Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Observations on NPR One

The slogan for the NPR One app is “Public Radio Made Personal. The purpose of the app is to help the user create a more customized listening experience.  Stories can be skipped. A recommendation engine personalizes the line-up of offerings. The app draws on NPR’s most current news content, archival pieces, and content from local NPR stations.

NPR One is a good start for what it is trying to do and it will get better. Here are a few early observations about its potential impact on NPR and NPR News stations.

Sonic Station Branding Needs to Improve – a Lot

When it comes to cobranding, NPR News stations fare better in NPR One than in any of NPR’s previous digital audio efforts. An NPR One listening session begins with an NPR/Station cobranded audio ID. Local station newscasts and stories appear throughout listening sessions. Occasionally, there is a second NPR/Station cobranded audio ID, but there is nowhere close to the amount of NPR/Station cobranding listeners hear when using the radio.

That sonic cobranding over the past three decades was an integral part of building the NPR brand and strong station brands. That sonic cobranding is still needed today to maintain strong station brands. It is probably the single most important element of helping stations of all sizes solidify their place in the digital media space.

This is extremely important given that NPR is prohibited by policy from raising money directly from listeners. In order to protect the existing listener-support model, every listening session in the NPR One space has to have NPR/Station cobranding that is as good, or better, than what listeners have experienced over the past three decades. Stations have to get equal credit with NPR for creating quality listening experiences in the digital space or fundraising revenues will eventually drop.

No Sense of Place, No Sense of Time, Inconsistent Pacing

Sense of Place, Sense of Time, and Pacing are three vital aspects of the radio listening experience for many people, especially in the morning. The radio programming elements that create Sense of Place, Sense of Time, and Pacing – time, segment time posts, weather, local information, forward promotion, etc. – are absent from NPR One.

This will be perfectly fine for many NPR One listeners. Some will even embrace it and use NPR One exclusively. It could even be a substantial audience. But the absence of these elements will prevent NPR One from being a “radio killing” app.

The more likely scenario is that NPR One will share substantial audiences with NPR News stations. These shared audiences will want varied listening experiences. It’s not difficult to imagine someone listening to an NPR station live via stream or over the air in morning and afternoon drive and then using NPR One to customize their listening experience during other dayparts. This is something worth testing within the NPR One app, including testing “live now” promotion of key interviews on national and local talk shows.

Weaker Branding of NPR Programs and NPR Hosts

NPR One is creating a bit of a branding mess for NPR's hosts and programs. I’ve heard NPR’s Steve Inskeep, David Greene, Melissa Block, and Scott Simon all introducing stories within the same listening session. It is sometimes difficult to sense who the host is supposed to be. Likewise, the names of multiple NPR programs can appear within the same listening session.

In its current state, the NPR One App transcends the NPR’s major sub-brands such as Morning Edition and All Things Considered. That might just be one of the inevitable side effects of personalizing the listening experience. The source programs of content could end up being irrelevant in NPR One and the role of the programs hosts could be more correspondent-like than host-like.

Pre-Atomization of Content

Atomizing content is curating it in a way that extends its shelf life and makes it easier to discover and consume in the digital space. It is my understanding that a lot of NPR News content is currently atomized after it is presented on the newsmagazines. That’s why, when listening to NPR content on demand, you can still hear a program outcue at the end of an interview or a reference to “this morning” when a host introduces a story. Those are elements of good radio programming that are unnecessary, and even problematic, in the NPR One space.

Expect this to change. Expect more of what you hear in Morning Edition and All Things Considered to be pre-atomized; to be produced to be NPR One-ready without as much editing work on the back end.  Will it change the way NPR’s newsmagazines sound on the radio?  Probably. Will pre-atomization of content hurt the audience performance of Morning Edition and All Things Considered? We don’t know. Maybe it could help.

Maybe the pre-atomization of NPR content will create new branding opportunities for stations around NPR’s flagship programs. Presently, stations face challenges establishing their own brand in the NPR News programs without excising elements of the NPR brand. A more atomized Morning Edition or All Things Considered just might be the best approach to helping stations create stronger local brands without running away from their NPR identity. More on that in a future posting. 

Monday, September 08, 2014

The Increasing Importance of Station Branding in the Digital Space

Well, the blog unintentionally ended up on hiatus for almost 10 months as I launched Emodus Research to study the emotional connections public radio listeners have with NPR and with their stations.

That research is yielding some fascinating insights. Even the process of planning and evaluating that research has uncovered, for me at least, the increasing importance of branding in public radio, particularly when it comes to digital listening and listener support.

I covered some of this in an article published at Current.org about NPR stations staying relevant in the digital age.

We know that station audiences will fragment as more listening options become available. In our research, we're trying to figure how much audience stations might gain, keep, or lose along the way and how valuable those listeners are to a station's membership fundraising.

Here are some of the issues that have surfaced as we consider the implications of this fragmentation.

1. It is well-established that listening to public radio leads to giving to public radio. In that past, all of that listening was station-branded to some degree. Today, an increasing amount of public radio listening is going to digital brands, particularly NPR, that cannot monetize that listening through individual giving. 

2. Based on industry benchmarks, every 1,000,000 hours of listening that shifts from stations to NPR has the potential of costing public radio 250 givers and $30,000 in gross membership contributions. 

For perspective, it takes 200,000 people listening 5 hours per week to generate 1,000,000 hours of listening.

So 200,000 people switching from station-branded listening to NPR-only listening for an entire year (a loss of 52,000,000 hours) could cost public radio 13,000 current or future givers and just over $1.5 million.

Downloads of NPR apps are in the millions. There is a huge financial downside to shifting existing and generating new listening to NPR platforms that are not strongly co-branded with stations. 

3. Failure to convert NPR-direct listening into listener contributions -- at the station or national level -- risks making NPR more dependent on corporate support as stations' ability to pay for NPR declines. Corporate support will likely have to be NPR's fastest growing income segment to keep up with expenses.

Neither the public nor NPR stations will benefit from an NPR that must put corporate support first to survive, but we see that already beginning to happen. The pressure to create new corporate sponsorship opportunities is great. It has strongly influenced the discussion around how NPR News programs are structured (program clocks), the development of digital offerings, and the drive to promise sponsors prime adjacencies to content that puts their sponsorship in a favorable context. 

Let's bring this back to branding. By policy, NPR cannot raise money directly from listeners.  It has no meaningful way to generate listener revenue from NPR-only digital listening.  It stands to reason then that NPR would want to cobrand every single NPR digital listening occasion with an NPR station. 

That branding has to be as good or better than it is today so listeners understand that the station is a key provider of their listening experiences. Anything short of that will cost public radio givers and membership revenue. Yet today, even with NPR One, digital cobranding isn't even close to what is heard on the radio.

More on that, and other NPR One thoughts, in the next post.  

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Footnote:  Here's one additional thought about audience fragmentation.  It might hurt station underwriting income before it hurts membership income.

Our research is beginning to show that givers who put high value on Sense of Place and the station's local efforts are more financially valuable than listeners who perceive the station as a middle-man between them and NPR.

There's more research to be done, but an audience drop of 25% might not result in an equal drop in station membership revenue. However, a 25% drop in audience, particularly during the NPR News programs, might have an even larger impact on a station's ability to sell underwriting. 

Friday, December 13, 2013

Does Public Radio Have a Leadership Inferiority Complex?


One of the more perplexing situations in public radio is the failure of NPR to find and develop strong executive leadership from within the public radio system. It appears that that is unlikely to change as the NPR Board selects its next CEO. 
NPR has hired a headhunting firm that specializes in recruiting for technology companies. Headhunting firms are typically hired for their knowledge of a field.  It’s not unreasonable to assume that the NPR Board believes its next CEO will not come from the station ranks.
On top of that, several sources close to the NPR board tell us that the current and past CEO search committees have taken the position that no one in public radio is qualified to manage the external relationships NPR must forge to succeed in the digital age.  I hope that’s not that case.  It is a weak starting position for a search given the difficulty recent CEO’s have had managing the internal relationships NPR must repair to succeed in the digital age.
The NPR-Member Station relationship is the foundation of NPR’s business model.  It is widely understood these days that the NPR-Member Station relationship, and consequently, the NPR business model are in great need of repair.  Yet the vision, skills, and experience to affect those repairs don’t appear to be part of the hiring criteria for NPR’s new CEO.
It is unlikely that a headhunting firm will find those skills in the tech world.  Wikimedia CEO Sue Gardner lamented in her recent speech at the Public Radio Programming Conference that Silicon Valley isn’t funding start-ups with public service in mind.  It’s all about profit.  So viewing NPR’s leadership needs through a technology lens could make it doubly difficult to find someone who can be the keeper of the industry’s public service flame and cultivate healing relationships with Member Stations.
Meanwhile, across the country, there are many stations that have built strong local radio services while developing original content and improving public service, marketing, and engagement through new digital technologies. And not all of them are in large markets.
Leaders at these stations are forging the kinds of external relationships an NPR CEO would be expected to develop. They’ve proven quite capable of getting in front of foundations, major donors, and potential business partners and articulating the current value of public radio as well as a compelling vision for the future. They’ve proven quite capable of raising money in a difficult fundraising environment. They’ve proven quite capable of managing complex budgets, handling challenging business relationships and decisions, and managing large, diverse staffs.  They know how to develop original content. Many have experience as national program producers and distributors. And they are quite knowledgeable about the difficult audience and revenue issues facing NPR and it Member Stations.
There are many station leaders who have helped build public radio into the success it is today. Much of that success has come in the digital age.  But for some reason, past NPR search committees have deemed that success insufficient for leading NPR.
This sets up an interesting dichotomy. NPR’s Board searches for leaders who want to build on public radio’s great success, but does not think the leaders who are very much responsible for creating that success are good enough for the job.
It’s as if public radio has an inferiority complex; that the incredible success of public radio stations is somehow inferior to the success of other leading businesses and non-profits. Why?  Perhaps they believe it is because of NPR programming; that the qualities of great station leaders are diminished because they have the benefit of NPR content. Or perhaps they believe that station accomplishments are less meaningful because they are in radio and not some other field, like television or newspapers or digital.  That couldn’t be further from the truth.
NPR and public radio stations, together, have built a significant public service, one that has enjoyed exceptional growth as newspapers and Public TV have been in decline. The public radio system is widely admired for its contributions to improving society, its editorial and business integrity, and its current revenue model. This didn’t happen by accident and it isn’t just because of NPR programming.
Until satellite radio, there was no such thing as a national audience to an NPR program. The national audience for NPR News was exclusively an aggregation of audiences to local stations. Most of the growth that NPR claims for its programs over the past few decades is really the growth of local station audiences.  And today that aggregation remains, by far, the most significant source of listeners to NPR.
That audience success, the success so admired by the outside leaders who aspire to win the NPR CEO job, is a product of leadership at local stations. Believe it or not, it is easy to mess up an NPR News station.  It happens all the time.  Audience success at top performing stations is a result of acumen and intent beyond scheduling NPR programs at the best times of day.
The same holds true for membership fundraising, major giving, underwriting sales, and creating value in the digital space.  The best stations in each of these areas are successful because of strong leadership, innovation, and a commitment to being, and staying, the best. Those leaders are at the foundation of any success that NPR can claim for itself.  There’s no NPR success story today without strong station leadership over several decades.
It is fallacy to assume that success leading a growing public radio station can’t translate into success leading NPR. And given the failure of NPR’s last few CEOs to address the core problems harming the NPR-Member station relationship, it is fair to question whether hiring outside of public radio again will get a different result, especially if the new CEO lacks a strong public service background.
Any new hire to the position is going to have to grow into some parts of the job.  NPR’s recent CEO failures raise the legitimate possibility that a highly qualified station manager has a better chance of growing into the external CEO role than an external candidate has of growing into a successful public radio system leader.
There are several highly qualified individuals in public radio for the NPR CEO position. When it comes to recruiting potential candidates, their success should count more because it is in public radio, not less.  

Friday, October 04, 2013

Transition for NPR Highlights Major Industry Issues - Part 2: The NPR-Member Station Relationship

A recent article at Current.org highlighted some of the financial and membership issues facing NPR as it looks for its next leader.  Our last post considered the financial side.  This post considers the membership issues.

Current reported on NPR's recent customer satisfaction survey among member stations.  NPR scored well when it came to representing stations on regulatory, legislative and legal matters.  NPR received very low satisfaction scores on engagement with member stations.

It's no secret that stations have felt for many years that NPR hasn't been looking out for their best interests. The surprise here is the depth of dissatisfaction.  NPR was hoping to score 7.5 out of 10 on the engagement portion of the survey -- that is, NPR aspired to a "C+" average -- and it scored a 5.9.  On attentiveness to small stations, NPR scored 5.1 out of 10.

The low customer satisfaction scores are an especially big deal because NPR's Board is controlled by member stations. Also worth noting is that the past three NPR Board Chairs have come from medium-sized stations, not large stations. 

There's a long history of tension between NPR and stations over financial, audience service, and governance issues.  That tension has grown in recent years as NPR's digital efforts allow more listeners to get content directly from NPR.  This "bypass" is a scary proposition for NPR member stations and most stations view their control of NPR's board as the last line of protection against NPR grabbing their listeners and donors. 

The thing is -- it's not working at that well.  Stations can wield their governance power to prevent NPR from doing some things but they can't seem to use it to get NPR to act in their best interests. The recent satisfaction survey is evidence of that.  Member stations control the Board. Through their votes they control which station managers sit on the Board,. Yet with all of this control at the top, NPR still gets an "F" on customer satisfaction among member stations.  Station control of the Board isn't translating into a better NPR-Member Station relationship. 

So where's the disconnect?  It's easy to blame the executives in charge at NPR but perhaps the issue still rests at the Board level.  Here are two factors to consider.

First, NPR's Mission and Vision statement doesn't embrace helping member stations succeed. Even though NPR is a membership organization, the Board has not charged the executive leadership with serving member stations.  The mission statement says NPR partners with member stations. It says NPR represents the member stations in matters of mutual interest.  But it is silent about NPR acting in ways to help stations succeed.

The second factor, and this is probably linked to the Mission/Vision statement, is the role of the CEO/President.  Recently, the NPR Board has taken to hiring leaders of NPR but not leaders of the NPR membership, and certainly not leaders of the public radio system. That has to change if the NPR Board wants to repair relationships between NPR and its member stations.

More in our next posting.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Transition for NPR Highlights Major Industry Issues - Part 1: Financial

Current.org has a good read on some of the financial and membership issues facing NPR as it looks for its next leader. 

On the financial side, Current reports that NPR had its best fundraising year ever in 2013, yet ended the year with a $3 million budget deficit.  It was a remarkable comeback given that the project budget deficit was $6.1 million. 

The lesson here is that public radio doesn't have a fundraising problem, it has a spending problem.  This is not only true for NPR, it is also true for many public radio stations.  Many stations are raising more money than ever, but struggling to make ends meet.  Additional investments in digital and local news aren't coming close to paying for themselves.

According to Mark Fuerst, who is leading the Public Media Futures Forums, this financial pressure is greatest on medium and smaller stations.  Revenues are growing for the largest 50 stations, but the smaller stations are struggling. That has to change soon or these stations will find themselves facing the same situation as NPR -- having to shed staff to make ends meet. 

How does it change?  Here are two necessary steps.

1.  Restructure how money changes hands in public radio.  After salaries, national program acquisitions are typically the largest line item in a station's budget.  The basis for those programming fees is an economic model rooted in 1990s media market dynamics not today's digital media marketplace. Restructuring the public radio's internal economic model could free up much needed resources for the smaller stations while ensuring that NPR and other national program producers have the resources needed to create high value programming, programming that generates loyal listeners and surplus revenues nationally and locally.

2.  Start applying financial success metrics to digital and local content efforts. Station managers need  to know how much public service these activities really provide.  They need to know if there are real returns in terms of public service provided and net revenues against direct expenses.  They need to know how close these activities come to breaking even.  And if they aren't at least breaking even, they need to know how much subsidization each activity requires. Having a handle on those metrics will help managers make smarter financial decisions whether there is a financial crunch or not.

In the next posting, thoughts on the troubled NPR-Member Station relationship.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Keep Hitting Listeners Right Between the Ears

Below is the original text from John Sutton’s acceptance speech after receiving the Don Otto Award from Audience Research Analysis and the Public Radio Program Directors association.  You can hear the speech here.  Just like live radio, what was written and what was said varied some.

It’s an honor to receive an award in the name of Don Otto, whose all-too brief career helped launch PRPD and professionalize the job of public radio program director. 

The first time I met Don was in 1987 at one the PD Bee workshops he helped to organize.  Those workshops were a critical beginning to the success and relevance public radio has today.

One of the key themes of those workshops was helping PDs understand what business they were in.  Many thought they were in the “be all things to all people” business.  Others thought they were in the museum business, that their stations existed as a place to preserve the failed programming of commercial radio.  Polka anyone?

What program directors learned during the PD Bees was that they were in the public service business… more specifically… public service delivered via the ears.  They learned that public service was NOT what they created… but what was consumed… what was heard. 

Here we are, a quarter century later, and as an industry public radio is again questioning what business it is in.  And by “business”I mean the activities that generate the money that pays the bills.  The value proposition. 

Is it the radio business?  The journalism business?  The content business. The public media business?  Honestly, do listeners even know that that even means?

How about none of the above?

The significant service public radio provides,  the market niche public radio owns, the one that keeps public radio in business is not radio.  Radio is a technology.  And it’s not journalism.  There are hundreds of places to find good journalism.

No, the service that you deliver, the service listeners voluntarily support with money is helping people find meaningfulness and joy in life while they are doing other, mundane things.

It's not just the content.  It's how and where the content gets to them, how it fits into their lives.  That's what listeners support with their money.

Again, the business you’re in today is helping people find meaningfulness and joy in life while they are doing other, mundane things.  And you are the best in the world at doing that.

I just started a new reserch company that measures the emotional connection public radio listeners have with NPR, and with their stations.  Let me tell you two things we’ve learned and reaffirmed.

First, your listeners believe that the act of listening to public radio is part of doing something good for society.  Think about that. For your audience listening is doing good for society.

Second, your listeners believe that listening to public radio makes them better people.  You make them feel smarter.  You contribute to their sense of happiness.  You help them connect to people and ideas that enrich their lives.

You help people lead more meaningful personal and civic lives while they are doing the mundane -- shaving, dressing, making coffee, sitting in traffic.

You don’t occupy their time.  You make the time they spend doing other things more valuable.

Sometimes you do that with journalism.  Sometimes you do it with music.  Sometimes you do it with entertainment.

That was the essential lesson Don Otto, and many others, were trying to help program directors learn in the 1980s.  That lesson still applies today.

You’re not a hospice for dying radio formats or, for that matter, local journalism.  And digital technology?   It’s just that –technology -- another means to the end.

The end game is the same today as it was in the 1980s. 

Keep hitting listeners right between the ears.

Keep getting better at turning the most mundane, routine activities into meaningful moments.  And when you think you are good as you can be, find ways to be even better.

That was what Don Otto brought to public radio.  It is an honor to receive this award in his name.  Thank you. 

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Introducing Emodus Research and Sutton & Lee

A couple of business announcements as the RadioSutton blog returns from a few months off this summer.

1.  Introducing Emodus Research, a new company created by John Sutton to help public radio professionals identify and leverage the emotional connections that drive listening, brand loyalty, brand advocacy, and giving.  The initial service offerings from Emodus Research will be for public radio stations and program producers.  Subsequent services will be available to public television.

2.  John Sutton & Associates is now Sutton & Lee.  Sonja Lee is now running the on-air fundraising side of things.  John is still heavily involved in pledge drive planning and preparation. He also continues to help stations with strategic planning and Arbitron analysis.

Emodus Research

Question:  In a world with smart phone apps and digitally-equipped cars, why would someone choose to listen to an NPR report from a public radio station when they could hear the exact same report at the exact same time directly from NPR?

Answer:  Because he or she has a strong emotional connection to the station.

Question:  What does a strong emotional connection look like?

Answer:  We're finding that out now.

Emodus Research has already conducted several thousand on-line surveys with public radio, public television, online, and print news consumers across the country, with an emphasis on the public radio news listeners.  We've researched the emotional connection NPR News listeners have with NPR and we're researching the emotional connection NPR News listeners have with their stations.

The results will identify the key emotional drivers that lead to increased listening, brand loyalty, brand advocacy, and giving. 

Public radio stations will be able to identify specific actions they can take in programming, branding, marketing, social media, and fundraising to build emotional connections strong enough to keep listeners, advocates, and donors from leaving when NPR and other public radio alternatives are just as easy to hear.

You can learn more by visiting the Emodus Research website.

There's also an Emodus Research blog where you can follow our progress as we gain new insights about the relationship public radio has with its listeners and donors.