Saturday, December 31, 2005

Pop Goes The Future

While most discussions about public radio’s future focus on technology, equally important to public radio’s long-term success are the expected shifts in population.

US Census Bureau projections suggest the populations of Nevada, Arizona, and Florida will increase by at least 21% between 2005 and 2015. The populations of Texas, Idaho, Utah, North Carolina, and Georgia will grow between 15% and 20%.

The top states for growth in actual numbers are California, Texas, Florida, Arizona, North Carolina, and Georgia. Each of these states will grow by a million persons or more in the next decade.

The population shifts are even more pronounced when looking at trends from 2005 through 2030. Arizona is expected to be the 10th most populous state, up from 17th today. North Carolina moves from 11th position to 7th. California and Texas will have 10 million more people. Florida will have 11 million more.

By comparison, the populations of large states such as New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Massachusetts are projected to grow by a combined 1.1 million people. Put another way, the population of Florida is expected to grow ten times as much as New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Massachusetts combined.

And it won’t be all older people. The populations of the growth states will not “age” faster than the rest of the country. If anything, they will age a bit more slowly than average.

The implications of these shifts are significant. Many stations in growth states should see increases in audience despite emerging technologies. Stations in no-growth states are going to have to work harder to maintain their current audiences and financial support.

Most important, the census projections suggest that the days of a national audience growth strategy are numbered. As a mature industry, understanding and acting on the circumstances of individual markets will play an increasingly important role in public radio’s success.

Thanks to Scott Williams of KJZZ, Phoenix for suggesting this piece.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Three Studies, Many Insights About Public Radio’s Audience

Three studies published in 2005 provide some interesting insights into how listeners use public radio.

Public Radio Today 2005 from Arbitron, is a snapshot of public radio usage in Spring 2004. It also includes expanded demographic information (education, income) for various public radio formats.

The Public Radio Format Study from the Station Resource Group (SRG), charts the audience performance of public radio’s formats between Spring 1999 and Fall 2004.

Some Public Radio Programming And Listening Trends from Audience Research Analysis (ARA), analyzes listening patterns to programs, formats, and the role of national and local programming in public radio’s audience growth between Spring 2001 and Spring 2005.

The first two studies were produced prior to the release of the Spring 2005 audience estimates. They do not include any analysis of the recent dip in public radio’s audience. ARA’s reports provide some early insights on the subject. It certainly raises some important questions.

The studies are rich with information. We will touch on just a few highlights here and add some thoughts on what they mean. We highly recommend that you read each report to gain the full value of their findings.

Public Radio Today 2005 (PDF)
(Editor's Note: Arbitron's website was down when this piece was first published. Check back later to access Public Radio Today 2005)

Arbitron reports that 11.0% of the US population (12 and older) listens to public radio in an average week. That’s 27-million people in public radio’s weekly (Cume) audience.*

Nearly 10% of all 25-34 year olds in the US are in public radio’s weekly audience. This is somewhat of a myth-buster given the conventional wisdom that public radio is failing to reach younger listeners.

Each listener spends an average of 8 hours per week listening to public radio. The 25-34 year olds spend under 7 hours per week with public radio. So while public radio is attracting younger listeners, they are not finding as much to listen to when they tune in.

The Public Radio Format Study (PDF)

The SRG reports that most of the growth in public radio’s Average Quarter-Hour (AQH) audience came from stations carrying news programming. The fastest growing audiences were at All News stations.

The average time spent listening (TSL) across stations was very similar. The All Classical stations had the highest TSL at 6 hours and 58 minutes per week. But that was not much higher than to the All News stations, which had an average TSL of 6 hours and 49 minutes per week. All Jazz stations had a TSL of 6 hours, 9 minutes. These are similar to the numbers reported by Arbitron in Public Radio Today 2005.

It looks like another myth is busted. Listeners do not spend more time with public radio’s music stations than they do with public radio’s news stations.

Some Public Radio Programming And Listening Trends (PDF)

The ARA report shows a significant shift in listening patterns from local to network programming. Network programming now accounts for 62% of all listening to public radio, up from 54% in Spring 2001.

Listening to local classical programming is in sharp decline. Much of that probably has to do with stations dropping classical in favor of news. Listening to local news was trending up slightly until Spring 2005. But local news accounts for just five percent of all listening to public radio. Other metrics show it remains a weak draw for audiences. The fortunes of local news appear to be tied to the success of network news.

Most important, more of public radio’s listening is coming from fewer and fewer network programs. With all of the discussion about starting local programming initiatives, ARA points out that, in the past five years, public radio’s networks delivered just one new program that is a powerful audience draw – Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me.

One new, powerful national program every five years is not enough given public radio’s increased reliance on network programs.

* The 27 million listener number was derived by applying Arbitron's 11.0% weekly listener figure from Public Radio Today 2005 t0 Arbitron's official estimate of the the 12+ population in for the study, which was 245,023,500 (source: Arbitron Nationwide Reference Guide, Spring 2004).
245,023,500 * .110 = 26,952,585

Friday, December 16, 2005

HD Radio Update

Talk about service! I received a call from Boston Acoustics offering help on improving my HD Radio reception (see 12/13 posting).

The call confirmed my suspicions about the role location plays in my ability to get digital signals. I learned about a few things that could help. I'll try them out and report back.

I also learned that one of the digital clocks in the unit can interfere with signals around 88.1 and 88.5 if the signals are weak in the first place. That seems to be the source of the digital chirps I get when trying to tune to WAMU (88.5FM). That's a good piece of information for public radio people to have.

I realize the engineers probably know all this stuff. Stations would do well to start educating all staff members on the consumer issues around this new technology. You never know who at your station might come in contact with someone who needs help with HD Radio. Perhaps each station could have an in-house FAQ available to staff members.

But the best part of the call with Boston Acoustics was this; they not only called to help me with my radio, they also were trying to learn how to make their product better. If only every customer service experience could be that good.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Faith In Our Listeners

If you piece together Conservative logic you get this:

-> The “Politically Correct” are trying to take religion out of Christmas with this “Happy Holidays” thing.
-> All Liberals are Politically Correct.
-> All Public Radio listeners are Liberal.
-> Therefore, Public Radio listeners are trying to take religion out of Christmas with this “Happy Holidays” thing.

Seriously, now. The intensity with which religion is being politicized in the media feels unprecedented. That makes this an opportune time to check some facts about public radio listeners. According to NPR’s Profile 2005:

-> 70% of all public radio listeners said “Holding to religious faith or belief” is important in their lives. (US Average: 84%)
-> 38% of all public radio listeners said they contributed to a religious organization in the last year. (US average: 31%)
-> 7% of all public radio listeners said they served on a Church Board. (US average: 4%)

Most public radio listeners consider religion important in their lives. It’s not quite up to the US average, but public radio listeners are more likely than the average American to invest time and money in their religious activities.

This runs contrary to what many, including those in our industry, believe about public radio listeners. It’s useful information when thinking about programming, news coverage, and even when evaluating potential underwriters.

One final note, also according to Profile 2005: more public radio listeners said they gave to religious groups in the last year than to public radio (38% versus 14%).

Not exactly Grinch-like behavior now, is it?

Source: NPR/Profile 2005, pages 35-40, 51-52; MRI Doublebase; Base Lifematrix Adults

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Adventures With HD Radio

I hope HD radio succeeds. I believe the extra channels present public radio with long-term opportunities to diversify its audience and reach more Americans.

That said, my first experience as a consumer of HD radio was not a good one. To put my story in context, I live in Annapolis, MD and receive radio signals from DC and Baltimore.

Last week, I was the lucky recipient of a brand-new Boston Acoustics Recepter Radio HD. I took it home, set it up next to my clock radio (a Sony Dream Machine ICF-CD823 for those of you who must know), and tuned to 88.1FM, WYPR in Baltimore.


So I tried 88.5 FM, WAMU. Digital chirps.
90.9 FM, WETA. Static.

I couldn't hear one public radio station that I usually hear on my clock radio -- at all. All told, I could hear about half the FM signals I usually receive. The HD indicator did not come on for any of them. I could not get an HD signal, commercial or public, in my bedroom.

Next stop, the kitchen. My lucked changed with a few commercial stations. Digitally encoded station and song information started showing up on the radio display. I actually heard my first "second service" from WSMJ (104.3), smooth jazz, in Baltimore. I managed an intermittent second signal from Mix 106.5 from Baltimore. And I could hear one public radio station, WBJC (91.5) from Baltimore, which is not an HD radio station.

What I did hear sounded good. Even the AM stations sounded better than on my clock radio. In both locations, however, I spent a lot of time holding the FM antennae wire in the air, along walls, and against windows. I moved the radio around. I tried everything I could to get a better signal. It all seemed so old-fashioned, so "analog."

My best guess as to why I had so many problems is the location of our home. We're 20-30 miles from many radio towers and nestled among some small hills. I must admit, it didn't occur to me that our location could be a problem until there was a problem.

I hope others will have a better first experience with HD radio than I did. Otherwise, the iPod/MP3 input jack on the back on the unit will start looking, and sounding, very good.

Monday, December 12, 2005

A Busy Week Ahead

There's a lot to write about this week so come back often. Topics will include our adventures with HD Radio (as consumers), religion and the public radio listener, and more on why we don't think "news fatigue" explains the recent dip in public radio's audience.

Friday, December 09, 2005

How NOT To Use Focus Group Research

"To 18-34s - radio is 'free, but uninspiring.' That's one of the findings of a Jacobs Media study presented at today's Arbitron Consultant Fly-In..." -- Inside Radio, December 8, 2005.

I was at that presentation. The study consisted of six focus groups.

Imagine, an entire demographic group consisting of more than 68.5 million people, labeled as uninspired by radio by unscientific research conducted among what was probably fewer than 50 of its members.

That's the danger of focus groups. Without appropriate follow-up, statements by an unrepresentative few participants soon morph into sweeping generalizations that are acted on as fact. Good researchers know the most appropriate use of focus groups to help formulate questions for larger statistical studies. They never project focus group results to entire populations.

Public radio has done a pretty good job of avoiding this pitfall in the past. Focus groups findings have been tested by statistically valid phone studies, auditorium tests, and Arbitron recontact studies. That's why public radio has such a good track record of successfully applying research to programming decisions. And perhaps that's one of the reasons public radio had such a long streak of audience growth at the same time commercial radio listening was in a free-fall.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Are Listeners Suffering From News Fatigue?

One of the year’s most remarkable statements about public radio comes from NPR in response to the recent decline in national audience.

Listeners are suffering from “news fatigue.”

It’s a remarkable claim because the idea of “news fatigue” is not supported by audience data. Audience is down for news stations, music stations, and mixed format stations. NPR reports comparable audience losses in its news and music programs.

NPR also reports tremendous growth in usage of its website and podcasts. While the numbers are not significant enough to hurt the national audience, the growth of these services runs counter to the notion of “news fatigue.”

"News fatigue” is a remarkable claim because NPR is suggesting that listeners are tiring of its core programming. That shouldn’t be happening given that one of NPR’s stated goals in replacing Bob Edwards on Morning Edition was to “freshen up the program.” All Things Considered made its reputation on delivering more than just news. A random check of Talk of the Nation topics from April, May, and June 2005 shows a diverse range of subject matter. If people are tired of listening, it’s not just because of the news. They do not like the stories, interviews and features that are supposed to complement the news.

“News fatigue” sounds like a handy answer to questions about public radio’s audience decline. But it is a “blame the listener” response. If we are to accept the notion that listeners are tiring of NPR News programs, we have to ask the question, “Whose fault is that, the listeners’ or the program producers’?”