Friday, January 20, 2006

Minding The Franchise

Public radio stations generated more than a quarter-billion dollars in listener support in FY2004. Underwriting revenue from businesses was around 140 million dollars. This is called "listener-sensitive" revenue in public radio because it is driven by the amount of listening to individual public radio stations.

Businesses pay more to reach more listeners. People who listen more are more likely to give. Givers who listen a lot are more likely to give larger gifts. But we're not talking about weekly listening. No, giving is greatly affected by the amount of listening done over years.

That listening is the public radio franchise and it has never been more at risk. There are very real threats from competition, including an increasing number of commercial broadcasters putting news/talk on FM. We are also a threat to ourselves.

Most stations still have weaknesses in their significant parts of their program schedules. Several national programs, especially weekday programs, under-deliver given the available audience. Failure to fix these problems makes public radio more vulnerable to all competition, whether it is coming from the radio dial or the iPod.

Much of the discussion in public radio is that audience loss is inevitable given the growth of new technologies. That assumes listening to podcasts will come at the expense of listening to public radio stations. It doesn't have to be that way.

Public radio listeners, on average, spend more time listening to commercial radio than to public radio. Our Core listeners spend about one-third of their radio listening time with the competition. That could be the listening that goes to podcasts, even public radio podcasts. Or, it could be the listening that public radio stations capture to reverse the tide of audience loss.

Even if public radio loses current listening to new delivery platforms, there will always be radio listening to capture from the competition, much of it being done by our own audience. We can still grow radio listening.

The point here is that public radio can never stop fighting hard for every available hour of radio listening. The shear volume of that listening will always make it the most financially productive hours of listening public radio will ever capture. More important, every hour of listening we don't get today negatively affects how much money our listeners will give in the coming years.

Radio listening is the financial foundation of anything that public a radio station might want to do with podcasting, Internet streaming, local programming, or the next cool thing to come along. It's the franchise and public radio needs to give it the lion's share of new investments of time, money, and attention.


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