NPR Wine Club

Culture

Remember that Portlandia episode in which recurring character Spike arrives at a charity gala and is introduced to the real people behind those ubiquitous public media underwriter names? Annie E. Casey. Robert Wood Johnson. John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur. John S. and James L. Knight. And then Spike’s chaperone points out perhaps the most venerable pillar of public media support, a generically Nordicelandislavic-looking gentleman named “Fjohürs Lykkewe.”

“Everything,” says Spike’s chaperone, “is brought to you by Fjohürs Lykkewe.”

“Hey, you’ve been a listener-supporter in the past. Maybe we can convert you to a drinker-supporter with these NPR-inspired wines: All Grapes Considered Malbec, Weekend Edition Cabernet Sauvignon and NPR Uncorked Merlot.”

Who is Fjohürs Lykkewe (pronounced “fewers-likeyou”—get it)? He’s us. And anyone who has spent an hour during the fall or spring in the company of a public media property as it raises funds—be it for radio or television—is sure to have heard that we, the public, are the biggest source of support for its programming.

But as users’ habits have changed, public media’s reliable old tote-bag-and-coffee-mug fundraisers have flagged. And that shift has left development professionals scrambling to sustain the membership model. In 2015, Melody Kramer, a fellow at the Nieman Lab, an offshoot of Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism focused on the industry’s future in the digital age, wrote a report that considered how “the bedrock concept of public media support — “membership” — [could] be broadened and strengthened.” Among the findings, according to Kramer? “A failure in the coming years to push outside the existing envelope of membership will leave audience growth stalled, potential support diverted, and significant amounts of funding on the table.

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Maybe the future of public media lies at the bottom of a glass. That appears to be the idea, anyway, behind the NPR Wine Club, a new take on “membership” launched by the media organization on Tuesday. Like most other food and booze buying club models, members pay a recurring fee to have the club auto-ship product on a regular basis—$79.99 gets you a customized case of reds or whites every three months, for instance—but in the case of these cases, a portion of the sale also goes to support public radio (though, exactly how much isn’t specified).

Media organizations that peddle product along with their prose aren’t necessarily a new trend: I wrote about how affiliate links blurred the lines in food journalism last year. And there’s certainly a case to be made for the branding opportunities inherent in a for-profit media organization marketing products that align with its users’ identities and demographics. The New York Times, for instance, has its own wine club with a premium “reserve” level option that averages around $30 a bottle. The exclusivity likely appeals to Times readers: the paper tells advertisers they’ll be able to reach an “educated, affluent, and influential” audience making a median salary of $75,000.

And NPR boasts similar audience demographics, counting among its members “the business leader” and the “cultural connoisseur” and says its listeners are “88% more likely to be B2B decision makers involved in one or more purchase decisions valued at $1,000+.” But while the NPR Wine Club is very obviously pushing an affiliate product, the bigger idea it seems to be peddling is participation: ‘Hey, you’ve been a listener-supporter in the past. Maybe we can convert you to a drinker-supporter with these NPR-inspired wines: All Grapes Considered Malbec, Weekend Edition Cabernet Sauvignon and NPR Uncorked Merlot.

Now, in the parlance of a public media story, “it remains to be seen” whether affiliate marketing can rescue a journalism industry that has undergone profound disruption of its traditional revenue models over the last decade. But if NPR’s wine club succeeds in diversifying its funding model, perhaps next we’ll be quaffing alongside a cheese board curated by its on-air talent. Beardsley Bleu, anyone?

Could happen.

Kate Cox

Kate Cox is editor of the New Food Economy. In her former life, she was a freelance health policy reporter for radio and text. Follow her @thekatecox