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Waco public radio station KWBU-FM (103.3) opens its spring three-day pledge drive Thursday with an urgent message to its listeners: Become a member.

It's a message heard every pledge drive, but a gradual erosion of the station's contributing membership in recent years has its officials sounding the alarm.

"We have to turn this trend around and increase our membership or we'll be below the level we need for sustainability," said Joe Riley, president and CEO of the Brazos Valley Public Broadcasting Foundation that runs the station.

While the public radio station's listenership has risen slightly over the last few years, its contributing membership has dropped to roughly five out of every 100 listeners — a level that could put the station in a dangerous downward spiral unless addressed in the next year.

Board members recently approved a budget of slightly more than $700,000 for the upcoming fiscal year that begins in June, one with little breathing room. "The budget passed is in the black . . . and we'll be okay for the coming year," he said.

Examination of membership trends as part of the budgeting process, however, found that the station presently counts fewer than 700 contributing members out of an average audience of some 15,000 listeners.

Regular contributors have increased their giving over time to help the station cope with rising operation costs of about 3 percent per year, but the station hasn't been able to replace the loss of members who move away, stop giving or die.  "We've lost about 25 members a year for the last five years," he said.

This weekend's pledge drive has a goal of $12,000, but the station will adopt, and advertise, a monthly goal of six new members for the next year to encourage non-contributing listeners to sign up. There's no minimum level of giving to become a supporting member, but Riley said new members might consider $10 a month as a start.

In addition to the revenue raised by contributing members, a public radio station's membership level also helps determine federal funding and grant support.

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