Monday, October 31, 2005

Audience Loss Could Be Public Radio’s Gain

The Radio Research Consortium (RRC) reports that the public radio system lost audience from Spring 04 to Spring 05. According to the RRC, it is the first-ever true audience loss experienced by public radio.

The most important measuring stick, AQH or average audience, dropped 2.3 percent from Spring 04 to Spring 05. While this drop in audience is a good wake-up call for public radio, it does not have to be cause for alarm.

Public radio’s ability to maintain or grow audience is still completely under its control.

This is probably not the story you will hear from most quarters in public radio. Audience loss theories will abound. Most of them will blame outside influences; podcasting, the Internet, satellite radio, cable television, and cell phones to name a few. Not long ago, an NPR study blamed Saturday Night Live sketches for suppressing audience growth.

But public radio has always had to overcome competition and misperceptions. It grew as cable television grew. It grew as cell phone usage exploded. It grew with the mainstreaming of the Internet. It grew whether SNL ratings were good or in the tank. It grew by focusing on what public radio does best, making great programming for its core audience.

That focus is lacking today. Much of the industry’s attention is on reaching new and different audiences through new and different technologies. It’s as if a lot of people in public radio don’t want to be in radio anymore.

On the network level, new programs are no longer intended to super-serve a loyal core audience. The audience loyalty strategy that served public radio well for nearly two decades has been abandoned in favor of a Cume*-based strategy to get new and different listeners, even if at the expense of the current audience.

At stations, there are still huge blocks of weak programming on the air. Local execution often remains weak in drive time, suppressing the audience potential of even the strongest network programs.

The last thing public radio needs right now is a victim mentality. The industry is doomed if it buys into the idea that external forces have more influence over its future than strong programming decisions.

The ability to grow is still under public radio's control. The knowledge and resources are available. All that’s required now is the willingness and the discipline to apply them wisely.

Perhaps the latest Arbitron numbers will be the kick in the seat needed to make that happen.

* Cume measures the number of different people who listen each week. It is different from AQH, which measures the average audience at any given moment. AQH is the better measurement of success because it accounts for the number of people who listen in a week and how much they listen during the week. So AQH is a reflection of a station’s ability to attract listeners and keep them listening.

Additional thoughts on public radio's audience coming later this week.

Friday, October 21, 2005

The Truth About On-Air Fund Drives

Public radio forces too much money out of its on-air fund drives. And the problem is likely to get worse.

The budget demands placed on fund drives have always exceeded the natural listener response rate to short, tasteful spots that don't preempt regular programming. Today, fund drives cannot meet their goals without the use of some commercial-like tactics to generate pledges and larger average gifts. For many stations, on-air drives are now delivering diminishing returns.

At the same time, stations are being encouraged to spend more money, not less. But all of this new spending -- for local news and talk programming, HD radio, and on-demand audio -- won't pay for itself. It will require subsidies.

Major donors, foundations, and other grants will cover the initial shortfalls. History shows, however, these income sources tend to dry up as new initiatives become established budget line items. The burden for funding these activities then falls on listener and business income. That leads to larger on-air drive goals, more on-air fundraising, and more of the tactics that cause listeners to dislike on-air fund drives.

As an industry, we talk a lot about doing less on-air fundraising and making the fundraising we do sound better. That won't happen as long as fund drives are used to bail stations out of short-sighted spending decisions.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Public Radio Tuner

RRC founder Tom Church once said you can’t go to Radio Shack and buy a public radio. He was right when he said it. Today, thanks to computer technology, we could actually create a “public” radio.

It's name could be The Public Radio Tuner.

It’s an icon in the system tray of the computer’s desktop. As soon as you click it, it starts playing your favorite public radio station via the web. Just one click and you get sound. Just like turning on a radio.

Some extra features. Roll the mouse over the icon and it shows the tuner, which has presets for additional public radio streams, a button to access your podcast downloads, and a link to the station web site.

And those little balloons that remind you that you have software upgrades? They can be used to send alerts to listeners. Your newscast is ready. Fresh Air is on now. There’s a dollar-for-dollar match going on right now.

An on-line radio tuner isn’t a particularly new idea. The idea here is that public radio could, and should, own the space.