Monday, March 31, 2008

Membership: The End is Not Near

Public radio's membership model has been pronounced dead several times in the last few years. Streaming was going to kill it. Satellite radio was going to kill it. Podcasting was going to kill it.

The method of death was going to be listeners leaving their local stations in droves, and therefore, unwilling to donate. That's not going to happen.

No question, change is coming and public radio has to deal with it. Proclamations that the membership model is dead are just flat wrong because they assume the industry has no growth potential.

We know from industry benchmarks that public radio listening and giving is not a fixed-size pie. There is room to gain more radio listening from the current audience. There is room to grow the size of the radio audience even among public radio's current demographic/psychographic niche. Every station can grow its donor base by getting better at acquiring and keeping donors.

Assuming that pubic radio has no growth potential is one of the two fundamental flaws in the "membership model is dead" proclamation. The other flaw is quite typical among forward thinkers in any field. In fact, it is hard to champion any new idea without suffering from this flaw. Let's call it "The Flaw of Universal Truth."

The Flaw of Universal Truth is applying an idea -- typically a new idea -- equally across all circumstances. A recent example was a blog posting from a Web 2.0 guru who decided to bypass donating to his local station in favor giving money directly to the This American Life podcast. Therefore, he concluded, all listeners will stop giving to their stations and give only to the programs of their choice. And that means the public radio membership model is dead.

The most obvious flaw here is the assumption that "what applies to 'me' applies to all." Any researcher knows not to fall in that trap. But there is a deeper flaw in the logic, which is the assumption that listeners giving directly to a program or network has to be bad for the station. It could end up being very good for public radio.

The best way to grow the public radio donor base is to get more listeners to give more often. If giving directly to programs or networks is a way to do that, then it should be explored.

Public radio's donor base could experience double digit growth if "giving platforms" were to expand as much as "listening platforms."

Offering more ways to give creates more opportunities to succeed. There are dozens of creative ways to go about getting more donors once those new avenues are opened.

The issue, then, isn't getting donors. Public radio knows how to do that. The industry just has a self-imposed limit on how it does it. The issue is the business model, how the money flows. The concept is simple. The more money raised by networks and programs, the less stations have to pay for those programs. Maybe those programs are even free to stations in this model.

Skeptics will offer dozens of reasons why this won't work, but it can. Just recently, NPR reworked its pricing model for Morning Edition to save stations money. Who would have thought that even a year ago?

Change is coming and public radio has to adapt, but contrary to today's perceptions, public radio has a good history of adaptation and evolution. Just pull out any station programming schedule, audience profile, or membership statistics from 1998, 1988, and 1978 and you'll see.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm going to say something that membership departments really don't want to hear: "Can't I just give money and not be a member?!?"

For example, when the show Weekend America came out, my local station didn't carry it. After listening for a couple of weeks, I responded to their pitch to support the podcast. I went to their web site, filled out their form and kicked in a small donation. Sure, it wasn't much but I fell good about supporting content I enjoined. Then a while later, I received an email encouraging me to support Minnesota Public Radio during their pledge drive. To my horror I realized I had become a member to a station in a state I didn't even live in, nor did I want to be. While I realize that it takes the resources of MPR to create the show I like, as a listener, supporting the MPR's "in depth coverage that I rely on and trust" its not what resonates with me. I just really happen to like that one show.

Pub radio stations make it really hard to simply give money (for example I have yet to see a PayPal link on any NPR affiliate station), without membership strings attached.

To membership departments everywhere: No, I don't want to be become a member - I don't want to be a record ID in your fund raising database, and I'm tired of your renewal emails. Just let me show my token of appreciation and move on. I honestly believe if you make it really easy for fans to just throw money at you with out the commitment. I'm sure you'll have to spend a little less time trying to raise it. The membership model may not be dead, but as a listener I'm willing to pay money to opt out of it.

10:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Membership to a station will become increasingly meaningless. It will be a slow transformation, but a transformation nonetheless. A piece like this one holds a lot of truth, but it sounds like a "Don't Panic" message to existing stations. And while they shouldn't panic, they also shouldn't get comfortable.

Perhaps its the elite clientele you're working with, but at my station and others I hear about, new ideas related to pledge are greeted with skepticism and fear, and they totally miss the point about building a relationship with a tribe of listeners / viewers / interested people. These stations need to change their understanding of what it means to have a two-way relationship with real people out there.

The anonymous commenter points out the real behaviors of public radio stations across the country -- donors are data points and we treat them all the same, as mass media consumers. This is not the way to build a sustainable relationship.

I think stations are going to need consultants with a message that's different from "don't panic" and offers paths forward that really are radical in vision and practical in multi-step transformations.

I agree with you that there's great growth potential in giving out there -- in the short term, while mass media consumption remains dominant. But after that, mass appeals via mass media to mass audiences will begin to shrink in effectiveness and only those that have deep and personalized and complex relationships with donors will survive.

You may not like Chris Anderson's comments about giving to a program (TAL), not a station, but his approach will slowly become the norm over the next 10 years. He's just the leading edge. Look at the results of the Bedroom Project researched by Jacobs Media to see what happens after Chris Anderson is dead. It ain't pretty.

Membership folks (membership -- what a meaningless name!) had best start thinking differently now.

12:59 AM  
Blogger RadioSutton said...

John Proffitt, I'm curious as to why you characterized my post as a "don't panic" message. The entire last half of the message is about radical change in how public radio approaches membership. NPR raising money directly form listeners and giving its programs to "public media outlets" for free is a highly radical shift in the industry's business model and will cause considerable panic. And it squarely addresses the Chris Anderson issue in the unlikely event that 100% of the consumer base behaves the same way.

Your posting says the consumer behavioral shift is a decade in the making. Help me out here, why the criticism for suggesting some ways to survive the intervening 10 years?

1:58 AM  

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