Tuesday, August 30, 2005

At Our Best, And Not

Two contrasting public radio items on Katrina. Both are from Monday 8/29.

1. Given the circumstances, it was good to see a posting on the PUBRADIO listserv from CPB offering financial assistance to stations suffering uninsured damage from Katrina. It was a timely and important action.

2. Don't remember the exact words delivered by the traffic reporter on one of my local public radio stations, but they went something like this:

"...I'm supposed to go to a conference in New Orleans over Halloween and it looks like that will be cancelled. So that gives you an idea of how serious things are down there."

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Product Placement In Public Radio?

A few years ago, Ira Glass created some classic on-air fundraising spots based on the idea that public radio could make money from product placement. The joke was that public radio could earn more income by having its news people slip mentions of products or services into their stories and analyses.

As always, Ira's bits were funny and effective. Lots of listeners pledged. A few, not getting the joke, called stations to express their outrage over the idea that public radio would even think about product placements. It was so "not" public radio.

Or is it?

One of the new fundraising practices in public radio is selling sweepstakes opportunities to potential underwriters. The package includes the usual sweepstakes stuff -- lots of on-air promotion, a direct mail piece that could just as easily be from Publisher's Clearing House, web banner ads, and point-of-purchase entry boxes.

What makes all of this new are "Reporter Perspective" pieces that feature the sweepstakes prize.

An example of this is WBUR's Mercedes giveaway. A WBUR news producer visits the dealership, test drives the car, and along with the Mercedes salesman give the car glowing reviews.

It's everything an underwriting acknowledgement cannot be. That's the "value-added" for the underwriter. It is a blatant effort to skirt the rules about qualitative language.

In that way, these Reporter Perspectives are not really product placement, even though the sponsor paid to participate, because there is nothing subtle about them. They are an obvious sales pitch for the car. They are not exactly infomericals either.

They are somewhere between those two sales tactics and those faux news pieces put out by businesses and the White House. They are produced by news people, introduced like a news piece, and run in a news program. Each is designed to sound like a public radio story -- execpt it is pure PR.

Those advocating this type of fundraising position it as progressive and "new school." But there is nothing new about blurring the line between sales and news. Our listeners can find that just about anywhere else on the radio, TV, or the Internet. They come to public radio because they want to know that the people writing, reporting, and delivering the news aren't trying to sell them something. Sales tactics such as this undermine that trust.

To see and hear for yourself:

UPDATE: Monday 8/29/2005 -- WBUR password-protected these and all other links to its "Promotions" page this afternoon. Promotions, in this instance, refers to opportunities for businesses to market their name, products, or services to station listeners during pledge drives.

The Mercedes Benz promotion is here. Click on Audio, then listen to the four Reporter Perspectives. If you get a chance, go to the Land Rover promotion and click on Audio where you will learn that the station aired the Reporter Perspectives 35 times over 9 days.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Think Audience

It's numbers time. Many stations have received their Spring 2005 Arbitron information. The networks will soon be crunching their data.

That makes it a good time to remember the words of the late Tom Church, founder of the Radio Research Consortium (RRC), who encouraged us to "Think Audience."

Though he championed working with Arbitron data, Church didn't say "Think Share Points" or "Think Cume." His words were "Think Audience" and their purpose was to get public radio programmers to focus on how listeners respond to a station's programming.

It is a point that is lost on those who only concern themselves with counting how many people are listening, particularly at the network level. A network program can have a million weekly listeners and still be a poor performer for most of the stations that carry it.

Underneath the Cume and Share numbers Arbitron creates for commercial radio is a rich vein of information about the listening patterns and preferences of our audience. Those patterns and preferences help us understand our listeners -- when we are serving them well and when we are not. And once we understand our listeners, we should act to serve them better.

Unfortunately, that doesn't always happen. Instead, Arbitron numbers are combed until a success story for just about every program. That might make good PR, but it's not good stewardship of the air waves.

We have to get away from that if public radio is to remain a strong competitor in the new media landscape. We can't write off even one weak hour of programming a week because that 52 hours of weak programming per year -- 52 missed opportunities to better serve the public.

So as you look at your Spring 2005 Arbitron information, concern yourself less with the size of your Cume or Share and "Think Audience." It will serve you well.