How could alternative membership models change, enhance and strengthen both our relationship with public media and public media itself?
Today, I’m going to talk about what it means to be a member of something….and what could it mean…which actually grew out of me learning how to code.
I started learning Python last January. The more you practice Python, the better you get — and so about six months ago, I started going to something called Code for DC.
Code for DC is a brigade organized by Code for America, where people work on communal coding projects to help various city governments….get information about city services out to people online. There are Code for America brigades all over the country. And at these meetings, city officials will often come and say “I want to come up with a better way to do…this thing” and the people who go will look at the data that exists and code up a solution.
I didn’t realize this at first, but everyone who goes to Code for DC….or Code for Honolulu, which designed the website below , or Code for Cleveland….ends up belonging to a community. And it’s a community of people who become really, really passionate about their city and the issues that affect cities.
It’s hard not to become passionate. When you’re sitting in a room full of interesting data and people who can help make sense of it and make it easy to understand….designers like you….it’s really easy to want to become more involved in civic issues and to deeply care about them.
I’m going to take a step back for a second and talk a bit about about what I think strengthens a community. And to do that, I’m going to bring in two very unlikely…I’ll call them case studies. The first is Coca Cola and the second is an HIV clinic that I volunteered at in Philadelphia for a few years.
Why Coca-Cola? Have you seen their recent Share a Coke with a friend campaign? It’s designed with a social community in mind. Each Coke can has a name on it. If you see the name of a friend, you naturally are going to take a picture of that can of Coke and tag your friend on social media.
It’s a brilliant marketing strategy, designed to make everyone become walking brand ambassadors for Coke. And it’s something to think about as you’re designing stories, logos, campaigns, anything really — how do you create an experience that your community will want to sustain by creating connections with each other through you, and thereby strengthening both your brand as well as the community itself?
Which leads me in a different direction, to the HIV clinic I worked at in Philadelphia for a number of years. I tested a population of folks who didn’t always want to be there and weren’t always literate — so they couldn’t always read the forms that the Philadelphia Department of Public Health wanted them to fill out.
So we had to think about designing a form that anyone could understand. This sometimes meant reciting the forms verbally or using language that changed based on the audience. And this too, was about creating community. It was about making sure people felt comfortable and would come back and get tested.
In the clinic, I learned that it’s always important to think about who your audience is — and what the design of your story, series, logo, form, or campaign is — so that your design doesn’t distract from the overall goal. In this case, it was to get our community to feel comfortable and return.
Creating experiences that people want to take part in and share…like with Coke….and creating places that people feel comfortable in….like with the clinic….are the keys to creating sustainable communities.
Back to Code for America’s communities around the country. Here’s a map of all of the Code for America brigades. People come to these brigades not just to learn how to code but to find people like them. The brigades meet in coworking spaces and startups — really anywhere that they can find space. They’re social. Again, Why do people go? To meet other people like them.
In many ways, public media is a lot like Code for America. We also have spaces all over the country. Here’s a map of all of the public and community radio stations in the United States. You’ll notice there are many more circles.
And people really identify with public media. When I was on OK Cupid, Terry Gross appeared in lots of dating profiles. People slap bumper stickers on their cars. People consider listening to public radio as part of their identity.
So what could we do to strengthen people’s relationships with public radio and with their communities at the same time, while at the same time strengthening public radio’s relationship with the public? I think it all comes down to our spaces.
There are 835 NPR member stations in the US. That’s 835 physical spaces where members could go.
So how could we apply the Code for America model to public media? And how can we get people thinking about public media in the way Code for America has gotten thousands of people to deeply care about civic issues?
First, I think we should think about what it means to be an active member of a community. When I say I support public media, I mean I’m a member of my local station WAMU, which means I donate money. I do this because I deeply care about public media and want it to continue. But there are other ways — and more active ways — we could actively support public media besides or in addition to pledging money.
Many local stations don’t have developers or designers on staff. What if you could become a member of your local station by donating code or designing a poster? What if you could tag or digitize an archive and become a member? And what if all of these activities took place at the local station, where you could meet other people like yourself? And then you’d want to keep coming back — not just because it would be fun and you’d learn a new skill, but because the people would be like you, too.
I often see questions online that say something like “I just graduated college and moved to X city…and I have no idea how to make friends.” Or “I’m really struggling as an adult to find my community.” The Internet, and everything that comes with it, is passive. We have iPads and apps and Kindles and we find communities on places like Reddit — where we can sit by ourselves in darkened rooms spread out across the world, and try to find common ground.
But the Internet can also lead to “active constructive participation.” There are meetups and tweetups and ways to find people who like what you do. And then after finding those folks, you generally…do something with them. You take your community that you found online and bring it offline.
So how can public media help facilitate that? We could think about what the Smithsonian just did. They announced this week that they were opening a transcription center  for volunteers to transcribe their collections. In return, people get exclusive back stage tours of the Smithsonian. What if public media did the same…in our spaces… and offered membership in return for helping out?
If you became a member by donating time or skills — in a space that actively encouraged this, you would then become part of a community. A community, where I could see events going on and classes being held and coworking spaces being formed…and members getting a discount on all of those things.
A space where you could enhance the kinds of news you deeply cared about — and enhance your city — by becoming more active in the space. A space where you could potentially use the audio studios, maybe, and record your own podcast for a small fee….which could diversify the stream of content on your public media station. And you’d be in a space that would become sustainable because you’d want to share what you learned there…and because you’d feel comfortable there….and you’d want to see that space continue to flourish.
I want people to think of public media stations as public spaces. But people are already expanding public media into public space. In Chicago, producer Jenn Brandel invites folks to submit questions  they have about Chicago — and then people vote on which ones they want answered. The people who originally asked them questions then go out with reporters to find the answers.
And in New Orleans, the station has set up Listenings Posts  around the city. Each week, they pose a question which people can answer, directly from a barber shop and two libraries. The answers are then integrated into a show on air.
I also think about projects that are like the things public media does. To me, Humans of New York is public media — where someone goes out and tells stories, deeply personal stories of people all over the world. Sharing snippets of their lives and making us all think about each other.
It’s also Code Academy, where people can gain knowledge and learn more about the world, for free, through code.
It’s Reddit, where in the NPR community you can badge yourself with local member station flair and then find other people from where you live and take about issues you care about.
And it’s the Creative Action Network, where designers can volunteer to create things for non-profits and further their own reach and make money at the same time.
But these projects largely take place in people’s homes, where they’re not connected to each other. I think we can better connect people to each other — and to public media — by inviting them into our spaces and giving them the opportunity — as the public — to use the spaces that we have around the country. And people can learn skills and share knowledge and give back…in ways that will strengthen the communities we live in.
I want people to deeply care about public media because I think it’s important that we have news that engages and informs and is open to all. Public media will never go behind a paywall. And there are ways to pledge support in all sorts of ways — and I believe that by expanding what membership means…and how to become one… we can strengthen our communities and ourselves while also strengthening public radio too.