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May 15, 2015, 10 a.m.
Audience & Social

What, exactly, does it mean to be a member of a public radio station? Can that definition expand?

Melody Kramer is trying to build the next generation of supporters for public media by letting them contribute by sharing a skill as well as their credit card number.

Editor’s note: Melody Joy Kramer — you may remember her from 2012 Lab profile — has spent most of her career in public radio, working to improve audience engagement and digital connection. We’re lucky to have here at the Nieman Foundation for eight weeks as a Knight Visiting Nieman Fellow. Her project while she’s here: to rethink the membership model of public media to extend beyond just monetary gifts. Here’s an introduction to what she’s working on; she’d love to hear your ideas about it.

In February, the White House announced that every fourth grader in the country will now receive a pass granting them and their families free admission to all the National Parks for a full year.

The White House says the idea is to get kids into safe outdoor spaces, and to make it easier for children to be outside instead of in front of screens. I suspect it also has some substantial additional benefits. Many of those fourth graders — not to mention younger and older siblings, parents, cousins, grandparents, friends, etc. — will eventually:

  • Identify as supporters of the National Park Service.
  • Feel a sense of satisfaction and loyalty when thinking about their relationship with the National Park Service.
  • Value the experience they had in the National Parks and want to share it with their own children.
  • Advocate for the future existence of the National Park Service.
  • Recognize the National Parks system for the indispensible public resource it is.

The concepts of membership and loyalty have a long history in the fields of social psychology and organizational behavior. In general, this research shows that people who identify with an organization describe themselves to others in terms of the organization. (For example, people who identify with public media are likely to describe themselves as NPR listeners on social networks and on dating websites.)1 And when people identify with an organization, they exhibit higher and longer-term levels of loyalty and are more likely to formalize their identification by becoming members through donations.

Though membership has always been a core part of public media, over the past several years, public radio has been grappling with new questions concerning membership and listener loyalty. The traditional form of building membership and leveraging organizational loyalty — the pledge drive — has declined in effectiveness, and new conversations are beginning about how to recruit and retain members who access content off-air.

The existing membership model for public radio is largely based on a single assumption: that people who want to listen to the kind of high-quality programming that public radio provides will eventually find and then listen to public radio — on the radio, in the car, or on a mobile device. But the assumption that public radio provides a particular type of listening experience may no longer be accurate. As Kevin Roose noted last October, 50 percent of all cars sold in 2015 are connected to the Internet, and 100 percent of cars will be connected by 2025. Though several stations have developed mobile apps, and NPR has developed mobile apps and continues to create experiences for connected cars, several for-profit podcasts and podcast networks — like Gimlet, 538, Midroll, BuzzFeed, and Slate2 — now sound virtually indistinguishable from the NPR aesthetic,3 and will grow alongside other podcasts4 as they become easier to access in the car, which remains the predominant listening place for audio. (44 percent of all audio listening currently takes place there.)

The rise of connected cars will also require new techniques to engage current millennials5 and Generation Y-ers, who are not likely to age into the same listening,6, commuting,7 or donation habits8 as previous generations. Millennials are more likely to give a little amount of money to a lot of organizations,9 though they’re not likely to give large amounts, and may be more likely to invest in a once-off Kickstarter campaign that makes them feel like part of a larger community or cohort than to become a re-occuring donor or sustaining member.10 Like their parents, however, they’re more likely to support or invest in an organization if they feel some connection to the organization, its mission, or the benefits of becoming a member.

These trends demand new ways of thinking about public radio membership and about the relationship people have with their public radio stations. The question is: What, exactly, does it mean to be a member of a public media station? What could it mean? And how could expanding the definition of what it means to be a member — and what that membership itself means — enhance and strengthen both our relationship with public media and public media itself?

My Nieman project

These questions form the basis of my Knight Visiting Nieman Fellowship. While at Harvard, I am planning to create a new model of membership within public media that will complement already-existing forms by offering membership to people who may not be able to donate financially, but would like to donate a skill or their time to their local stations. I suspect this will inculcate a sense of identity and ownership amongst listeners, allowing them to feel more invested in public radio’s content, work, and mission, while also transforming public media stations into public community spaces that continue to fulfill the original mission.

Imagine, for instance, if you could contribute in a meaningful way to your local station — through code or digitizing an archive or suggesting a story idea — and receive, in return, the ability to record a podcast in an empty audio studio? Imagine if public radio stations functioned as Main Streets, as my friend Lily Bui once said, or in the same way that local public libraries do? It would transform the way people could interact — and participate — in the local news process, and would enhance the stories stations put out on air.

Throughout the project, I will be going public too. I am conducting the fellowship as a series of two-week-long sprints and am making all of my progress public. (You can see what the first one looks like here.) I’m structuring the fellowship this way, in part, so that I can talk to people across public media (and across other industries) to› inform what I build or create, and so I can hold myself accountable as the fellowship progresses. I also plan to make all of my research public and all of the software open source, so that anyone can adapt it for any organization.

Over my two months here, I plan to do a number of things:

  • User research: I have conducted user research interviews with people who work at stations as well as people who listen to a lot of public media but are not members. I am also planning to conduct a randomized survey on the street to learn what people think of public media membership and membership in general. Results from this data will help inform what to build and how to structure an effective pilot program.
  • Case studies: There are many organizations outside of public media that grapple with the same issues around identity, affiliation, accessibility, and membership. I am preparing a number of case studies articulating lessons that public media can learn from other organizations. So far, I have interviews set up with librarians, Code for America, and a food co-op, and plan to schedule more interviews in future cycles with college alumni associations, the Harry Potter fan group Dumbledore’s Army, and The Smithsonian Institution — all of which have thought about affiliation and membership in novel ways.
  • Tool kit: With the help of the developer community, I am in the process of creating several pieces of software that will help potential members find stations who would like help with specific programs. I am also in the process of finding homes for these tools after they are launched.
  • Recruiting and then tracking stations I have recruited a number of stations from around the country to participate in a yearlong pilot project. At each station, we are identifying a cohort of people who have or will contribute in some meaningful way to the station, and giving those people a year of membership — with all of the benefits that people who contribute financially receive. I will track this cohort of people through interviews and some data, and hope to present it next summer.

My goals for the project are to to see whether people who contribute code, time, or a skill to a station feel more invested in the station’s future — and derive benefit from the experience themselves. I am also excited to get a conversation started within public media about creating opportunities for the public to see and participate in the process of making news, and not just broadcasting our news out to the public.

Melody Kramer is a 2015 Knight Visiting Nieman Fellow and is currently serving a two-year term appointment with 18F. She was previously a digital strategist and editor at NPR.

Photo of the east entrance of Zion National Park by James Martin Phelps used under a Creative Commons license.

  1. During an internal NPR Hack Day, a team scraped data from OKCupid, the online dating website. They found that almost 40,000 people in a-completely-random-and-possibly-unscientific sampling list NPR in their profiles as an interest. About 11,000 listed This American Life, while fewer than 5,000 listed Fox News and Howard Stern. An example from a profile: “I spend a lot of time thinking about all of the things Melissa Block, Robert Siegel, and Audie Cornish tell me to consider?” Possibly thinking along these lines, WNYC runs speed dating nights. Super smart. ↩︎
  2. In Hot Pod, Nick Quah notes that Slate’s network tripled its listeners last year, to 6 million downloads a month. This is not near NPR’s 80 million downloads a month. But there are over 1 billion iTunes podcast subscriptions a year, according to Apple. So people are clearly listening to other podcasts, even if they’re not part of a larger network. ↩︎
  3. They might “sound” indistinguishable, but for me the essential thing is that there is no other news and information service like public media, that offers such wide coverage and aspires to the highest journalistic standards. The mission of virtually all non-public media is to make money, not matter what disguise it’s dressed up in; the mission of public media is, and should be, something quite different. If you’d like to learn more, I suggest starting with my friend Bill Siemering’s original purposes for NPR, crafted in 1970. ↩︎
  4. Over 40 million people listen to some kind of podcast. Podcast listening is up over 25 percent compared to last year. And people who podcast listen to an average of six podcasts a month, according to Edison Research. ↩︎
  5. Though 91 percent of millennials listen to radio for some portion of their week, they also make up the largest cohort of smartphone owners. Listening is growing on that platform and will likely continue to grow↩︎
  6. And even younger generations are likely to be even more mobile-dominant, when it comes to listening habits. ↩︎
  7. Millennials are shunning cars. America’s largest generation is not driving as much as their parents. Between 2001 and 2009, the average number of miles driven by 16 to 34 year olds dropped by 23 percent, and the share of younger people using public transportation increased. ↩︎
  8. One piece of advice she gives on appealing to younger donors? Don’t even ask them to ‘donate,’ because younger donors want to feel more invested in a cause. Choose a different word, with a different connotation: investment…”It may seem something simple. It’s just semantics: donation vs. investment. But I think to a millennial, who’s grown up in a very different world, one that’s more participatory because of the digital tools that we have, to them they want to feel like they’re making an investment. Not just that they’re investing their capital, but they’re investing emotionally,” Amy Webb says. ↩︎
  9. A survey conducted by the 2012 Millennial Impact Report in 2011 showed that 75 percent of millennials gave, though 58 percent reported that their largest donation was under $100. ↩︎
  10. Sustaining or re-occuring membership is the name of the growth game in public media right now. The push for sustainers has made a big difference over the last decade. I don’t think there’s anyone who thinks sustainers are a bad idea, but there are definitely people, consultants included, who think some stations are implementing it poorly. Signing up sustainers does not mean signing up people and forgetting them — or forgetting people who can give in smaller amounts or in other ways. One consultant told me that some station sites make it difficult for people to give one-time donations, because sustaining membership is so much more valuable. Sustainers outperform other donors on retention and lifetime revenue, because the payments are taken directly from their credit cards on a monthly basis. “Sustained giving must become the default option for membership contributions, at a suggested level of $10 per month, for example,” suggests this Current article. (This article suggests there are hidden maintenance and customer service costs associated with sustainer programs, such as having procedures and staff in place to update expired or cancelled credit cards, additional segmentation of fundraising messages so sustainers are recognized as such, or being caught in the fallout from a massive security breach elsewhere — the 70 million customers of Target in December 2013, for example.)  ↩︎
POSTED     May 15, 2015, 10 a.m.
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