Public broadcasters hard hit by Target data theft

Last November’s massive data breach at Target Corporation certainly affected more than just Target. It’s also done a number on charitable giving.

The public broadcasting newspaper, Current, reports today that pubcasters, who rely on “sustainers,” automatic renewals by credit card, have been hit particularly hard by the data theft, as credit cards tied to the Target account were canceled by the millions.

At Chicago’s WBEZ, for example, the station was losing 1,200 member-sustainers a month. Its star, Ira Glass, took to the radio to remind people to update their credit card information with the station. But only a third of the members whose cards were canceled did so.

In Maryland, WTMD lost a quarter of its membership. Of the 1,500 who were sent emergency emails, only 120 signed back up.

Current says public broadcasters possibly lost hundreds of thousands of dollars per month.

“We have to create our own urgency,” says David Preston, director of membership at Twin Cities Public Television, in St. Paul, Minn.

That wasn’t hard to do following the Target breach, he says, which led to credit-card cancellations by the hundreds among sustaining members, draining as much as $17,000 a month from TPT’s revenue.

The station brought in additional staff during the day to call members, and hired an outside telemarketing company to make calls in the evenings and on weekends. The telemarketer also set up a 24-hour hotline dedicated to card issues. By the end of March, it had reeled in 3,200 lapsed donors.

Now the station is working on other improvements, such as changes to its website to allow donors to log in and update their own financial information directly.

MPR, also in St. Paul, has one of pubcasting’s biggest sustainer programs — with nearly 89,000 donors contributing more than $11 million annually, according to Bob Breck, director of membership. Its management is considering another fix to help in the future: hiring a vendor that uses data to automatically recapture new credit-card numbers.

In a recent trial, one vendor working from a list of declined credit cards succeeded in recapturing 30 percent of them. The Target breach had hit MPR hard, with as many as 11 percent of its sustainers’ cards declined in both February and March, Breck says. The rate is now down to 5 percent.