New models for public media membership: Melody Kramer’s Nieman report

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npr-mug-compositeAs a Knight Visiting Nieman Fellow this year, Melody Kramer has been studying the potential for new membership models for public media. Her full report, with footnotes and research citations, was published Monday by Nieman Lab. Republished here are the executive summary and key findings. Kramer was previously a digital strategist and editor at NPR and is currently serving a two-year term appointment with 18F, a digital services agency within the U.S. government.

Last summer, public media consultant Mark Fuerst interviewed 40 front-line development professionals at public media stations. Fuerst noted that the people he interviewed expressed concerns about the continued effectiveness of their ability to raise money over time. Two-thirds of the membership directors at radio-only licensees reported that both incoming pledge drive calls and online pledge had declined. Six of the 15 radio-only licensees reported a decline of over 10 percent.

These trends, coupled with continuing changes in patterns in public radio consumption, demand new approaches to thinking about the sustainability of the current membership model. Individuals supplied 34 percent of funding to member stations in 2013, and the importance of pledge revenue to stations’ bottom lines, as Fuerst notes, is “impossible to overstate.” As modes of listening shift, however, it will become increasingly difficult to cultivate donors using the traditional methods of fundraising.

What, then, is the alternative? How can we encourage people to become invested in the future of public media, both as listeners and as members? In this report, I describe the results of a multi-method effort to detail an alternative membership model for public media stations. This model is based not on the pledge drive (or on cultivating sustaining donors or large donors, as many stations seek to do), but on building an infrastructure that allows community members to contribute to their stations in a variety of ways, including non-financial means. It takes as its starting point the understanding that building relationships with potential donors leads to their sustained support — in the form of time, money, and advocacy on behalf of the station.

Key findings

Why do we need a new membership model?

  • A failure in the coming years to push outside the existing envelope of membership will leave audience growth stalled, potential support diverted, and significant amounts of funding on the table.
  • Studies of both baby boomer and millennial volunteers suggest that they are looking for meaningful volunteer experiences in which they can use their professional skills, and that many nonprofits have not developed programs to take full advantage of these talents. The current pledge-based model fails to leverage the unique contributions these groups might make — particularly with respect to the ways in which they could activate their own social networks to increase the impact of their contributions.

What could a new membership model look like?

There are a number of ways in which community members could contribute to their local stations — thereby building connections with both contributors and potential donors.

  • Remote membership: Community members could receive one year of station membership by remotely digitizing, tagging, and transcribing a certain amount of audio or video material that would allow stations to resurface their existing archives and generate new revenue streams.
  • Partnerships: Stations could partner with existing civic hacking organizations or developer bootcamps in their communities to create maps and interactives for reporting projects, like this Election Night map that was created by the civic tech group Code for DC in conjunction with WAMU. Stations could offer to host these groups and extend year-long memberships to them for contributing their skills and expanding the reach of a station’s reporting.
  • Universities: At university-licensed stations, students could be made members for working on semester-long capstone projects to benefit the station. In the process, students would gain real-world experience for their portfolios, and stations could benefit from new talent working on specific projects.
  • In the community: Community members could come together — at the station — to user test new websites, share story ideas, edit articles on Wikipedia with citations from station stories, or chat about the news. They could host a listening party, or pledge to share a certain number of station stories on social media, or write hand-written thank you notes or birthday cards to other community members. All of these tasks could be tied to membership.

At the end of the first year of non-financial membership, these contributors could be asked how they would like to renew their membership: by volunteering additional time, recruiting additional volunteers, and/or donating financially.

What are the challenges to implementation?

  • Communications silos exist at many stations between departments. Volunteer coordinators and membership departments rarely, if ever, communicate with the newsroom. At a lot of stations, they even sit on different floors. This means that almost no opportunities currently exist for people to contribute their time or a skill for a newsroom or within programming departments. Similarly, online communication is largely segregated between departments and networks. There are at least seven public media Facebook groups, one Slack channel, and several listservs that cater to different types of employees in public radio. Information sharing between these groups is limited and constricted by the platforms themselves, which are often hidden and don’t necessary surface information to everyone in the group.
  • Communication silos also exist between stations. If Station A creates an open source widget with a civic hacking group, for example, there are few existing ways to share knowledge that the widget exists with other stations, so they can focus their work on other projects.
  • Many stations do not offer ways for volunteers to contribute professional skills to their local stations. As a result, stations are missing opportunities to engage people who have little interest in traditional volunteer activities (e.g., clerical work, pledge drives) but who are motivated by opportunities to contribute and develop professional skills, meet and network with other professionals in their communities, and contribute to projects they deem meaningful or important.
  • New members are currently placed into a database and funneled through a series of automated events. For example, once someone becomes a traditional member of a public radio station, they receive direct mail and emails starting in the ninth month after pledging which ask them to renew their membership. (There is a direct way to turn these off, which would involve giving non-traditional members a user-generated code to exclude them from these mailings or change the mailings they would receive.)

How can these challenges be addressed? What are the next steps?

  • Public media must break down current communications silos between departments, between stations, and between online forums. These communication challenges are not specific only to public media, but public media’s funding model can only be strengthened with more collaboration and shared knowledge.
  • Public media can look to other organizations that have grappled with the same questions — from libraries to food cooperatives to museums to airlines — to see how they’ve approached membership, and what it means to be a member.
  • Public media must continue to challenge and then test current assumptions about engagement and membership. This can be done running experiments, measuring the outcomes of those experiments, iterating on the results — and sharing the results publicly. For example, several stations are currently running year-long pilot tests with me to see whether non-financial forms of membership yield positive outcomes.
  • Public media stations can help connect community members with each other, using the public radio station as a platform for doing so. Providing a way for people to meet and more deeply connect with each other helps create connections that can strengthen the community with and through the public radio station.
  • Public media must build and use platforms that allow people to collaborate. For the second part of this project, I am working with several developers to adapt a platform that will allow stations to post projects that they need help with, and give community members the ability to both sign up for those projects and become members in return. We are also building several other tools to strengthen communication and allow for better knowledge-sharing and collaboration between stations.

To stay updated on the progress of Kramer’s project, sign up here.

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  • Aaron Read

    Hi Melody, I viewed this project with a lot of skepticism at first, but this article certainly goes a ways at encouraging me to think there’s serious value in the project.

    I have one thought, and I want to preface it by saying that I have a LOT of experience working in higher education, and specifically in regards to college- and public-radio…but I don’t have a lot of experience in other arenas this article touches on. So nobody should try and extrapolate my comments about this one narrow slice beyond that slice. Okay, here goes:

    You mention getting university students more involved at stations owned by a college. Why would this be viewed as beneficial by the parent college, and what potential political problems for the station does this approach raise?

    (note: I should add that I already know the answers…or at least I’m pretty sure I know them…but I want to know what your research *says* are the answers, because viewing them through that prism is important if the point is to “shake up” the overall status quo and find new ideas for revenue streams.)

    • Melody Joy Kramer

      Well, students could obtain job skills, receive recommendations for employment, have stronger connections to their university (as I do, through my college marching band) and would have another affiliation to take with them beyond graduation. (More here: http://www.niemanlab.org/2015/07/putting-the-public-into-public-media-membership/#melkramer-universities)

      I’m not sure what you mean by political problems. There are some stations that already do this, and do it well.

      And there is potential for revenue, but there’s also potential for ambassadorships and impact – both ways to strengthen public media as a whole. (Student discovers public media, more likely to listen to public media post graduation…AIR has done research on this.)

      • Aaron Read

        That’s not really what I’m asking. Why are these things viewed as beneficial BY THE COLLEGE?

        You seem to be implying that your arguments are viewed as objectively good by all stakeholders. I have direct experience (and loads of secondhand experience) that says it can very well be otherwise at many institutions.

        • Melody Joy Kramer

          I think most universities look at stronger connections to the university through an affiliation as a good thing. It’s why they support student groups. They donate more.

  • John Bell

    Interesting ideas, Melody. But I don’t see how this replaces the necessary fundraising that is listed as the problem to be faced.

    • Melody Joy Kramer

      It doesn’t replace it. It’s a supplement and more expansive way of looking at the existing model. And it’s expanding it to groups that the current fundraising doesn’t reach.

      • John Bell

        Thanks. I thought I was missing something…

  • Dave Hunter

    With the exception of social media sharing, listener parties, and hand-written thank you notes, your example volunteer activities for an expanded membership model require skills that a majority of listeners are unlikely to have, and address needs that aren’t a priority for many stations, except maybe for large stations, which are the only stations where membership is growing.

    That said, I think there’s potential in soliciting volunteer coders at larger stations to work on tools that can be pushed down to smaller stations. Large stations have the staff to organize and maintain these projects after volunteers inevitably lose interest (and they always lose interest, especially when we’re talking about tech workers and college students).

    So, these aren’t bad ideas, they’re just not large enough in scope to really impact or expand the current membership model. The exceptions I mentioned above are practices that any good fundraising, marketing, and social media staff should already be doing. Of course, if the staff isn’t large enough, they’re not doing them, but then they’re probably not capable of organizing volunteers to do them, either. They’re too busy keeping their heads above water for the next fund drive.

    The idea that we could expand the membership model through social networking is valid, though; I’m curious as to whether you explored adapting peer-to-peer fundraising for public media?

    If you’re going to talk about using the impact of listeners’ social networks, giving an enthusiastic member the ability to setup and track their own membership campaign, for their fellow-listener friends and colleagues, would be something everyone could participate in. That’s a project for which I’d give a talented coder a lifetime membership. And a mug, of course.