“Membership”? Did he just say “membership”?

John Fahey

At the bottom of Tuesday’s Washington Post article about Gil Grosvenor’s retirement, we found this quote from John Fahey, NGS CEO & Chairman-in-Waiting:

“Digital media represents tremendous opportunities for National Geographic on a worldwide basis and, in many ways, will allow us to get back to our original membership roots,” Fahey said.

Membership? As in belonging to a “Society”? That’s intriguing, especially given what John told us in 2006. Back then, after yet another round of layoffs, we (okay, “I”) made an appointment with John to find out how he intended to stop the nosedive in membership (and Magazine revenues). One (paraphrased) excerpt from our meeting:

Q: Does the word “Society” have any value to you when you market National Geographic? Or is the word just a vestige from the old days that gets in the way?

John Fahey: It mostly gets in the way. Nobody wants to belong to anything….

Then again, when your print products are teetering, and cable TV has been declared an “anachronism,” “a living fossil,” and “doomed,” then it’s probably wise to look for a Plan B. Or, in our case, a Plan A — creating something of value for the people who built the National Geographic Society in the first place: its members.

But here’s the big challenge: What will persuade people to join up? (If all we offer folks is a generous discount on NGS retail products, well… we’re gonna cry.) What’s the mission? And who at NGS can or will deliver a long-awaited Call to Arms?

Please know we’re not asking for a catalog of products, or a list of programs, or a docket of research grants, or a gallery of wildlife photos. This isn’t a question about our merchandise. We’re not trying to build a better shopping mall. We’re trying to build a community. Which means we’re anxious to hear why John thinks people should join the National Geographic Society.

So, here’s an idea, John: Why not spell it all out in a speech? One stirring oration — to be delivered, say, at the January 2011 State of the Society assembly — that could be webcast to the world. One presentation to share “the vision thing.” One expansive word picture that would capture our imagination and inspire us all to think big. One heartfelt, hope-filled appeal for millions more people to “join the adventure.”

What do you think, John?
Is it worth trying?

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P.S. If you’re looking for some inspiration, then check out these four five gems:

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