For public radio stations, “membership” mostly means “money”

News organizations’ membership initiatives need to be about engagement and relationships, not just money: That’s one of the tenets of the Membership Puzzle Project, a one-year research project that NYU’s Jay Rosen launched last May to help figure out what the “social contract between journalists and members” should look like. MPP released a report last month on the news membership model; this week, it released more research about how membership programs are working at public radio stations. There’s an overview report by Anika Gupta and a database of 50 public radio sites and their membership models by Corinne Osnos. A couple of tidbits and trends from the two posts: — All nine public radio stations that Gupta spoke with run pledge drives at least once a year. But pledge drives don’t have to be long:
New York Public Radio (WNYC) told us about the abbreviated, “warp speed” pledge drives 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.

— The shift toward online listening and donations changes the relationship that public radio stations have with members. Pledge drives don’t work well in the podcast world: “No one would download it,” said O’Malley. (That said, Slate has experimented successfully with urging listeners to subscribe to Slate Plus within its own podcasts.) — Some work can be outsourced, but listener relationships should be managed by individual stations. WGBH’s Michal Heiplik is also the executive director of the Contributor Development Partnership, a collective that currently runs 19 membership programs (“direct mail, pledge processing, pledge gift fulfillment, canvassing, and other practical elements”) for about 130 stations. But, Heiplik said: “We can’t replicate relationships at a national scale and we’re not trying to…Just because someone responds to your renewal mail, that isn’t a relationship.” — Stations should rely more on their listeners’ professional expertise. As Osnos surveyed 50 public radio stations, she found that most of them aren’t looking for non-obvious ways their listeners could help them. Instead, “volunteering” tends to mean things like answering phones at pledge drives or mailing thank-you gifts. But could listeners help in different ways, too? “We’re hopeful that more station staff will get creative about how they might strengthen their journalism by bringing listeners closer to the work as sources, volunteer fact-checkers, and more.” The posts are here and here.

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