Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Time to Make Station Health Public Radio's Number One Priority

At the end of the New Realities Forum, NPR Executive VP Ken Stern delivered a short, sincere, and heartfelt speech about public radio’s challenging and uncertain future.

“I can’t do it alone,” he said, referring to NPR’s renewed commitment to work with stations and others in the public radio community. His comments were reinforced by NPR President Kevin Klose.

In particular, NPR is seeking the support of public radio stations, its primary constituency. Support is a two-way street and right now stations are in need of significant help from NPR, CPB, and public radio’s other national organizations.

The health of public radio stations is in decline. The 2004 CPB-funded Having It All report said that more than half of all public radio stations are in weak financial positions. Too few of them end each fiscal year with even a small financial surplus. Stations lost more than $4.3 million in net revenue between 1999 and 2003.

That loss of revenue happened when listening to public radio was growing. The audience has gone down slightly since. This is not a good sign for public radio’s financial future because listening drives individual giving and underwriting revenue.

Audience 2010 doesn’t paint a pretty picture either. Public radio is losing listening to its commercial competitors. Increasingly, audiences are not finding public radio to be the better listening choice.

There is good news out there. The fixes for less listening and less revenue are under our control.

The ultimate conclusion of Audience 2010 is that the audience decline can be reversed with appropriate programming decision-making and execution at local stations. The Having It All report identified concrete actions to improving station financial health. Public radio knows how to do this. Public radio has done it before.

What the industry lacks are clear, measurable goals for station audience growth and financial health. There are references to helping stations grow audience and increase revenue capacity, but those are empty phrases without a target number and a plan to reach it.

The remainder of this post will focus on audience growth. The next posting will focus on station financial health.

Let’s start with a goal: By the end of 2010, 75% of all public radio stations will have increased their AQH audiences by at least 10 percent over their calendar year 2005 average.

There are three good reasons for this goal. First, helping the majority of stations grow will grow the national audience. Second, growth in listening will lead to revenue growth, which should help improve station financial health. Finally, none of public radio’s national organizations currently has a specific, measurable commitment to helping stations increase their broadcast audiences. If goals reflect priorities, then growing station audiences is not a priority for any of public radio’s national organizations.

And yet, all of the new opportunities public radio wants explore – reaching listeners through new delivery platforms, expanding local programming, serving more minority listeners, and becoming more significant community institutions – depend on the strength of public radio’s core broadcasting service.

Several independent reports say that service is weakening. The good news, again, is that public radio knows how to fix this problem.

But, to echo NPR’s Ken Stern, stations can’t do it alone. They need help. They need CPB’s help. They need NPR’s help. They need the help of any national organization that can bring its resources and economies of scale to bear on local problems and opportunities.

Here’s the goal again: By the end of 2010, 75% of all public radio stations will have increased their AQH audiences by at least 10 percent over their calendar year 2005 average.

It’s an achievable goal. Meeting it will require a significant, system-wide effort. That effort won’t happen without a commitment. Over the next few weeks, we'll seek that commitment from public radio’s national leadership.

Stay tuned.

NEXT WEEK: A goal for station financial health
FUTURE POSTINGS: National goals for minority listening and new delivery platforms

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