Tuesday, September 12, 2006

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.

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