I distinctly remember trying to figure out how to properly fold and crease my dad’s daily copies of The Washington Post (which he still reads almost exclusively in print). But when I decided to pursue a graduate degree in journalism, I wanted to study the future of news, including alternative revenue sources and audience development. I’ve long been fascinated by the intersection of media and technology, which led me to Northwestern University’s Media Innovation program. I am passionate not only about quality journalism but discovering a sustainable path for its future.
As a researcher for the Membership Puzzle Project, I’m looking at what news outlets can learn from other organizations, starting with public media and most specifically public radio. (Television was out of scope for this phase of research.) After combing a sample of 50 public radio sites to gauge how they present membership to prospective supporters, I found that donation is the predominant model. I searched only publicly available information across stations, mostly American and some international, to understand how each is defining membership and how members can be involved. These stations’ sites suggest broadly similar approaches, with membership primarily defined firstly and often only by financial contributions. We call this a “thin” approach to membership, which doesn’t mean it’s wrong--just that there may be opportunities for more interactive approaches.
Sites included in the database include local community stations, well-known stations from metropolitan areas, major public radio players including National Public Radio, as well as affiliated stations nationwide that rely on these major players for additional programming. The stations, which vary considerably in size and scope, include a programming mix of local and national news and music. A handful of public radio stations based outside the U.S. are also included, but “public radio” has high variations in levels of government funding across countries, making direct comparisons problematic. This is an open data set, intended to evolve as listeners suggest stations, particularly those that experiment with new forms of membership. You can suggest stations to include here and don’t miss my fellow researcher Anika Gupta’s investigation into the changing face of public radio, based on extensive interviews with staff at nine public radio organizations stations across the United States.
Trends I noticed in two months spent compiling this data include:
Membership mostly means money
“Member” and “donor” language is used interchangeably. There are also regular requests for donation of assets (such as vehicles and securities), corporate sponsors, and employer matching gifts. The factor that varies the most between programs is the type of thank you gifts offered to members at “checkout.” Donors are regularly thanked with physical gifts, including mugs, apparel, CDs, and discount cards. Gifts are fixed to dollar amounts.
I saw a few stations that offer members-only newsletters and magazines, which helps to actively engage members with the station on a regular basis.
Some stations are attempting to grow communities of younger members who might not engage with radio in the traditional sense via broadcast. New York Public Radio (WYNC) has a membership program for donors aged 21 to 49 called Amps. Members are promised “unique, immersive and deeply New York experiences.” According to the pitch, outings in the past have included stargazing with the Radiolab team and tickets to sold out live tapings.
The Netherlands-based Evangelical Christian radio station EO also has a membership program for youth called BEAM. Membership is targeted at young persons who are enthusiastic about the Christian faith, but parents who are members can also sign their children up for an additional fee. Besides attending Christian events, youth members receive BEAM magazine quarterly.
Few stations look to involve listeners' professional expertise and personal experiences
This was disappointing. We’re hopeful that more station staff will get creative about how they might strengthen their journalism by bringing listeners closer to the work as sources, volunteer fact-checkers, and more.
When it comes to participation, “volunteering” usually means representing the station at events and giving time toward donation operations
More than half of the stations make it clear that they offer opportunities to volunteer. Station volunteers are invited to work as membership coordinators and to answer phones during pledge drives, mail thank you gifts, promote the station at events and in local communities, and seek out potential donors.
Some stations make more substantive pitches to volunteers. At Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), “volunteer opportunities will be matched to your interest area, availability and skill sets.” Examples of volunteering cited revolve around engaging communities throughout the state and acting as loyal brand ambassadors.
The National Public Radio affiliate station in San Bernardino, California, has a similar pitch. KVCR recognizes volunteers as the “heart” of the station. Volunteers reportedly “work hand in hand with KVCR staff assisting with duties and assignments that enables KVCR to fulfill its mission of bringing quality public broadcasting to the Inland Empire and beyond.” It does not explicitly reference examples of volunteers working one-on-one with reporters, but the possibility isn’t ruled out, either.
Stations need to be clearer about what constitutes membership
Whether or not volunteers or one-time supporters are considered members is a murky area for the majority of stations in this sample. Both are regularly included under the umbrella of "support." Using American Public Media (APM) as an example, there is a “support” page that provides information about “sustaining memberships,” a model public radio sites frequently used in the database. There is a place for “individual support” on the “support” page (or in other examples, a “one-time contribution”), but it is unclear whether these donors are considered members.
At Indiana Public Radio (WBST) in Indiana, “basic membership” is defined through donation. A minimum donation is not explicitly stated for membership, yet only donors who pledge $100 receive a “member card.” I found minor discrepancies like this throughout my research.
I found that the public radio stations I looked at in the Netherlands most clearly identified guidelines for membership. At WNL, which produces television and radio programs through the Dutch public broadcasting system, members pay 5.72 EUR annually. Members can only become a member once, must be confirmed by WNL staff before membership is confirmed by a council of members, and can be disqualified at any time.
The more members give, the more access or perks they're entitled to
Most sites have tiers of membership according to the amount donated:. Almost all non-tangible benefits are offered to members paying more than $1,000 in a given year. (Most memberships resulting from a one-time donation included membership for one year.) These benefits include meeting with reporters or on-air personalities, touring the station, or attending member-exclusive events.
Wide tone range in appeals
Membership pitches varied from impersonal to authentic. The majority fall somewhere in between. Frequently used approaches include:
Community: The station is portrayed as a staple of the community. KERA: “Gifts of all sizes help to ensure that KERA remains a relevant, vital and celebrated community resource for all North Texans. KERA serves this community through five public broadcasting stations...Your commitment to high-quality public media ensures educational and cultural programs that strengthen our community and improve lives.”
Political: Public radio is being threatened.
National Public Radio (NPR): “These station programming fees comprise a significant portion of NPR's largest source of revenue. The loss of federal funding would undermine the stations' ability to pay NPR for programming, thereby weakening the institution.”
Altruistic: Highlight the value of public radio and importance of local journalism.
Oregon Public Broadcasting (KOPB): “As an OPB supporter, you help create the radio and television that keeps us informed, feeds our curiosity and broadens our horizons. Your contribution keeps OPB strong — now and into the future.”
Straightforward: Members are the station’s main source of funding. Plus members get these perks.
Boston Public Radio (WGBH): “Thank you for taking the time to become a member today. WGBH members provide half of the operating funds needed to keep WGBH strong.”
Jessica Best, Emily Goligoski, Leon Postma, Jay Rosen, and Gonzalo del Peon contributed to this post.