Why are you doing this project?

In February, the White House announced that every fourth grader in the country will now receive a pass granting them and their families free admission to all the National Parks for a full year.

The White House says the idea is to get kids into safe outdoor spaces, and to make it easier for children to be outside instead of in front of screens. I suspect it also has some substantial additional benefits. Many of those fourth graders (Not to mention younger and older siblings, parents, cousins, grandparents, friends, etc..) will eventually:

* Identify as supporters of the National Park Service

* Feel a sense of satisfaction and loyalty when thinking about their relationship with the National Park Service

* Value the experience they had in the National Parks and want to share it with their own children.

* Advocate for the future existence of the National Park Service.

* Recognize the National Park system for the indispensible public resource it is.

The concepts of membership and loyalty have a long history in the fields of social psychology and organizational behavior. In general, this research shows that people who identify with an organization describe themselves to others in terms of the organization. (For example, people who identify with public media are likely to describe themselves as NPR listeners on social networks and on dating websites.) 1 2 And when people identify with an organization, they exhibit higher and longer-term levels of loyalty and are more likely to formalize their identification by becoming members through donations. 3

Though membership has always been a core part of public media, over the past several years, public radio has been grappling with new questions concerning membership and listener loyalty.The traditional form of building membership and leveraging organizational loyalty—the pledge drive—has declined in effectiveness, and new conversations are beginning about how to recruit and retain members who access content off-air.

The existing membership model for public radio is largely based on a single assumption: that people who want to listen to the kind of high-quality programming that public radio provides will eventually find and then listen to public radio—on the radio, in the car, or on a mobile device. But the assumption that public radio provides a particular type of listening experience may no longer be accurate. As Kevin Roose noted last October, half of all cars sold in 2015 are connected to the Internet; in a decade, you won’t be able to buy an unconnected car.4 Though several stations have developed mobile apps, and NPR has developed mobile apps and continues to create experiences for connected cars 5, several for-profit podcasts and podcast networks—like Gimlet, 538, Midroll, Buzzfeed and Slate 6—now sound virtually indistinguishable from the NPR aesthetic, 7 and will grow alongside other podcasts 8 as they become easier to access in the car, which remains the predominant listening place for audio, and where 44 percent of all audio-listening currently takes place. 9 10

The rise of connected cars will also require new techniques to engage current millennials 11 and Generation Y-ers, who are not likely to age into the same listening 12, commuting 13, or donation habits 14 as previous generations. Millennials are more likely to give a little amount of money to a lot of organizations, 15 though they’re not likely to give large amounts, and may be more likely to invest in a once-off Kickstarter campaign that makes them feel like part of a larger community or cohort than to become a re-occuring donor or sustaining member. 16 Like their parents, however, they’re more likely to support or invest in an organization if they feel some connection to the organization, its mission, or the benefits of becoming a member.

These trends demand new ways of thinking about public radio membership and about the relationship people have with their public radio stations. The question is: What, exactly, does it mean to be a member of a public media station? What could it mean? And how could expanding the definition of what it means to be a member—and what that membership itself means— enhance and strengthen both our relationship with public media and public media itself?


  1. Sargeant, Adrian. “Donor Retention: What Do We Know and What Can We Do About It.” 2008. pdf

  2. During an internal NPR Hack Day, a team scraped data from OKCupid, the online dating website. They found that almost 40,000 people in acompletely-random-and-possibly-unscientific sampling (so you should scrape your own data before publicly stating any of this) list NPR in their profiles as an interest. About 11,000 listed This American Life, while less than 5,000 listed Fox News and Howard Stern. An example from a profile: “I spend a lot of time thinking about all of the things Melissa Block, Robert Siegel, and Audie Cornish tell me to consider?” Possibly thinking along these lines, WNYC runs speed dating nights. Super smart. [link]

  3. Sargeant, Adrian. “Donor Retention: What Do We Know and What Can We Do About It.” 2008. pdf

  4. “What’s Behind the Great Podcast Renaissance?” Kevin Roose. NYMag. [link]

  5. NPR In-Car App Connects GM Drivers To Public Radio, On-Demand. Press Release, January 2014. [link]

  6. “What’s Behind the Great Podcast Renaissance?” Kevin Roose. NYMag. [link]

  7. They might “sound” indistinguishable, but for me the essential thing is that there is no other news and information service like public media, that offers such wide coverage and aspires to the highest journalistic standards. The mission of virtually all non-public media is to make money, not matter what disguise it’s dressed up in; the mission of public media is, and should be, something quite different. If you’d like to learn more, I suggest starting with my friend Bill Siemering’s original purposes for NPR, crafted in 1970.

  8. In Hot Pod, Nick Quah notes that Slate’s network tripled its listeners last year, to 6 million downloads a month. [link] This is not near NPR’s 80 million downloads a month. But there are over 1 billion iTunes podcast subscriptions a year, according to Apple. So people are clearly listening to other podcasts, even if they’re not part of a larger network. [link]

  9. Over 40 million people listen to some kind of podcast. Podcast listening is up over 25 percent compared to last year. [link] And people who podcast listen to an average of six podcasts a month. (Edison Research.)

  10. 44 percent of all radio listening takes place in the car. [link]

  11. The 2013 Millennial Impact Report. Case Foundation. [link]

  12. Though 91 percent of Millennials listen to radio for some portion of their week [link] they also make up the largest cohort of smart phone owners. Listening is growing on that platform and will likely continue to grow. [link] And even younger generations are likely to be even more mobile-dominant, when it comes to listening habits. [link]

  13. Millennials are shunning cars. America’s largest generation is not driving as much as their parents. Between 2001 and 2009, the average number of miles driven by 16 to 34 year olds dropped by 23 percent, and the share of younger people using public transportation increased. [link]

  14. “One piece of advice she gives on appealing to younger donors? Don’t even ask them to “donate,” because younger donors want to feel more invested in a cause. Choose a different word, with a different connotation: investment.. “It may seem something simple. It’s just semantics: donation vs. investment. But I think to a millennial, who’s grown up in a very different world, one that’s more participatory because of the digital tools that we have, to them they want to feel like they’re making an investment. Not just that they’re investing their capital, but they’re investing emotionally,” Amy Webb says. [link]

  15. A survey conducted by the 2012 Millennial Impact Report in 2011 showed that 75 percent of millennials gave, though 58 percent reported that their largest donation was under $100. [link]

  16. Sustaining or re-occuring membership is the name of the growth game in public media right now. The push for sustainers has made a big difference over the last decade. I don’t think there’s anyone who thinks sustainers are a bad idea, but there are definitely people, consultants included, who think some stations are implementing it poorly. Signing up sustainers does not mean signing up people and forgetting them— or forgetting people who can give in smaller amounts or in other ways. One consultant told me that some station sites make it difficult for people to give one-time donations, because sustaining membership is so much more valuable. Sustainers outperform other donors on retention and lifetime revenue, because the payments are taken directly from their credit cards on a monthly basis. “Sustained giving must become the default option for membership contributions, at a suggested level of $10 per month, for example,” suggests this Current article. (This article suggests there are hidden maintanence and customer service costs associated with sustainer programs, such as having procedures and staff in place to update expired or cancelled credit cards, additional segmentation of fundraising messages so sustainers are recognized as such, or being caught in the fallout from a massive security breach elsewhere (the 70 million customers of Target in Dec 2013, for example).)