Empowering Media That Matters
Home >> Blog >> Future Public Media >> How to Make Membership in Public Broadcasting More Meaningful

How to Make Membership in Public Broadcasting More Meaningful

POV Web JunkieLast year, I donated to my local public broadcaster, which had decided to carry my favorite shows, Independent Lens and POV—the two public TV series that carry award-winning, diverse documentaries—at a time I could actually watch them. (That is, at the nationally scheduled time, on Monday nights at 10pm.) And I told them why I was donating.

And so now I’m a member of my local station.

Ever since then, I’ve gotten recommendations from the station to watch Downton Abbey and other programming that is far from my reason to join. Also offers for discounts on cruises, and other geriatric specials. And of course requests for more donations, based on my love of British programming, apparently. 

Something’s wrong with the membership strategies of public broadcasting, if a pubcaster that’s actually serving some of my viewing needs can’t even notice them.

Expanding membership definitions.

Melody Kramer, a former NPR staffer and digital wonk par excellence, has just published a study, Putting the Public into Public Media Membership, that takes my little problem as just one symptom of a much bigger one: How can pubcasters pull in younger, more diverse members? And how can those members contribute to pubcasting the way they contribute to so much else in their socially-mediated life: By doing something that uses their skills?

To understand how important this paper is, consider some basics on pubcasting membership: Individual donations are crucial to public broadcasting—they account for about a third of the budget. But only a tenth or so of people who listen to public radio, watch public TV, or use any of the myriad apps associated with public stations and their programs ever become members, which you typically become by donating. That tenth is grossly skewed toward older, female, and white. Yikes!

Leveraging the assets.

Some of the possibilities for redefining membership could include:

  • Asking members to participate in solving some of the station’s perennial problems, like identifying and tagging archival material.
  • Partner with geeks to do digital projects like an Election Night map that Washington, DC NPR station WAMU did with civic tech group Code for DC.
  • For university-based stations, involve students, profs, labs in journalistic research. Illinois Public Media has done amazing things with this strategy. And then stay in touch with the students; they’re the future.
  • Ask community members to contribute story ideas and content, like Curious City does.

What keeps public broadcasters from jumping to use proven strategies? Kramer points among other things to communication silos, lack of platforms that can give access to citizen participation, and lack of communication between stations (some have done great pioneering work, which Kramer uses for case studies).

Public interest

And why should pubcasters stretch their old-fashioned definition of what makes a member? Kramer argues,

Public broadcasting is part of the fabric of our civic democracy. It helps inform and educate the public, and it does so without being beholden to advertising dollars. If we want public media to continue to be able to play this role, then we need to think about new and invigorating ways of defining membership and redefining the public’s relationship with public media.

She gives a generous plug to CMSI’s Public Media 2.0: Dynamic, Engaged Publics in explaining why we all should care about the future of public broadcasting, and how we can be a real part of it. But her research goes further, in showing how it can be done—today.

This approach is a change not just in tactics but in a way of understanding the network of people who are and could be part of public broadcasting. Just as broadcasting is no longer simply a one-to-many proposition, where broadcasters lob programs to audiences, membership is no longer a “thank you, here’s the check” relationship. Building engaged and meaningful relationships, Kramer explains, builds the future of pubcasting too:

Public media strengthens itself by working in public and with the public: by sharing ideas, content, and platforms, public media can bring more people into the fold to support and create material for the public. Working in public strengthens the journalism public media produces and the institution of public media itself. If stations can share how they work and what they’re on working on with a wider audience — through a mailing list or through social media — audiences will become invested not only in the process, but also in the final product.