Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Future

Public radio stations aren’t going away. In the future, they will be vital sources of public service content and social networking, even though listeners anywhere in the world will have access to all NPR programming, live and directly from the network. In the future:

Public radio stations will remain a focal point for news, issues, cultural information, and conversations that transcend each station’s geography. Localism, as it is defined today, will remain a relatively small and insignificant component of public radio’s success.

The number of listeners to all of public radio will grow as individual stations customize their network offerings to differentiate them from the network feed. These similar, yet distinctive offerings, will serve a broader range of listeners who are more likely to be defined by what interests them than by their age/sex/ethnic demographics.

The content used to customize the network news programs is just as likely to be acquired as it is to be produced locally. Using services such as PRX and Content Depot, stations in Boston and San Francisco will swap stories on the regional economic impact of the technology sector. Stations in Arizona and Florida will swap stories on the political impact of retired boomers on state politics.

Listeners will continue value the “currency of live content,” even though they are able to assemble their own news programs via podcasts. The continuity, companionship, and immediacy crafted into each Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Marketplace, and Weekend Edition will compel listeners to continue to choose radio.

The “currency of live” will bring even more listeners to public radio’s high quality discussion programs, which will remain one of the few places on the air and on-line where reasoned conversation will thrive.

All the new technologies and the applications that go with them will not kill public radio. They will enhance it.

Some listeners will engage more deeply in topics of personal interest with podcasts or by participating in on-line chats or by contributing to blogs. But most listeners won’t do all three.

A small percentage will use the station’s web site to plan ad hoc meetings at local coffee joints where they might discuss an author they heard about on Fresh Air or plan a response to a local environmental problem they just learned about in their community.

Another small group of listeners will hear stories and features on the air and e-mail audio file links to their friends. Or, by relating a story about how funny Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me was this week, they remind a spouse to listen to the Wait Wait podcast.

I can hear you saying, “This doesn’t seem like very far in the future.”

No, it is not. Everything here is happening, or should be happening, today. This is what the next 10 years will be like. We are living the future; we just haven’t mastered it yet.

Friday, November 17, 2006

The NPR iPod

Tossed this idea around with a few folks six or seven months ago and figured I'd post it here too.

The NPR iPod. The only iPod with a built in FM radio. Available for sale only through NPR, its member stations, and as pledge drive premiums. NPR and stations can offer logo-driven aftermarket products for sale or as pledge premiums.

A version iTunes available to current members of local public radio stations. It would have prominent positions for NPR podcasts, station podcasts, and public radio programs and programming streams. There would be links to station web site (or maybe it is the member version of the station web site), the NPR web site, the NPR store, etc. A portion of iTunes music or content sales goes to the member station.

If not Apple, maybe one of Apple's competitors would be interested. After all, the public radio audience is significant. I'm sure there are many thorny details but I believe the concept could work. Seems to me that time is running out to leverage something like this.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Corporate Sponsors 2010 #2

Public radio’s audience numbers might be more fragile than we think. For example, if just 1-in-5 public radio listeners listened one hour less per week to public radio, the overall AQH audience would go down 2.5 percent. Put another way, a minority of listeners changing their listening habits just a little bit could reverse a decades-long trend in audience growth.

Consider then that a 2003 NPR/Jacobs Media Research study showed that 1-in-5 listeners felt there were too many sponsorship announcements on public radio. That same study said that 1-in-5 listeners felt long sponsorship breaks made public radio stations sound like commercial stations.

At the time, the results of the study were interpreted to mean that public radio’s underwriting practices did not pose a threat to public radio’s audience growth. It might be wise to revisit the question.

Audience 2010 could not pinpoint macro causes for public radio’s current audience decline. The audience loss cut across markets. News and music stations lost audience. Audience 2010 also found that public radio listeners were giving more of their radio listening time to commercial stations. Perhaps one of the reasons is that public radio sounds more like commercial radio to 1-in-5 listeners.

Like public radio’s audience loss, underwriting cuts across formats and markets. It is a macro programming element found on almost every public radio station every day of the year. Yet the nature of underwriting makes it impossible to analyze its impact using Arbitron data.

And underwriting might be just one component of public radio’s “commercial sound” to these listeners. The NPR/Jacobs study did not examine listener response to the increasingly prevalent announcements for The NPR Shop or affinity shopping programs. It did not report on listener response to paid PSAs. These spots are often 30-seconds in length and sound like full-blown commercials, using the voice of someone from the non-profit institution, music beds, and calls-to-action.

All this could add up to some erosion of Loyalty and TSL with 1-in-5 listeners. Perhaps some public radio’s audience loss is due to dismissing that minority of listeners who are concerned about public radio’s increased reliance on business support.

I’d like to think it is worth an objective study to find out the answer to this question, “is public radio’s audience decline due in part to negative listener response to business support?”

But I’m not sure that public radio’s leadership is willing to act decisively if turns out current underwriting practices are hurting audience performance. The industry trend is toward more corporate money, not less. So the question public radio leaders are more likely to ask is, “What does an AQH percentage point or two matter in the context of millions of underwriting dollars?”

Monday, November 13, 2006

What's In a Number? (update)

Current, the newspaper for and about public broadcasting in the US, posts an article on the overstated Cume estimates of NPR and other public radio networks.

You can read Current's article here.

If you are linking to radiosutton from the Current site, my original post on this topic can be found here.

I will also use this opportunity to once again call for greater accountability in the creation and publication of audience estimates for radio networks and their programs.

Individual radio stations aren't allowed to make up and publish their own unverified audience estimates. Allowing radio networks to control, selectively release, and sometimes hide the information they use to calculate their national audience numbers is an unacceptable business practice. It's bad for all of radio, not just public radio.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

It's Not a Bake Sale Anymore

Earlier this year, I worked on a project for the DEI/PRPD Fundraising Partnership that was designed to see whether a few of public radio’s on-air fundraising practices lived up to the public trust. Specifically, we studied challenge grants, matching grants, and sweepstakes.

I presented the results of the study at this year’s DEI and PRPD conferences. You can see slides and notes from those sessions here.

The project found that there are many stations raising a great deal of money while maintaining a high level of accountability to listeners, licensees, and other stakeholders. They are good models for all stations. The project also found considerable room for improvement, some sample findings:

> 90% of the survey respondents using challenge grants said their challenge grant programs had a high level of integrity, but fewer than half said they had the documentation to prove it.
> About one-third of the survey respondents using challenge grants put challenge money in the unrestricted operating budget as soon as the money comes in the door, even if the challenge has yet to be offered on-air.
> 61% of respondents using sweepstakes said their contest rules had been approved by legal counsel. We identified instances where stations were simply copying rules from other stations in other states, and updating them with the station’s local information. That’s a risky practice, at best.
> 30% of respondents using sweepstakes said they never announced their contest rules on-air even though the law requires such announcements.

It also came to our attention that stations with Internet streams that also use sweepstakes during pledge drives might be subject to the sweepstakes rules of every state since the station can be heard in every state. E-mail and direct mail sweepstakes appeals that cross state lines present similar issues. The inter-state sweepstakes issue is just another good reason for stations to invest the time and money in good legal advice. Legal counsel on sweepstakes should be considered part of the cost of fundraising.

I came away from this project with the sense that most stations are handling most challenge grants and sweepstakes with a high level of integrity, but they are not thoroughly researching, planning, and documenting their activities in these areas.

Rather than treating public radio fundraising as a business where there are serious consequences if something goes wrong (like fines, lawsuits, the public loss of credibility, and challenges to the station’s license), these stations are operating like the local PTA selling cupcakes and cookies outside the voting area on Election Day. They couldn’t tell you who did what when after the fact.

We don’t know why stations are operating this way. Our project didn’t go that deep. Perhaps it hasn’t occurred to station management to operate any other way. Perhaps station managers just don’t think they will ever have to be accountable to others. Or maybe they think the good that their station does will outweigh any fundraising infraction that might occur.

What we do know is that the entire public radio industry would be better off if all stations took stock of their fundraising practices and made sure they aligned with the station’s core values and the public’s perceptions about the station’s credibility. Toward that end, JSA and the DEI/PRPD Fundraising Partnership will be developing guides and resources to help stations identify opportunities for improvement. More on that part of the project in a week or two.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Knowledge, Power, and Money (again)

It's hard to believe that it's been nearly two years since I launched this blog.
The next year, especially the next few months, will be very active as we tackle some tough issues facing public radio. It will be difficult reading at times. With that in mind, I'm repeating my first full posting, which essentially states the mission and purpose of the blog.


Francis Bacon said knowledge is power. He was also arrested in 1598 for debt. Bacon eventually got on his feet again, but his life continued to be marked by miscalculation.

And so it is with public radio. As an industry, we know what we need to know about attracting listeners and serving them well, how to raise money from those listeners, and how to generate business support.

Yet a recent study by Brody Weiser Burns (“Having It All,” funded and published by CPB) suggests that around half of all public radio stations are not very good at managing their bottom lines. This finding is highlighted by the recent financial failures at two of public radio’s leading stations, WBUR in Boston and WAMU in Washington, DC.

Like Bacon, these stations will get back on their feet. But these examples of public radio’s financial troubles remind us that knowledge has no value and provides no power unless it is properly applied.

Over the next few months, we’ll consider how we might better tap public radio’s vast knowledge of its listeners, fundraising, and finances. We’ll look at opportunities for individual stations and the industry as a whole. We’ll tackle tough issues including the competing priorities of public radio stations and national entities such as CPB and NPR. We will do this with the goal of using what we already know to build a stronger, robust public radio service. Please feel free to add your thoughts to the discussion and to suggest topics for consideration.