Friday, September 22, 2006

Tea in China, Coffee in America

Thanks to Ira Glass I can't think of Starbucks without thinking of pledge drives. So when Starbucks announced today that it is raising its prices, I thought "Wow, more new fundraising scripts."

And it's not even October yet...

Monday, September 18, 2006

Increasing Ratings Versus Increasing Listening

The opening session of last week's PRPD conference focused on the Audience 2010 report, which details the decline in public radio's national audience. One of the panelists made a comment about public radio's concern over its falling ratings. Those words stuck with me over the past few days because it represents a subtle, yet critical misunderstanding about how public radio uses Arbitron data.

One of the reasons public radio's ratings grew so much over the past 20-years was because we ignored them.

Beginning in the mid-1980s, public radio focused its programming efforts on increasing listening. The reason is simple. Listening equals public service. One hour of listening is one hour of public service provided. One million hours of listening is one million hours of public service provided.

That's why public radio focused its growth goals on AQH, or average-quarter hour audience, rather than Share or Cume Ratings. AQH represents listening. It grows by serving the public better. That might be serving the same people more frequently, serving more people in the community, or some combination of both.

In any case, increasing AQH was always more important than the actual number because the growth represented increased public service, a stronger station-listener relationship, and more relevance in the community. That's why public radio focuses on metrics like listener Loyalty and annual Listener-Hours. They measure how well we are doing at providing public service.

Here's the dirty little secret about public radio's increases in Share and Cume Ratings. They were a by-product of focusing on public service metrics. They were never the ultimate goal. In fact, public radio has a pretty lousy track record at trying to intentionally increase its ratings.
For the last 10-years public radio has been trying to attract a larger share of younger listeners and Black listeners with no measurable success.

Public radio needs to remember this lesson as it invests more of its time and money on new media platforms.

The end numbers don't matter. It's what the numbers tell us about the strength of our relationship with audiences that does.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Final PRPD Update

Former PRPD President Marcia Alvar was honored with a lifetime achievement award. Bill Siemering introduced her. It was good for everyone to hear about some of those early days in public radio when its founding principles were being developed and first put in practice.

Interesting contrast to be handing out lifetime achievement awards and wrestling with the uncertain future presented by new technologies at the same conference. Perhaps the future would look more certain if public radio applied the collective wisdom gained in the past to today's challenges.

Public radio knows quite a bit about starting small, having lots of enthusiasm and not enough resources, and still developing a significant public service. We've done it before.

The listeners and their content needs have not changed. More important, public radio's understanding of those listeners and its expertise in creating that content has not changed.

It might be called "new media" but the most important lessons we learned from our "old medium" still apply.

Friday, September 15, 2006

PRPD Update #3

A while back I wrote a piece on Articulating Value during pledge drives. The point was that we are often better at selling listeners premiums than on the value of the station. Today, Ira Glass was the keynote speaker at the PRPD Conference. He spoke on creativity in public radio. It should be required listening for anyone who has to go on the radio and ask for money.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

PRPD Update #2

The Sense of Place project delivered lots of useful information. One of the biggest findings is the idea that "merely local" content is not a listener benefit. It puts to rest the idea that listeners will flock to public radio just because news or talk is local. This is not to say stations avoid producing content locally. Instead, the project provides many new insights on how to make that content so it lives up to listeners' expectations. Be sure to check out the findings when they are published.

Much of what was learned about producing local news and information can also inform how stations produce pledge drives. More on that in a future blog. And I'll post support materials for stations on the web site. That'll be in a few weeks.

We had a very productive conversation in our "Challenges, Matches, and Sweepstakes and the Public Trust" session. This is part of the DEI/PRPD On-air Fundraising Partnership project. Our goal is to develop guidelines and support materials to help stations ensure that their fundraising tactics line up with listeners' expectations and public radio's core values. Mikel Ellcessor from WNYC and Andy Bienstock from WYPR made some great contributions as panelists. The questions and conversation with the audience was terrific. I think there were some valuable ideas put forward, especially in the area of challenge grants from businesses.

The Local News Initiative session ran concurrently with my session so I didn't get to see it, but there was lots of good post-session hallway discussion about it and The Morning Edition Grad School project.

PRPD Update #1

Didn't really plan on blogging from the PRPD but there are a few noteworthy items.

The State Of Public Radio Session had some very good moments but strayed from the focus of Audience 2010. The conversation quickly moved from why our listeners are choosing to spend more of their radio listening time with commercial stations to a discussion about new media. And then it flipped back and forth. A lot of good points were made but by the end, I wasn't convinced that the conversation advanced our understanding of the issues outlined by Audience 2010.

Tom Thomas correctly pointed out that national numbers are an aggregation of local numbers and that some of the traditionally strong stations are for the first time showing weakness. That's worth exploring.

Mark Ramsey made some good points about focusing on the stations that continue to do well. They're the benchmarks for today. What can we learn from them?

Thomas also referenced the loss of 80 million listener-hours to Morning Edition and ATC. He said NPR is looking at how to fix this. I think this might be an overly simplistic way of looking at the data. I've seen plenty of local data where ME and ATC audiences have suffered because the station changed the programming around them. The new programming is not doing well and is clearly hurting the newsmagazines. We need to look at how programs work together in a schedule. This gets back to Ramsey's point. ME and ATC are still doing well on the Climber stations. Let's figure out why that is before we make unnecessary, and potentially damaging, changes to the core of our news service.

Jacobs and Thomas talked about diversifying and growing the audience by eliminating some of the duplication of ME and ATC in a single market. This is a position I've taken here on the blog so it was great to hear it come up in a keynote session. Thomas pointed out that this is no easy task. And it's expensive. I think the price tag is around $20 million a year. But it can be done.

If we truly want to reach different listeners, then we need programming targeted at those listeners and radio signals to reach them. Hopefully, this discussion will continue beyond the conference.

The opening party was great. The new XPN facility is wonderful. Seeing friends and making news ones on opening night is always one of the highlights of the year.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Rich Media Ad Formats

You know those on-line ads that popover the web page you just loaded? The ones that are animated and jump all over your screen or follow along as you try to scroll away from them?

They are called animated overlay, or floating, ads. They are sometimes called "takeover" ads and they are among a new breed of "rich media ad formats."

These ads end up on your screen because the web site owner, the content provider, has placed them there. They make money by obliterating the content you are seeking. They literally take away what you want in an attempt to get you to buy something. And they often have nothing to do with why you went to that web site in the first place.

They are the Internet version of public broadcasting pledge drives.

Why Aren't We Getting Better?

The question came late one evening at this year’s Public Radio Development and Marketing Conference. The questioner was a colleague who also works in public radio on a national level.

“Why aren’t we getting better?”

It’s a fair question with all of the recurring problems we seem to have in public radio; listeners still don’t like pledge drives and stations are far too dependent on them, many stations lag in overall fundraising efficiency, many station program schedules still show significant weaknesses, and the networks have failed to meet their goals of attracting a younger and more diverse audience. In many ways, public radio seems to be where it was 20 years ago.

Before we answer the question, let’s consider the audience growth over the past two decades. It is the result of better program making at the producer level and better programming at stations. Many stations have grown membership and underwriting revenue by making remarkable leaps in fundraising efficiency on and off the air.

There are plenty of instances where “getting better” is clearly the reason for more audience and more money at individual stations. That success was intentional. There are also plenty of instances where growth occurred in spite of station or network efforts.

Then there are those no-growth and negative-growth situations that seem inexplicable. They cause us to ask, “Why aren’t we getting better?” I think there are two reasons.

1. Public radio often chooses the wrong goals
2. Public radio is guilty of inconsistent execution where it gets the goals right

I’ll write in more detail about each of these in future postings. In the meantime, here are some questions to ponder.

What is better when it comes to programming and public service?
What is better when it comes to membership and pledge drives?
What is better when it comes to underwriting?

And when you’re done thinking about how these questions apply to individual stations, ask them again for the entire industry.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Trusted Space

Note: The following posted on August 8 because I accidentally hit "Publish" instead of "Save as Draft." I deleted it almost right away because I didn't think it was ready, but you really can't delete these things. I just discovered today that it was out there long enough for New Realities leader Robert Paterson to post it on his blog. So here it is, again, on radiosutton.

Much has changed since I started the series on setting new, somewhat audacious goals for public radio. Audience 2010 provided some valuable insights about our audience and its listening behaviors.

NPR's New Realities Blue Print has presented fresh opportunities to tackle long-standing problems. Various reports on public radio's fundraising trends appear to confirm that difficult economic times are ahead. Every report, meeting, and conference session I’ve been exposed to offered some new angle on public radio’s new media possibilities.

After weeks of trying to synthesize all the information and ideas into a new media goal, I keep coming back to this simple question.

What do listeners want?

So much of public radio’s new media conversation is about public radio not public service. It’s about infrastructure and rights issues and revenue splits and protecting what we have. That needs to change.

I think NPR has the right idea when it talks about creating a “trusted space.” That concept works well with public radio’s behind-the-scenes activities and public radio’s public face.

Listeners want to trust what they hear and see no matter where they hear and see it. Building a “trusted space” is such a good concept I think it could be the foundation of a major, coordinated marketing and fundraising campaign for all organizations in public radio.

Think of the possibilities: “trusted space” direct mail fundraising letters, e-newsletters, on-air spots, fundraising specials, foundation grant applications, and outreach and marketing efforts. Perhaps there could even be a “trusted space” fund to invest in projects that would help national, regional, and local organizations accelerate their ability to add to the “trusted space” in the new media environment.

Now you might ask how building a “trusted space” is a measurable goal. The key is the word “trust.” That’s a listener-focused word.

Listeners’ level of trust in what they hear on the radio, on their iPods, over their broadband Internet device, or read on a web site can be objectively measured over time. There are probably several ways to measure that starting today.

It makes for a daunting goal to build the most trusted space for news and information on the radio and on the Internet. But imagine what the conversations would be like if the entire public radio industry embraced that goal.

Content would truly be king. Partnerships, revenue models, and infrastructure would emerge from the public service possibilities rather than driving, and perhaps, limiting public service outcomes.

Try it. Ask this question the next time you’re in a conversation about new media, “how would that help make us the most trusted space for (your mission here) on the Internet?” If that’s a conversation stopper, then start a new one. Ask, “how could we become the most trusted space for (your mission here) on the Internet?

I suspect you will find that conversation far more interesting and productive than you could ever imagine.

Content First, Branding Second, Platform Last

It’s fun to play with new media technology. It’s fun to learn what it can do and how consumers ultimately choose to use it. It inspires new ideas.

In the end though, the technology will fade into the background, as it should, and content will dictate whether the technology platform is a useful means for delivering public radio’s public service.

The idea that “content is king" is certainly not new. But people tend to forget it when they make statements such as, “public radio will reach younger listeners with this new technology.”

Not true.

Technology can't change demographics. It might change who's available to listen to a program or feature but it will not change who will like it.

No matter which platform public radio uses to deliver its content, the nature of the audience will always be shaped by the editorial and social values embodied in that content. Programming that appeals to well educated, societally conscious individuals isn’t going change in its appeal and attract individuals who are less educated and driven largely by personal wealth goals just because it is now in the form of a podcast.

Technology can increase the reach and frequency with which public radio content is exposed to potential listeners. This is where branding comes in.

Once limited to radio frequencies, the public radio brand must now be portable. It has to mean something good in the context of iTunes, search engines, and blast e-mails. It has to create the desire to click your link over all the other available choices.

This is easy if you’re NPR, but what is the brand of a typical public radio station? What does it represent? If I’m a consumer, what do I know about you before I click the link? Why is that important to me?

Public radio has to work these things out. I do think that NPR is on the right track with the idea of Trusted Space. In a much more competitive media environment, our strong editorial processes and how our funding mandates accountability to listeners will matter.

They will matter more than being non-commercial because, in case you haven’t noticed, many of our commercial competitors use underwriting-like announcements in their web content. On-line, our underwriting looks and sounds a lot like their advertising.

The integrity of the content is the foundation of the public radio brand. This is something the industry should work on promoting collectively.

Individual stations and producers will still want to further develop their own brands based on their specialized content, but all of public radio would benefit from a coordinated strategy to communicate that public radio is different, and better, because of how editorial decisions are made and how it is funded.