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.
Labels: Arbitron, Morning Edition, NPR, Public Radio