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.


Blogger Stephen J. said...


Very interesting comments and I agree. It seems to me that no one here is paying attention to the air except me. Not to sound like a marter but...
Terrestrial broadcasting is still our core business and that is where we should focus to stop the erosian

1:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I agree that respecting listener loyalty is important, what I see(hear) is an older (donors) audience driving large blocks of programming. 3.5 hours of opera on a weekend afternoon guarantees that other listeners are gone. With satelitte as an option, I can go elsewhere and that will happen more and more.

5:32 PM  
Blogger RTS said...


When all you hear on public radio is droning network programming (yes, I'm speaking of NPRs magazines), it truly becomes unlistenable after a while.

That "audio newspaper" sound they've treated listeners to has become tired and passe and has to go.

In as much as they're trying to be a serious journalistic entity (They're the only network that refers to a talk show as "a piece of journalism."), they need to listen to themselves critically sometimes and maybe play shows to a focus group for some objective feedback. Then they'll change for sure.

5:37 PM  
Blogger Johnathan said...

Being 24, I can say for sure that the endless hours of opera and classical are a big turn-off. I'd rather hear Weekend America or even additional airings of This American Life (or similar shows like Theory Of Everything).

Of course - the format I really wish I had locally is something like KCRW or 89.3 The Current - an eclectic mix of both local and global music, along with the news & public affairs coverage of NPR.

As it stands - most of my "public radio" listening is via podcast or streaming, since the stations available to me generally don't have what I want when I want it. (Or at all, really, in terms of music.)

8:42 PM  
Blogger Aaron Read said...

Johnathan's comments may speak to public radio's looming crisis: how to draw in new, younger, listeners without alienating long-time listeners.

Generally younger listeners don't care about the classical, opera and jazz you frequently hear on public radio (music) stations. However, the older listeners are often rabid fans of it.

The younger listeners typically don't donate nearly as much as the older ones do...but sooner or later those older ones are going to die off, and where is public radio going to be then?

Of course, this problem has been around for decades. I have an old Doonesbury strip from the 1980's that pokes fun at the 25-54 demo listening to NPR at the time.

I do, however, agree with the trend of public radio stations going all-music or all-news...rather than trying to split the difference. Neither listener is happy listening to the other, so you just end up annoying both.

Perhaps the promise of IBOC/multicasting will swoop in and save us all...but I doubt receivers will become widespread quickly enough to make a real difference.

11:14 AM  
Anonymous J. Emery said...

Fear not, young Jonathan who is 24. You will grow up and your attention span will increase beyond two minutes and 30 seconds and you will be glad for "classical and opera" to provide timeless sustenance to a soul blunted by unremitting currency and brevity.

1:49 PM  
Blogger RadioSutton said...

Thanks for the comments folks. Keep them coming. As a researcher, I wish I could agree that more research is the answer. But we really do know all we need to know. We know who we should reach, how to program and promote, and how to evaluate and change as needed. Success doesn't come as easily as it did 10 years ago when the audience was under-developed. I sometimes think that all this talk about new listeners and new technologies is an easy way out of doing the more difficult work ahead of us. John

8:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wrong, Mr. Emery. The problem that classical music is having is that audiences *aren't* coming to it as they get older, but are either sticking to rock music or going to jazz or world music. It's not short attention span, it's because they simply have different tastes (and besides, jam bands can play a piece that's just as long, if not longer, than a symphony).

When are you Dead White European Culture apologists going to wake up and realize that the world has changed? And if you're a Baby Boomer or younger, why are you a prematurely senile traitor to your generation?

12:21 PM  
Anonymous Mark Fuerst said...

John, much of your value to the industry has been your focus on hard evidence: when people listen, what they listen to, how they react. What hard evidence do you have for the following: "That focus [a focus on great programming] is lacking today. Much of the industry’s attention is on reaching new and different audiences through new and different technologies..."

Sure, there are discussions of other things going on. People would have to be brain-dead to ignore the enormous changes in media. But can you emperically link that discussion to the changes in AQH?

My examination of dollars invested and staffing--the two best indicators of priorities--show that less than 2% of the human and financial capital in public radio is involved in these other activities. The only really large investments are occuring at NPR (something like 4% of its annual budget) and MPR/APM, again 4-5%.

But I don't have data for last year. Have things changed that much?

I would be very interested to see you have collected any hard evidence that this has changed.

7:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

come on, folks. The one thing that I find tedious is when someone drops a bomb like: "On the network level, new programs are no longer intended to super-serve a loyal core audience." "At stations, there are still huge blocks of weak programming on the air." ... and then nothing ... more broad generalizations. If you don't back up your assertions with something specific, your words get twisted and then what's the point? I have gleaned more generalities ... that's helpful, ... Tell me more specifically what things are killing radio, please, I still trying to learn about this business and there's no information here except what I hear as polite bar-conversation at conferences. You don't have to name names of local stations doing a poor job (hell, you might even be listening to me) - give me an example ... why is it weak programming (in your view) ? You bother to tell me what Cume is and then you don't even back it up with a real example. Sounds like an auto operators manual to me, tells me how to insert the key and which direction to turn it for ignition (the simplest of instructions) and then blithely gives no example of how to change a fuse (what I might actually need to know) ... come on, John, you're smarter than that, help us out here ...

12:20 AM  

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