When Lauren Bracey Scheidt, senior product manager for listener journey at National Public Radio, talks to online radio listeners, some of them express surprise at the idea of a terrestrial radio station (with knobs and equipment and all!). She said, “One of the most surprising pieces of info we get from some digital-only listeners is: ‘Wait...you have a radio station?’
And yet, as many as 91% of Americans listen to terrestrial radio in any given week, according to 2016 Nielsen Media Research data cited in a Pew Research Center report. Some of these listeners go on to contribute money (and in some cases, time and energy) that helps their local stations survive. Nearly 50 years of history means that public broadcasters have become some of the most experienced membership practitioners in journalism. And yet, as my fellow researcher Corinne Osnos found in studying how a sample of 50 stations present membership to prospective supporters, most stations ask for money first and could be more thoughtful in other ways that members might participate.
I took a qualitative approach, interviewing membership and content teams at nine organizations across the United States. I wanted to know: How have public media organizations built and sustained these strong giving relationships with their listeners? What are the day-to-day best practices as well as the philosophical roots of their membership model? And how is the idea of membership - and the ways in which public broadcasters solicit it - evolving as more listeners migrate to on-demand and online listening?
In the first part of this post, we examine how public media organizations currently host membership in order to draw lessons for other media organizations.
Public media - a diverse data set
Like other types of news sites we’ve examined, American public media organizations are diverse in how they staff membership, the news and entertainment content they produce, and the audience needs they serve. My research focused on the United States, where public media organizations often get more funding from members than from any other source, including government.
I interviewed membership staffers, general managers, and industry experts at:
- WGBH in Boston, Massachusetts
- New York Public Radio (WNYC and others) in New York
- WFMU in Jersey City, New Jersey
- NPR in Washington DC
- Southern California Public Radio (KPCC and others) in Pasadena, California
- KRCL in Salt Lake City, Utah
- Minnesota Public Radio (several stations with different call signs) in St. Paul, Minnesota
- Oregon Public Broadcasting (several stations) in Portland, Oregon
- Greater Public (an industry organization that has 253 public media stations as members and organizes membership training and resources for them)
I asked all of my interviewees questions including “how large is your membership team?” and “what fundraising appeals do you use most successfully?” You can see a sample of the questions I asked here, and you’re welcome to use this question list for your own purposes.
As for staff, Utah’s KRCL has a full-time membership staff of one person, aided by volunteers, while Boston’s WGBH employs a staff of 90 to work on their and other stations’ membership programs. Some stations play only music, while others also carry news. Two have television stations in addition to radio. Five are NPR affiliates (two aren’t), and they’re geographically dispersed across the Lower 48. (Beyond my sample, we studied how more stations invite their audiences to participate and are eager to see examples you’d point us to beyond the U.S. for this living list.)
Listen up: What public broadcasters have known for decades
1. Volunteering brings in members - and ensures your legacy
At KRCL in Utah, membership director Haley Cahill Wightman is the only full-time membership staffer. She says volunteers are essential to the station’s pledge drive (volunteers answer phones) and also perform a host of other functions throughout the year.
Volunteering, in turn, prompts financial support for the station: “The more engaged people become as volunteers the more they give as members,” Haley says. Volunteering is one way that members identify with the station: “When you see someone else wearing the KRCL T-shirt you know that they’re part of your special community within Salt Lake.” Haley herself began as a listener and then volunteered before becoming a full-time staffer at KRCL.
Volunteering can generate revenue and community engagement, and is especially important to younger supporters, says Michal Heiplik, executive director of membership marketing at WGBH in Boston. Several stations ask for volunteers during pledge drives, as well as at station-sponsored community events like music concerts.
What can other media organizations learn from KRCL and WGBH? Organizing a useful volunteer program is time- and resource-intensive, but can be a powerful way to create belonging and deeper future contributions, especially among younger potential members.
2. Love them or loathe them, pledge drives are key
A pledge drive is a period of time from a few hours to a few days that a public media organization devotes to asking listeners and viewers for financial donations. During the pledge drive, almost all programming circles back to the financial ask. All the organizations I spoke to hosted a pledge drive at least once a year.
New York Public Radio (WNYC) told us about the abbreviated, “warp speed” pledge drives the station hosted before and after the 2016 presidential election. Anne O’Malley, vice president of membership, said that as part of these pledge drives the station was open about why they shortened the pledge drive. “In response to needs from our newsroom we cut the time, and we used that in a very transparent way [to tell listeners] ‘you guys are depending on us to make a decision in this critical election,’” Anne says. The subsequent pledge drive broke a record that had been standing since 9/11.
Other stations describe the pledge drive as a chance to highlight the station’s personalities. Ken Freedman, general manager and program director at Jersey City-based WFMU, says they try to have fun with their March pledge drive by pairing up DJs and running special programs.
Can other media organizations pull off pledge drives? It depends. Reminding listeners of the organization’s mission at regular interval can encourage people to buy in financially. But a generic pledge drive, repeated similarly or too often, can exhaust and annoy listeners (and for broadcast there’s no way to shut pledge drives off for those who have already donated). Mission-driven organizations do well with pledge drives. The most successful ones, in our data set, tried to demystify why the organization was asking for money.
3. Membership is a form of altruism
A key element of public media membership is generosity: members get the exact same radio listening experience as people who don’t donate. Philosophically, that attitude makes a public media donation very different from a paywall, which limits access to coverage based on contribution level. When I spoke to staff in public media, they described donation as a form of altruism or community service.
Although this mission may seem limited to public media, we’ve found in our research that people who support news by paying for it often say they want the core news product to be open. Our research director Emily Goligoski found that news site members frequently say that underwriting news that others get to enjoy for free is a point of pride for them.
Bob Breck, director of membership at Minnesota Public Radio, said their members mention wanting to help the community as a reason for donating. Michal Heiplik of WGBH says philanthropic donors form a core donor base for public radio. Donors give money because “they believe in our [public media’s] place in the fabric of American society.” He likened public media to libraries: public goods.
Switching channels: What public broadcasters will need to do in decades to come
For years, membership in public media almost always meant only one thing: financial donations, a finding confirmed not just in my interviews but also in our accompanying database. Membership departments are often assessed based on how much money they bring in.
At MPP, we’re not just interested in donations. We’re interested in relationships: where do they begin and what do they mean to the people who participate? Where do financial asks enter the picture, and what are other ways to add value to audiences’ lives? As consumer behavior shifts, so do expectations, and public media is grappling with these changes just like the for-profit media industry.
Today, there are hundreds of ways to access public media content, including podcasts, social media clips, websites, apps, and the internet. People have many ways to consume, and many ways to give. What does the shift towards online consumption and donation mean for the membership relationships of the future, and how do these new media spaces challenge long-standing practices?
1. Moving from on-air to online to on-demand
An increasing number of radio listeners want to view, listen, and give online. According to Pew’s audio and podcasting fact sheet, “in 2017, 61% of Americans ages 12 or older have listened to online radio in the past month, while about half (53%) have listened in the past week.
Listening to podcasts - on-demand audio programs - has also grown rapidly, as you can see in this chart from Pew:
For-profit streaming services like Netflix and Hulu have popularized the idea of a content-based subscription - consumers pay a regular fee for access to a vast library of content they consume on their own schedule. Anne O’Malley from WNYC said, “In some ways Spotify and Netflix and Hulu have helped us because they’ve started to train this younger digital-first audience that you have to pay to get quality content.”
Yet Bob Breck of Minnesota Public Radio asks: “How are the motivations for giving to an individual program different from giving to a radio station? There is a larger question for younger members - whether the concept of membership means the same thing to them.” In other words, is a subscription fundamentally different from a donation? And how can public media find a path that brings together these two sets of practices in a way that resonates with younger audiences?
New York Public Radio’s fundraising history suggests that the distinction between philanthropic and content-based consumption may be more of a gray area, especially for younger podcast listeners. Anne, the station’s Vice President of Membership, explained how the host of their RadioLab program asked for money: he “pulled back the curtain a little bit and explained all the work that goes into producing RadioLab.” In particular, the host included details about how reporters had to get on planes to gather material. “The [audience] is a younger and more digitally-savvy group,” Anne says, “When he [the host] mentioned [needing to] put people on planes it made [listeners] think about their own work.”
Anne refers to this type of fundraising appeal as “using the social contract”, by which she means reminding listeners that what they’re consuming isn’t free to make. In many ways, this is the same type of request that public media has been making for a very long time.
But highlighting professional similarities is also a powerful way of creating shared identity, and reinforcing that host and audience belong to the same community. Podcasts have been successful partly because they offer a way to build new and deeper relationships with niche audiences. WFMU’s Ken Freedman explains: “I wouldn’t want to have a program about architecture on the air because it would turn off all the political people,” he says. “But if you do a podcast, you can work the Internet and find every last person on the face of the planet who is interested in architecture.” By taking advantage of on-demand behavior, public media organizations can create ongoing relationships with these niche audiences, in a new way.
But in the podcast world, the idea of the pledge drive simply doesn’t fit.
“No one would download it,” says Anne.
Ken says he’s noticed a difference between loyalty to a podcast and loyalty to his station, although he doesn’t frame that difference as a bad thing. “One thing I started noticing about ten years ago: people would say ‘I love that podcast’ not ‘I love WFMU’. They know of it [the station] because of a podcast. So there has been a huge upsurge in people who just know of us because of a particular program’s podcast.”
Navigating Geography and Scale
Geography used to be a core part of public media membership, but online listeners aren’t bound by location. Lauren Bracey Scheidt from NPR asks, “In a world where someone can access content without going through a geographic gatekeeper, what is the basis of the contract with the listener?”
In a world of national brands and national online scale, local matters - perhaps more than ever.
For Michal Heiplik of WGBH, membership services and relationships are different. Michal serves as executive director of the Contributor Development Partnership, a collective that provides membership services for several stations. These services include direct mail, pledge processing, pledge gift fulfillment, canvassing, and other practical elements of a station’s membership program. CDP now runs 19 membership programs for about 130 stations, says Michal. They’re able to work at scale, thereby limiting cost.
But he’s very clear that CDP does not run relationships - relationships are up to the individual station. “We can’t replicate relationships at a national scale and we’re not trying to,” he says. He questions the idea of a relationship based only on occasional moments of financial transaction. “Just because someone responds to your renewal mail, that isn’t a relationship,” he says.
Instead, he highlights the importance of close and local bonds. He says that engaging in online conversations, hosting events, and being present in the local community are how stations can build relationships. The goal, he says, is to “build out a deeper understanding of why the donor is even there.” For local stations, being present in the local community is key. For organizations looking to capitalize on niche interests rather than geography, relationship-building could involve being present in online communities. Either way, when it comes time to ask for money, the organization has to build that ask on a strong understanding of what unique thing brings their audience to the tent.
A Turn to News?
As local newspapers have declined, public media organizations might be candidates to fill the gap. “In this day and age when newspapers are waning, we’re working hard to build our news operations,” says Anne Ibach, director of membership at Oregon Public Broadcasting. The organization sees news as “the future of the organization.”
Melanie Sill, who spent several years as a journalist and editorial leader at Southern California Public Radio, said the coming years will see a lot more “journalistic work supported by interest groups that want to see issues covered.” Sometimes these interest groups exist at an institutional level, but they might also be individuals or volunteers.
WFMU can’t afford a single reporter, says Ken Freedman, but the organization has a volunteer news department. The thought of volunteer reporters might strike professional journalists as a flawed concept, or at least a pathway to misinformation, but it might also be an important way forward. Communities that want issues covered can create beneficial partnerships with journalists, while media organizations can deepen their responsiveness to local communities.
DEFINING THE MEMBERSHIP MODEL OF THE FUTURE
Here at MPP, we’ve drawn distinctions between thick and thin membership models. Thicker models tend to support strong organizational missions, incorporate members into many aspects of organizational function (not just marketing or finance!), and offer multiple avenues for participation.
One of the most remarkable things about public media membership is how resilient it’s proven to be despite changes in economic climate, political atmosphere, and technological capacity. This endurance is a testament to the strong sense of mission at these organizations - a crucial feature of “thicker” membership models. Public media provides something essential - whether it’s content, education, community, or a sense of belonging, say the people who work in these organizations. But the membership model relies heavily on often-altruistic donations, and often begins when a member makes their first donation. The lack of avenues for participation characterize the “thinner” membership models we’ve studied.
Today, new technology is slowly and subtly changing the game by offering more ways for stations to build stronger relationships and thicker membership models, especially with younger audiences. At the same time, adapting to new audience behaviors means questioning long-standing practices like the pledge drive. The work we mention above is the beginning of a long process of learning and adaptation. The first and most crucial step might be more audience research - to understand what emerging audiences want from public media, and how they’re willing to pay for it. “The typical donor is a 60-year-old woman,” says Michal Heiplik of WGBH. “I’m sure younger donors are different, but we don’t know what is important about how different they are.” This information can become the basis for figuring out how to offer new avenues for participation.
Haley Cahill Wightman of KRCL adds:“Even if people don’t regularly donate, I think we have a lot of social capital in our community.” The idea of social capital -- goodwill built up over time, from a shared mission and purpose -- is an important one in the public media world, and an important thing for all media organizations to build as they look to a member-driven future.
Jessica Best, Emily Goligoski, Leon Postma, Jay Rosen, and Gonzalo del Peon contributed to this post.