Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Is the Audience Glass Half Full or Half Empty?

There was a time when almost all of the audience news about public radio was good news. The industry was growing in the face of declining radio usage. Public radio was not only attracting listeners, but also turning those new listeners into loyal listeners and, eventually, donors.

Two items published this week demonstrate how times have changed. First, an article in the Sacramento Bee touts the success of Morning Edition since the departure of Bob Edwards. The article states that the Morning Edition audience has jumped from "more than 10 million weekly listeners" to 13 million weekly listeners under the hosting of Renee Montagne and Steve Inskeep.

Well, not really. Here are the actual numbers from NPR's official audience estimates. All audience numbers are in millions:

Fall 2001: 13.0 Cume, 1.9 AQH, 567 stations
Fall 2002: 12.7 Cume, 1.8 AQH, 603 stations
Fall 2003: 12.5 Cume, 1.8 AQH, 616 stations

------ Bob Edwards departs in Spring 2004 ------

Fall 2004: 13.3 Cume, 1.9 AQH, 627 stations
Fall 2005: 12.8 Cume, 1.8 AQH, 635 stations
Fall 2006: 13.2 Cume, 1.8 AQH, 645 stations

First, and most obvious, is that the weekly audience (Cume) for Morning Edition was 12.5 million or higher while Bob was still there. That's a much bigger audience for Bob Edwards than the "more than 10 million" listeners cited in the Sacramento Bee article.

Second, the weekly Cume is up. This is probably a real increase in audience even when you take into account that NPR's audience estimate software inappropriately counts some listeners twice (related article).

The national Cume for Morning Edition is up. The glass is half full.

The AQH, however, has not changed despite the increase in Cume and the increase in the number of stations carrying the program.

AQH is the Average-Quarter Hour audience. It's the average number of people who are listening to Morning Edition at any given moment. Think of it as the average number of people who hear any single story, feature, or national underwriting announcement. That number hasn't grown.

The weekly Cume is up and the AQH is unchanged, which means the average Morning Edition listener is spending less time with the program each week. What's causing this drop in time spent listening (TSL)?

The Radio Research Consortium just released overall Loyalty trends for public radio over the past seven Fall Arbitron surveys and the news isn't so good.

Some of the TSL drop is due to public radio listeners using less radio overall. But there also is an overall drop in Loyalty to public radio stations. That is, our listeners are still using the radio but they are spending a little less of that radio time with public radio and a little more of it with our commercial competition. That glass is half empty.

There's not a lot public radio can do about declining radio usage. Fixing the Loyalty problem is not only possible, it is essential to fill the audience glass again. On average public radio listeners spend two-thirds of their radio listening time with commercial stations. Capturing a few percentage points of that listening would do wonders for public radio's overall audience and donor growth.

To NPR's credit, it is sponsoring workshops (Morning Edition Grad School) to help stations make their local presentations of Morning Edition stronger. That's a start.

Stations, however, have to take a long hard look at the times of low audience Loyalty on their program schedules and find ways to improve. Audiences are too fragile to waste any daypart on under performing programming.

It's all well and good to put on a positive public face when discussing the audience. Public Relations is a fact of business life and public radio's audience success story is a strong one, even with the recent decline in the overall audience and the flattening of the Morning Edition AQH.

That PR story shouldn't be confused with the one that shows public radio needs to take more aggressive action to keep the audience it has. Otherwise, the glass will continue to empty.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

What public radio needs is competition.
Why do we have a "hands off" un-written rule when it comes to a city where the public radio station sucks? (Still plays classical, has a lame local talk show, crappy local news.)
Another public radio station should be able to pop up and do it right.
Radio stations are expensive to run - licenses are hard to come by.
But is there an easier way for an established public radio outfit with a proven track record to move into a underserved market?
I'd like to know.

5:16 PM  
Anonymous Charlie Summers said...

Thank you for correcting the obviously-inaccurate figures in that "cheerleading" column. It's clear the author of that column didn't perform the bare minimum of fact-checking; had he done so, he would have found articles from the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, and others listing Morning Edition's ratings under Bob Edwards; indeed, Kevin Klose's statement before the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet in 2002 listed ME's listenership at, "about 13 million;" to suggest it was only 10-million in 2004 is plain silliness (or the former CEO is open to Contempt of Congress).

What I admit I can't understand is why a host and the executive producer of the program would provide such wildly-inaccurate figures just to make themselves appear to have achieved more than they have (or anything at all, for that matter)? This isn't PR, this comes much closer to bald-faced lying, and they should be above such petty nonsense. And if they are willing to warp the truth here, how much trust can we place in the veracity of the program on which they work?

11:32 AM  
Blogger RadioSutton said...

I'm not sure where the 10 million number came from. Note that Renee refers "800,000 new listeners" in the article. The 800,000 is consistent with the jump from 12.5 million to 13.3 million Cume listeners. She got that part right so there is a disconnect between Renee's quote and the 10 million number.

I'd argue with calling them all "new" listeners since the audience was 13 million back in 2001. I can also pretty much guarantee that Renee and Ellen McDonnell aren't looking at the numbers as carefully as the researchers do. Having worked with both of them, I can tell you that neither would intentionally lie about the size of the audience. Just wouldn't happen. Perhaps they remembered wrong. Perhaps the 10 million number came from some other NPR department and it was accepted at face value.

It is surprising that a story could be published with such wrong information. That's a problem for both NPR and the Sac Bee. The real disappointment, however, is that neither NPR nor the Sac Bee seem interested in correcting the mistake by rewriting or pulling the article.

1:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, the real figure is the increase in radio stations that are NPR Affiliates. The fact that they have added some 60 stations, more than likely in various market sizes, and the numbers have remained the same actually indicate less interest in the program.

The listener of today needs to be younger, but younger listeners clearly desire more variety in their schedules outside of the new "talk-centric" public radio schedules that consultants are advising.

The figures clearly show much more success in wooing publics to join the NPR ranks and steer clear of locally-produced programming.

1:38 PM  
Blogger RadioSutton said...

Re: competition. No, there is no easy way for the best-run radio stations to come in to town and compete with under performing stations. When that has happened, such as MPR taking over at KPCC, the market was better off because of it. That's one of the reasons I think NPR's best shows should be on satellite radio in real time. The competition would be good and local stations would have to make their local programming great.

WiMax is still a long way off, but it will have the same effect. Listeners will get to pick from hundreds of versions of Morning Edition and dozens of mid-morning public radio talk shows. All it will take is a 10% erosion in a station's audience to feel the impact. Then that station has to get better, or become a smaller station.

1:44 PM  
Anonymous Charlie Summers said...

Having worked with both of them, I can tell you that neither would intentionally lie about the size of the audience. Just wouldn't happen.

Hum...but then, one might suggest that certain other people at NPR wouldn't lie about Edwards refusing a co-host, or any of the other "mis-statements" leaked from the company that eventually required a letter to the stations to "correct."

I haven't "worked" with those people (although at one time, back when I financially supported NPR, you might say they worked for me), but I've seen how the pinstripes there throw anything they can against the wall hoping something sticks, just to avoid taking responsibility for bad decisions. Trusting these specific employees not to puff themselves and their employing organization up with a convenient fabrication is a stretch I am not willing to make, especially considering the tone of their quoted comments in the column.

The 800,000 is consistent with the jump from 12.5 million to 13.3 million Cume listeners

Granted, they love to use that 800K number to justify the "success" of the dual-host-dual-coast format. But even there, they conveniently forget to mention the small things, like a hotly-contested presidential election which is more likely the cause for the bump than having the hosts running around taking airtime away from the reporters who actually know a story, especially considering the fallback suffered the following year even though the number of stations airing the program continued to increase. That, though, you can rightly call PR and not an outright lie like the 10-mil figure...had they stuck to that, we wouldn't be having this discussion now. They didn't. I'm not as charitable as you, to blame some nebulous "other department" - I know the author interviewed those two, and he clearly isn't adventurous enough to fact-check, so why would I assume he worked hard enough to call someone else at NPR?

The real disappointment, however, is that neither NPR nor the Sac Bee seem interested in correcting the mistake by rewriting or pulling the article.

I am not surprised at NPR, to be blunt, but I emailed the sourced articles I included here to the author as well as the publiceditor@ address at the SacBee with no result. Apparently they don't think a columnist ignoring little things like fact-checking is a problem.

And we wonder why people are mistrustful of the media in general?

7:44 PM  
Blogger RadioSutton said...

The Sac Bee correction:

12:05 PM  

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