Membership: The End is Not Near
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.