to a weekly format.  And of course, they have a new t-shirt. Even better, it’s a t-shirt based on the disruptive camouflage episode that I referenced when writing about how to pick a child’s nighttime lovey (hint: make sure you can see it in the dark). Sign me up!

The 99% Invisible t-shirt references their disruptive camouflage episode

The 99% Invisible t-shirt references their disruptive camouflage episode

Then I caught myself – why did I just listen to 30 minutes of one show about all the reasons I wanted to support them and remain unconvinced, when the other show sent a single email and immediately had me?

I’ve been thinking about it, and I think it comes down to this: 99% Invisible makes me feel like I am part of something amazing, and Freakonomics makes me feel like I’m just giving my money to someone else.

While Freakonomics is interesting, a lot of the show revolves around Dubner and Levitt. They talk to each other, draw anecdotes from their past, and talk to experts. Those guys have made a ton of money on the books and through speaking engagements, and that is referenced occasionally on the show. I know that the podcast is not funded by the books and that there are real salaries for people who work on it and bandwidth costs, but somehow I still feel like Dubner and Levitt are flush with cash. I have trouble getting excited about giving them money.

99% Invisible is much more about the hidden side of design. Each episode focuses on the interesting history of a place or object. While the host Roman Mars does talk about his experience a bit in the show and always ends with a funny comment from his kids, the podcast is still primarily about the content. I love listening to it, and I get excited about seeing it grow and contributing to it.

To hammer the point home, the 99% Invisible t-shirt is drawn from one of the episodes. What’s o the Freakonomics t-shirt? A cartoon picture of Dubner and Levitt. It’s about them.

The Freakonomics Radio show is clearly about the hosts, Dubner and Levitt

The Freakonomics Radio show is clearly about the hosts, Dubner and Levitt

So I just pulled out my credit card and donated $55 to 99% Invisible for my t-shirt. I don’t want to feel like a freeloader, so I also donated a mere $5 to Freakonomics Radio. For all their focus on data and science, I think they still have more to learn.


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