Towards a Listener-Supported Network

[This is another post related to The Conversations Network’s 2008 business plan. Please join the discussion in our forum.] 

As a non-profit, we’re always in fundraising mode, beating the bushes for grants and sponsorships from foundations and corporations. It takes a tremendous amount of time and effort and the successes are only temporary. If you get a grant for one quarter or one year, there’s not reason to believe you’ll get funding from the same source next time. You’ve got to start from scratch. There are two more reliable sources: advertising and listener donations. One reason these sources are more reliable is that they come from a larger number of parties. If you lose ten listener/contributors, for exampe, you probably won’t notice the difference. But lose one major foundation grant and you could be out of business.

From the days when we first opened our tip jar more than three years ago, we’ve always been reasonably successful with attracting listener donations. In 2007 we raised $9,204 in paid memberships and one-time donations from a total of 110 people. ($84 average contribution.) And for that we did relatively little: just the pleas in our newsletters and the annoying requests in our program intros. We had about 3,000 “loyal listeners” last year — those who downloaded at least one program per month — so 3.7% of that group chose to support us financially. (Viewed another way, that’s 0.09% of our 480,000 unique listeners last year.)

Listener funding accounted for 11.6% of our budget in 2007. I think we have the potential to increase that by 4x over the next year to 46.4%. This is virtually the same as the percentage achieved by KQED-FM, the public-radio station in San Francisco, and other public-radio outlets in the U.S. KQED says that 9% of its listeners donate, but the math to figure out who counts as a “listener” is rather complex. For The Conversations Network, I’m proposing that we should be able to receive dues and/or donations from nearly 15% of our loyal listeners — that’s a 4x increase over 2007 numbers. I’m not suggesting an increase in the average donation. Our target, therefore, is to have 440 individuals donate during 2008 or be paid members by the end of the year, generating a total of $36,960.

Can we do it? I think so. But what will it take? Do we have to produce even more annoying pitches in our program intros? I hope not! Until now, there have been virtually no benefits to being a member or donor. You did that for the pure satisfaction of supporting The Conversations Network. But there are things we can offer our members and donors that will scale well for us. We don’t want to be in the business of shipping tote bags or t-shirts. Everything has to be virtual.

Here are some ideas we’ve had as benefits of paid membership. What do you think of them and what can you add to our list?

  • ad- and promo-free audio files
  • participation in the decision-making process of The Conversations Network
  • slideshows synchronized with audio (or should these be free to all?)
  • early access to programs
  • enhanced playlist (personal program queue) functions

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