Think about what we’re willing to pay for each month. $10 to Netflix for House of Cards, $10 to Spotify for streaming music, $10 to HBO Go for Game of Thrones and True Detective. Even more important than the $360 per year for access to music, movies and TV shows, think about the time we invest in each platform. Estimates for average time on Netflix per day range from 45 minutes to one hour and forty five minutes. According to a report released a few months ago, your average North American spends 10 hours per day consuming some kind of media — including five and a half hours with video content.
To put it another way, we only spend, on average, six hours per day not sleeping or consuming media. Six hours a day doing things like, oh you know, having conversations, making things with our hands, going for a walk without headphones, playing a sport, eating dinner without the TV blaring. We have more screens than ever before, and we can’t stop looking. Matthew Crawford has advanced the theory that we instinctively return to the screen — our “friends,” our favorite TV show, our personalized playlists — to assert control over our lives, and to reduce the probability that we’ll be surprised by serendipity.
Regardless of the underlying psychology, why are we willing to pay $10 a month for Netflix, Spotify and HBO, but not for our local public media? This is one of the questions that former NPR digital strategist Melody Kramer has been asking as a Visiting Fellow at the Nieman Foundation, and today she released a report of her findings that’s full of interesting case studies, statistics and suggestions as to how public radio can reinvent its membership model. Her recommendations go far beyond securing revenue; she wants to reinvent the relationship between public radio stations and their listeners.
For every billion dollars the journalism industry loses in ad revenue, they need to come up with a billion dollars from somewhere else. So far we’ve seen two alternatives: native advertising (marketing dressed up as journalism) and membership models. Native advertising requires scale — lots and lots of readers — and surveillance — detailed information about their readers so that they can target specific groups. This has been the route of Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, the Atlantic, Vice, Vox Media — you know, all the “disruptors” with the massive valuations. Membership models require deep engagement with their audience and a shared sense of loyalty. This has been tried with varying degrees of success by the Wall Street Journal, Texas Tribune, Voice of San Diego, MinnPost, and Los Angeles Times. There’s no question which model is best for readers. Here’s John Oliver’s brilliant take on native advertising (note that he’s able to do this because HBO has a membership model):
Membership models, on the other hand, offer a lot to be excited about for the many reasons Kramer highlights in the case studies of her report. They offer us ways to become more involved in our communities that go beyond paying $10 a month to listen the morning news on our commute. Public radio can and should partner with museums, universities, civic coders, and local non-profits — not just as sources for stories, but as participants in placemaking. Some local reporting should be solutions oriented — highlighting those organizations that are seeking to address the problems we routinely complain about. (Sure, Sarah Maslin Nir’s New York Times piece on “The Price of Nice Nails” was great, but Monica Campbell showed us a possible path forward by highlighting the work of the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative to protect the rights of nail salon workers.) Jeff Jarvis has been promoting this idea of “social journalism” — solutions oriented community engagement — through a new Master’s Program at CUNY. But social journalism will only become a reality if membership models are in place to support it.
Philanthropy can help push public media toward deeper community engagement by funding partnerships similar to Wikipedia’s GLAM partnerships with museums. We can also provide matching funds to encourage membership drives and crowdfunding campaigns as the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation has done in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Here in Seattle I listen to five public radio stations: KUOW, KPLU, KBCS, KING, and KEXP. I would be more than happy to fork out $10 a month, but they haven’t managed to capture my imagination, loyalty or sense of identity. Kramer’s report is a helpful map for any local radio station wanting to increase its member base, especially with younger listeners.