Audience Loss Could Be Public Radio’s Gain
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.