There is a tremendously helpful and timely conversation brewing among a handful of some fine thinkers in Public Radio - Their aim to solve the question of how a station attracts and holds a listener in the digital age. The emergent business model for public radio is being seeded here.
Here is a snapshot of how the conversation is building - I urge you to join them
Mark Ramsey makes a pointed comparison between the 2nd bankruptcy of Tower Records and Public radio stations.
"Tower thought of itself as a distribution channel for the product of the music industry. Little value was added. Just come to our store and buy the music. It's not like you had any choices - until recently.
It's a valuable lesson to any entity that views its primary reason-to-be as a distribution channel for the product of the music industry.
That wouldn't be your station, right? There's more to you than that, right?"
Jake coincidentally amplifies the question of how value is added in the digital era behind Mark's post -
"If public radio is successful at syndicating its programs through digital channels we may gain a sizable but not very loyal audience. This is particularly true if much of the interaction with programming happens on third-party sites and spaces like iTunes and mobile phones, where the context and flow of the experience is dictated by the user or the platform provider.
There may be millions of downloads and exposure to public radio programs along with appeals to support them but to achieve the equivalent “average 3-5 years of listening before someone contributes” would be really difficult.
For channels and spaces that are governed by public radio or supporting entities - such as stations sites, continuous Internet radio sidestreams, and national sites such as NPR.org there are many more opportunities to create a unifying experience that could anchor this sense of reliance.
The question John asks about “on whom is the listener relying? A station? A network? A producer?” is important as well. My guess is that the top choice would be host/show/producer followed by network/station. For many stations the NPR identity is conflated with the station’s, which is not really the case for APM and PRI. A haphazard analogy to the music business is that most people identify with the artists not the labels (who goes to the store for the latest EMI release?), with the exception of a strongly defined sound like Motown Records.
I suppose in this analogy stations are the retail record stores, and unless they launch their own labels or artists they have to become uniquely valuable curators to stay relevant once access to the music itself is ubiquitous (many cities have a few thriving local record stores that have survived through innovation and localization).
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.
Since stations have been the sole holders of the relationship with the giving public there is a big challenge in expanding these relationships to new points of access. Who should manage the relationship with listeners that are finding public radio programs through iTunes, including many network and independent shows that offer zero station presence in the audio? Should NPR solicit donations from “listeners like you” and start building a membership database based on the millions of downloads each month?"
This was all started by John Sutton who posted on how best to attract and hold the listener - see follow on
Will Listeners Voluntarily Support Web-based Services?
A recent, excellent article by Jake Shaprio asked
whether public radio’s membership model could work with podcasts. To
help answer that question, let’s turn to what we already know about
turning listeners into donors.
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 more a listener agrees with that statement, the more likely he is to become a public radio contributor. Let’s try this with the Internet.
“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.