Will Listeners Voluntarily Support Public Radio Web Services?
It's a good reminder that listener contributions are the financial foundation on which public radio stations and NPR are built. They are the most important and reliable source of income for public radio delivering $327,000,000 in FY 2010, up from $185,000,000 in FY 2000, and never a down year despite the economic roller coaster we've been riding. (Source CPB)
NPR's board and management are insistent that the future of public radio is digital and not in radio. So much so that NPR's recent strategic planning meetings with stations focused on public radio's Digital Transition rather than planning for a future that is based on some combination of radio and digital.
Words matter. And the words Digital Transition... meaning from terrestrial radio to digital... are significant. If the outlook for digital corporate support for NPR isn't bright, then it won't be any better for local stations.
That makes this a good time to revisit the question, "Will Listeners Voluntarily Support Public Radio's Web-based services?" Here's our thinking from 2006. We believe it holds up today. The link to the original post is at the end.
The Stairway to Given is based on a statistical model that outlines the steps listeners go through to become contributors. Originally published as part of the Audience 98 project, it is a refinement of more than two decades of research on how listeners become contributors.
I’m pretty certain it will apply to public radio services delivered via the Internet, whether those services are from a station, a network, independent producers, or some new entity. But let’s travel the Stairway to Given and see.
The First Step: Someone must listen to a public radio station
This seems self-evident but it still needs to be applied to the web. People who don’t use podcasts or streaming media or public radio web sites aren’t going to donate money to keep them on the Internet. Non-users won’t give. Users might give.
The Second Step: The listener must rely on the programming
Reliance has a very specific meaning here, one that is useful when considering web-based content. Reliance is based on the listener’s use of public radio. It is a measurement of behavior and includes factors such as Loyalty, the number of weekly tune-in occasions, the number of different programs and dayparts used by the listeners, and years spent listening.
This is where we see the financial importance of converting Fringe listeners to Core listeners. This is where we see that it takes an average of 3-5 years of listening before someone will voluntarily contribute money to public radio.
Consider the implications for web-based content. Will listeners use public radio podcasts or streams more than any other source of Internet audio? Will they use them 10, 12, 15 times per week? Will they use them consistently over years, not just weeks or months? Can public radio create in listeners the same level of Reliance on its podcasts and streams as it does on its station broadcasts?
If so, it begs the question on whom is the listener relying? A station? A network? A producer? So far, public radio has looked at this mostly as a delivery question. Who delivers the service? In the end, it is really a branding and marketing question. More on this in a future posting.
The Third Step: The listener must find the programming personally important
Where Reliance measures listening behavior, Personal Importance measures how well the content connects with the listener’s personal values and beliefs. The specific research question is this, “The programming on WXXX is an important part of my life. If it went away I would miss it."
“The podcasts from _____ are an important part of my life. If they went away I would miss them."
“The _____ web site is an important part of my life. If it went away I would miss it.”
“The (classical, jazz, AAA, bluegrass, folk) music from (web site) is an important part of my life. If it went away I would miss it.”
Public radio’s on-line services – audio, print, social networking, you name it – will have to pass the Personal Importance test with users in order to earn their voluntary financial support. Users won’t give if what is offered won’t be missed.
Personal Importance and Sense of Community
One key aspect of Personal Importance is the concept of “Sense of Community.” This is the idea that public radio programming is one of the ties that bind together people with certain shared values. Their common listening experiences creates a Sense of Community.
Today, many public radio listeners hear the same news stories, talk shows, and entertainment programs in roughly the same time frame. They talk about what they heard and relive the experience together. That won’t be as common in an on-demand world. There will be more individual and fewer "communal" listening experiences.
The Internet provides opportunities to compensate for this. Listeners e-mailing audio links to one another is one example of this. Social networking is another. Not all listeners will do these things, but Sense of Community might become even more powerful in the decision to contribute among those who engage in on-line community activities.
The Fourth Step: Funding Beliefs
Listeners must believe that listeners, and not the government, are the primarily source of income for public radio.
This is probably not as much of a problem for on-line services as it is for public broadcasting, which has a long history of federal and state support. That said, public radio has the chance to start educating web content users about how it is funded and the importance of listener contributions.
Audience 98 did not test the question of business support, so we cannot predict how that will factor in voluntary giving decisions regarding web content. That said, a parallel could be drawn between government support during the infancy of public radio and business support during the infancy of on-line content.
If users learn at the outset that someone else will pay for their web-based public radio, it will make it more difficult for public radio to get their voluntary support when it is needed. Public radio should start cultivating those future donations now with appropriate marketing and messaging.
The Fifth Step: Income
Audience 98 showed us that household income was a contributing factor in whether someone would give to public radio, but that it was not nearly as significant as the other steps of The Stairway to Given.
Not all donors are wealthy. Not all wealthy listeners are donors. Public radio is not just for those who can afford to pay. That’s a fundamental aspect of the business. No matter who pays for it, it is available to all. That’s what makes it a public service.
The Stairway to Given provides a wonderful listener focus for the question of whether listeners will voluntarily support public radio’s web-based content. Can you imagine hundreds of thousands of people donating if they do not rely on it, do not find it personally important, or do not believe their contributions are truly needed?
The doubters and skeptics will use that last question as ammunition for arguing that the voluntary support model is dead. I disagree.
I believe The Stairway to Given is a blueprint for designing public radio’s web-based services. Let’s start asking how users will rely on us in meaningful, measurable ways and then construct our service offerings accordingly. Let’s ask if our content resonates with users deeply enough that it becomes personally important. Let’s find ways to use the web to build Sense of Community around the values we share with our listeners. Let’s ensure that we don’t create misperceptions about our funding that we will have to undo down the road.
We know what we need to know to get users to voluntarily support public radio. If we successfully hold our new, web-based offerings to the Stairway to Given standard, they will financially support those too.