Thursday, February 23, 2006

New Technologies And Old Practices Don't Mix

A new report from the Audience 2010 project all but says public radio is hurting itself by not making Morning Edition and All Things Considered available on satellite radio in real time.

It will be a hotly debated topic and one that should be the catalyst for answering a much more important question raised in the report.

Is public radio a collection of stations that provide public service to individual communities or is it a system that provides public service to the nation, and increasingly, the world?

Changes in technology are forcing public radio away from the first definition and toward the second. That shift is uncovering significant weaknesses in public radio's structure. It's this structure -- the mutated product of a station-centric, government subsidized business model where stations pay hefty programming fees to networks -- that presents the biggest threat to public radio. That model was weakening before satellite radio. It's on the verge of breaking today.

Few stations include in their mission statements the importance of serving the nation and the world through their NPR membership. And few will as long as they believe that allowing NPR greater access to listeners through satellite radio will harm them.

NPR, despite lots of rhetoric about partnerships, does not have stated, measurable goals regarding the audience growth or financial health of its member stations.

To use a well-worn cliché, NPR and stations don't have each other's back. Instead of looking out for one another, they are wary of each other.

To remain a significant media choice, NPR needs to have its best programming available in real time on all delivery platforms. This is a sacrifice stations will have to make.

We maintain, as does Audience 2010, that stations will remain the backbone of public radio for the foreseeable future. They will need mechanisms to remain financially viable as they receive more competition for listeners to their most expensive, and profitable, programming. NPR will have to make sacrifices to ensure this.

While these are essential actions, nothing will happen until NPR and stations transcend the parochial attitudes that are driven by old technology, old systems, and old practices. Everything, from how programs reach listeners to how stations pay NPR to how money is raised, needs to be updated.

Efforts to address new opportunities such as satellite radio, podcasting, and WiMax -- one at a time -- are nothing more than temporary fixes for a much bigger problem. Public radio isn't poised to grow over the next few decades because its business relationships and practices are rooted in the way things used to be.

In future postings, some ideas on how to change that.

Friday, February 17, 2006

The Importance Of Integrated Fundraising

While the recent dip in audience has not affected all stations, those that have lost listening face new fundraising challenges.

On-air fund drives succeed because a single appeal to contribute reaches thousands of listeners. For a station with an Average Quarter-Hour (AQH) audience of 5,000, opening the mic and asking for money is a lot like mailing 5,000 fundraising letters to potential givers. When the AQH goes down, each appeal reaches fewer people. It's like sending fewer letters.

That's not a problem in some cases. A lot of on-air fundraising is highly inefficient. A station can raise more money by getting better at turning the remaining listening into giving.

At some stations, the audience losses are steep enough (especially among Core listeners) or the on-air fundraising is efficient enough already that they will not meet their on-air goals without adding hours or days to the fund drive.

This is where integrated fundraising comes in. Direct mail and email are underutilized at many stations. They remain cost-effective ways to reach current and potential contributors. They are a good way to make up for fewer "on-air appeals heard" due to lower listening levels.

As many stations approach their Spring fund drives, they would do well to look at their audience trends and their off-air fundraising performance. The answer to meeting the Spring on-air fundraising goal might not be opening up the microphone more often but rather shifting some of that goal to off-air activities.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Is Public Radio Growing Out Of Touch With The Public?

This blog rarely focuses on programming content. I generally leave that to the experts -- producers, writers, and hosts. I've also refrained from mentioning the now-Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers' stellar year, but restraint is no longer possible. Stick with me. There is a public radio programming payoff at the end.

On Only A Game, Bill Littlefield and Paul Attner from the Sporting News decided that people were having a hard time getting excited about this game because the "wrong teams" made the Super Bowl. On Weekend Edition, Chicago Sun Time's columnist Ron Rapoport said "we're going in to this game kind of disappointed" because it lacked star power.

How could they be so wrong?

Nielsen ratings show this Super Bowl had the highest ratings since 1996, the last time the Steelers played in the Super Bowl. That's more viewers than the years when New England and New York were in the game.

The nation was interested in this game. The people who were disappointed in the match-up were the sports writers and commentators covering the game. It seems as if they all hung out together and came to the conclusion that if they weren't excited by it, no one was excited by it.

I suspect this happens all too frequently among many NPR commentators, not just those who cover sports. Most of us don't question their expertise. They're on NPR after all.

But this was an easy catch, especially for a Steelers fan. Two separate NPR programs missed the pulse of the nation on the Super Bowl. If it can happen with the nation's biggest media event, on what other issues might it be happening and going unnoticed?

A Mixed Bag Of Thoughts

Some things to think about as public radio faces audience growth issues, new technologies, and the beginning of the winter/spring on-air fundraising season:

- As audience flattens out or drops, the cost of doing business goes up. This is especially important to keep in mind when investing in local progamming which typically generates less audience at a higher cost than national programming.

- A key question for program directors today -- "Is the program I have on the air right now better than any of the programs sitting on the listener's iPod?"

- Less listening will mean less money unless stations improve their fundraising efficiency. Public radio still has significant potential here.

- If fund drives hurt listening levels in the past, they could hurt even more now that there are public radio alternatives on satellite radio and iPod. Just another reason to keep on-air drives short and to work hard to make them sound better.

- $1,000 contributions shouldn't be thought of as major donor money. There's an increasing body of evidence that the people who give them don't think of themselves as major donors.

- Too much emphasis on $1,000 donations in on-air drives not only suppresses contributions from people who might give less, it also sends the message that your station doesn't need all that many supporters to succeed.