Like I said - it's hazy at the moment. But this afternoon my thinking has advanced a bit thanks to this article by Niemann Lab visiting fellow Melody Kramer, on her research project about public radio membership.
The concepts of membership and loyalty have a long history in the fields of social psychology and organizational behavior. In general, this research shows that people who identify with an organization describe themselves to others in terms of the organization. (For example, people who identify with public media are likely to describe themselves as NPR listeners on social networks and on dating websites.) And when people identify with an organization, they exhibit higher and longer-term levels of loyalty and are more likely to formalize their identification by becoming members through donations.
Though membership has always been a core part of public media, over the past several years, public radio has been grappling with new questions concerning membership and listener loyalty. The traditional form of building membership and leveraging organizational loyalty — the pledge drive — has declined in effectiveness, and new conversations are beginning about how to recruit and retain members who access content off-air.
Kramer is documenting her fellowship on Github (I love the daily blow-by-blows where she struggles to stay on top of her inbox AND kickstart her residency). Most interesting so far is this thought experiment about what a public radio station would look like if she started one from scratch - because blow me down if it doesn't sound exactly like what one of my museum friends would write.
Anyway. I'll keep following Kramer and if her thinking helps mine get clearer ... well, that would be a godsend, and you all will be the first to hear it.