Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Non-Commercial Competition For Fox News

Conservative critics of public broadcasting have long argued that the news content on public radio and public television should be more balanced. Current CPB-head Ken Ferree went one step further in a recent New York Times interview suggesting that public television should do more to attract conservative and Republican viewers.

This is an important progression in the public broadcasting discussion as the focus is no longer solely on content but also on who is in the audience.

Many people find this troubling, fearing that CPB is now engaging in the very activity it was designed to prevent – political interference with programming content. It is a legitimate concern.

It’s my nature, however, to take people’s statements at face value until given a reason to do otherwise. So I’ll believe Ken Ferree when he says, “Believe it or not, we don't discuss politics here.”

But the discussion is about who watches. That leaves us with an interesting question. Is Mr. Ferree suggesting that CPB fund programs targeted at the viewers of Fox News?

Though Mr. Ferree might not realize it, the answer has to be “yes” because new audiences don’t appear out of thin air. They are won from the competition. To be successful, any new programming targeted at conservatives will have to pull audience from programs currently serving conservatives. This might actually fit CPB’s public service mission.

For years, conservatives complained about not having media outlets that appeal to their values. They have them now in Fox, at least on the news side, and in radio talk shows such as Rush Limbaugh and Doctor Laura. But these are outlets are riddled with commercialism and hype. Conservatives don’t have non-commercial media outlets. It is beginning to sound like they want them.

The success of NPR News, News Hour, and Now with Bill Moyers shows that a lot of people want to get their news from organizations free from advertising, hype, and commercial influence. They want to know that the people delivering the news have not been bought. The ratings bear this out. News audiences in public broadcasting have grown significantly despite the proliferation of news choices on TV, cable, radio, satellite, and the Internet.

There’s no reason to believe this pattern won’t hold as the number of commercial, conservative news options grows. More competition means more hype and more commercials. At some point, there will be a sizable number of conservatives looking for a non-commercial alternative to it all.
Since CPB funded non-commercial news alternatives to ABC, CBS, CNN, and NBC, it is well within its mission to fund non-commercial alternatives to Fox and other conservative-leaning media outlets. The increase in appeals for public broadcasting to reach out to conservatives suggests there is a demand for these alternatives. CPB owes it to the public to at least explore the possibilities.

Friday, April 22, 2005

A Better Commercial Radio?

Much has been written about Clear Channel’s “Less Is More” campaign to reduce commercial spot loads and make better sounding commercials. Early information on this campaign suggests that Clear Channel is learning some of the same lessons public radio learned from the Listener-Focused Fundraising (LFF) project – how a break opens can affect how long a listener stays tuned, good production values can help prevent tune-out, and initiatives like this are never an overnight success.

LFF showed that on-air fundraising messages produced with public radio’s core values were well received. Listeners, even those who said they “hated pledge drives” not only listened to these spots, they also said they enjoyed them. Good radio can overcome bad perceptions. That will be true on the commercial side as well. Not all advertising is a negative. Not all advertising creates tune-out.

Commercial broadcasters will soon be able to measure this with Arbitron's Portable People Meter (PPM). Individual commercials, not just the station's programming, will be the subject of measurement and analysis. Radio spots will have a report card of their own and some spots will get A-pluses.

Many commercials, however, lack the creativity, production values, and connection to the audiences’ values to get a passing grade. That’s because many ad agencies treat radio as a third class medium. Commercial stations share the blame for accepting these ads and for airing some awful locally written and produced spots.

What makes this interesting is that ad agencies are eager for PPM results so they can hold stations accountable for the audience they deliver. But it’s entirely possible that stations will be able to turn the tables and hold agencies accountable for spots that drive listeners away. How? Clear Channel has talked about higher rates for the first spot in a break. Instead of charging more, what if preferred spot positions were given to commercials known to keep listeners tuned-in? And it’s not too difficult to imagine a car dealership dropping an ad agency because its spots were an audience killer.

Today, it is easy to sit back and assume that public radio will never face serious competition from commercial radio because of spot loads and annoying commercials. But with continued fragmentation of the media marketplace, commercial stations have more incentive than ever to sound better and keep listeners from going away. PPM can help them do that. That means more competition for current and new audiences. It’s a challenge that public radio should take seriously.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Big Money

A major donor calls the general manger during the Spring fund drive and offers a $25,000 gift if the manager agrees to restore classical music to the station program schedule. He respectfully declines. In that case, she respectfully tells him, she will donate just $10,000 this year. It’s a true story with a happy ending, especially since that donor had never given more than $10,000 before. It also points out that big money can cause problems for public radio.

The most obvious is that big money often comes with strings attached. Today, there are some stations that must forever keep certain types of programs on the air because of a large gift accepted from a single donor. That’s actually a rare problem compared to the havoc big money can wreak on the annual budget.

Some stations are treating big money from major donors and foundations like the subsidies they used to get from the university and CPB. Budgets are built with the assumption that the money will renew annually. Even worse, budgets are built with the assumption that the money will go away and the slack will be picked up by membership and underwriting.

Sometimes that works out. More often it doesn’t and these stations are faced with making tough decisions about local programming and staffing.

The lesson here isn’t that big money is bad for public radio. It just has to be managed well. To begin with, big money can’t have more decision-making weight than the millions of hours of public service provided today or could be provided with the right programming choices. It shouldn’t have more leverage than the money received from the thousands of individual contributors who invest in the station. Most important, it shouldn’t be so critical to the station’s bottom line that failing to get one or two gifts undermines the station’s ability to provide it’s core service.

That might mean planning on spending only 80 to 85 percent of the big money in each year’s budget. If the major donor and foundation goals are made, the station has a nice surplus or contingency reserve. That beats the alternative of having to drop critical programs, reduce local service, or letting go of key staff.