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?”


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Something's not adding up in my eyes here...

People are complaining that public radio has "too many commercials" with their underwriting spot load, correct?

At the same time, studies are indicating that pubradio listeners are spending more time listening to commercial radio stations, correct?

It's assumed that these two facts are interrelated...but I don't see how they can be. Pubradio underwriting takes up, at most, about 5 or 6 minutes per hour. And that's being generous...at most stations it's probably more like 3. Commercial radio stations typically have a minimum of an 18 minute-per-hour commercial load. Many have 22 or even 25 minutes per hour.

How in the HELL could listeners not recognize such a blatant difference?

Never mind that underwriting also tends to be far less interrupting since your average pubradio break is 2 minutes, whereas the average commercial break is more like 5 or 10 minutes. And never mind that, thanks to the FCC's content restrictions, the content of underwriting is almost always far more genteel than most commercials.

And what's really weird is that how could people complaining there's too much underwriting on pubradio...people who're obviously sensitive (perhaps hyper-sensitive) to the underwriting load...how could they not be sensitive to this incredible disparity?

So, seriously...I must be missing something here, right???

12:03 PM  
Blogger RadioSutton said...

Button-punching is one very real possibility. For example, the station break at :58 past the hour. Many stations cover the billboard for the next program at :01. A listener punches out at the end of the hour and finds something interesting on a commercial station at the top of the hour. Sticks with it for a while until the commercials become too much, punches back to public radio. So they're using us more like a commercial station than a public station. That's one of the reasons break length is an issue.

1:48 PM  
Blogger RadioSutton said...

Let me expand on this a bit further. Public radio listeners might not like commercials, but that does not stop them from listening to commercial radio. The average public radio listener gives about two-thirds of his or her radio listening to commercial stations. Even core listeners typically listen to commercial radio a few times per week. We don't own these listeners. They go away and find other radio that interests them. They eventually come back. This is how public radio continued to grow despite pledge drives. All I'm suggesting is that it might now be happening with some listeners around underwriting and other sales content that they hear every day.

5:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wha...??? Stations routinely cover the billboard??? [shocked expression]

I mean, I can sort-of understand it during a fundraiser. Sort of. But you mean routinely? I'm surprised program producers allow that kind of B.S. to happen. Guess I need to get out more...I've never really heard that happen around here.

FWIW...I don't entirely agree with it, but the philosophy behind the show I work for is that we don't do a separate billboard because it's too hard to get listeners excited enough about a show during the billboard and then maintain that excitement across a five minute newscast. I can't imagine how much harder that gets when your listeners aren't even hearing a billboard.

As for listeners using public radio like commercial radio...I also do agree that if it weren't for ad spots sounding more and more like total scams...then pubradio underwriting would be sounding more and more like regular advertising. The ability of many stations to play verbal gymnastics with the FCC's non-comm underwriting rules is, IMHO, eroding the entire brand and eroding it badly.

10:49 AM  
Blogger RadioSutton said...

Your point about newscasts is a good one. A sample of what's I've heard during All Things Considered, with ballpark times.

:58:20 Network UW 3-credit pod
:59:00 Local UW
:59:15 Weather
:59:30 Traffic with bartered UW
:00:00 Local UW
:00:15 Forward promotion
:00:30 Car donation promo
:00:50 Legal ID
:01:00 NPR Newscast
:04:00 NPR Newcast UW credit
:04:15 Local news UW credit
:04:30 Local news
:06:15 Local UW
:06:30 All Things Considered

2 minutes of underwriting, 9 credits, in an 8-minute span. About 5 non-consecutive minutes of programming and about a minute of promotional content.

12:18 PM  

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