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COLUMN

Member Madness

Philip Burrowes

WERS-FM (88.9) is holding its semiannual membership drive through Nov. 24. For those of you not acquainted with WERS, it’s Emerson College’s student-run radio station, boasting a ludicrously eclectic and decidedly non-mainstream programming schedule. If you’re not acquainted with membership drives, you’ll be even more lost in this column than usual, so by way of introduction: membership drives are periods where media outlets request money of patrons so that they can have access to said outlet, whether it be through a subscription-only basis or merely to offset production costs of public institutions. Usually in the latter case, most people will not opt to give a donation, which would seem to designate them as free-riders. However, there are many other explanations that may be more appropriate, especially as we compare membership drives across media. Masses may not just be uncoordinated; they can be deliberate jerks.

Listening to WERS during a membership drives can be a maddening experience. Breaks between song sets are full of, essentially, alternating between begging that listeners donate and repetition of the donation hotline’s number. It’s a lot like televangelism in many respects. One can make a rational choice not to donate, believing that enough others will lend support that the service will be provided for free. Equally often, (if not more so,) listeners can be irritated to the point where they would refuse to give a donation, perhaps not even listening to DJs during a drive week.

Of course, WERS provides music that you by and large won’t hear on other stations on a regular basis. Moreover, the aggregate number of advertisements on for-profit radio is far greater than the babbling within two weeks. Pricing, too, is little compared to what one might expect from a subscription-based system. XM digital satellite radio membership, for example, costs three times as WERS membership, not to mention the sunk cost of hardware.

Another, more classic, example is the contrast between PBS and HBO. “Premium” cable channels often offer preview weekends to potential subscribers. HBO, which reaches about a third of all American homes with televisions, reaches a sizable chunk of the cable market. (Cable in general reaches a little over 80 percent.) In comparison, around 4.7 million “individuals and families” pledged PBS affiliates in 2001, which is around 4.7 percent of “television homes.” Viewers have long believed that PBS would survive with other people pledging, and now ads litter the network for more than just Kellogg’s or the Helena Rubenstein Foundation (a long-time supporter of outstanding children’s television). Shows themselves have increasingly become ads for ancillary products, from the Children’s Television Workshop to the next Ken Burns mini-series. These products then somehow manage to sell well.

Free-riders shouldn’t be expected to spend hundreds on merchandise for shows they refuse to support. How can this be explained? This is more like collective ignorance than collective action. What better place to see collective ignorance than on the Internet, right? Indeed, online subscription services invariably seem doomed. People resent online advertising, especially pop-up ads, yet expect Web sites to be free. Of the millions that venture to the Internet Gaming Network’s many entertainment-analysis (read: geekiness) sites, for example, only 68,000 had subscribed to its “premium” Insider service as of September. Mere registration seems to much a hassle for some visitors in the first place. Snowball -- IGN’s parent company -- claims that 14 million people visit its sites, but also claims around only ten million register. Clearly many are willing to register, but significant numbers aren’t, even when not paying for anything. A similar, albeit anecdotal, situation may be seen in the people that will visit a Xanga blog but never reply because it necessitates registration.

IGN’s content is hardly unique, however, and some can be accessed without subscribing or paying (although that amount seems to be decreasing every day). What of subscription-exclusive services? ModernTales.com, a site dedicated to allowing comic artists to make a profession out of Web comics, boasts “$20,000” revenue from its initial months, which translates to anywhere between 668 and 13,600 subscribers because of the dual pricing plans. This may seem like a pittance, but consider that nobody actually reads print comic books anymore, and that ModernTales apparently warranted the spawning of an “alternative” site, Serializer.net. Or maybe they’re in denial and proceeding in the face of financial failure. After all, they’re trying to make a living on the internet.

Denial probably doesn’t fully explain the behavior of producers any more than free-ridership describe the bulk of consumers. Some people not lazy or unwilling, just uneasy with all the work that goes into registering and pledging. Others don’t trust the institutions that they’re asked to support, whether it be the self-righteous PBS or overtly commercial Snowball. Kingdom Hearts trailers aren’t exactly public goods anyway. Emerson radio, however, very may well be; radio has a fixed transmission cost (within a given geography) and can’t block listeners. On which side of the collective action problem are you?