Monday, March 31, 2008

Membership: The End is Not Near

Public radio's membership model has been pronounced dead several times in the last few years. Streaming was going to kill it. Satellite radio was going to kill it. Podcasting was going to kill it.

The method of death was going to be listeners leaving their local stations in droves, and therefore, unwilling to donate. That's not going to happen.

No question, change is coming and public radio has to deal with it. Proclamations that the membership model is dead are just flat wrong because they assume the industry has no growth potential.

We know from industry benchmarks that public radio listening and giving is not a fixed-size pie. There is room to gain more radio listening from the current audience. There is room to grow the size of the radio audience even among public radio's current demographic/psychographic niche. Every station can grow its donor base by getting better at acquiring and keeping donors.

Assuming that pubic radio has no growth potential is one of the two fundamental flaws in the "membership model is dead" proclamation. The other flaw is quite typical among forward thinkers in any field. In fact, it is hard to champion any new idea without suffering from this flaw. Let's call it "The Flaw of Universal Truth."

The Flaw of Universal Truth is applying an idea -- typically a new idea -- equally across all circumstances. A recent example was a blog posting from a Web 2.0 guru who decided to bypass donating to his local station in favor giving money directly to the This American Life podcast. Therefore, he concluded, all listeners will stop giving to their stations and give only to the programs of their choice. And that means the public radio membership model is dead.

The most obvious flaw here is the assumption that "what applies to 'me' applies to all." Any researcher knows not to fall in that trap. But there is a deeper flaw in the logic, which is the assumption that listeners giving directly to a program or network has to be bad for the station. It could end up being very good for public radio.

The best way to grow the public radio donor base is to get more listeners to give more often. If giving directly to programs or networks is a way to do that, then it should be explored.

Public radio's donor base could experience double digit growth if "giving platforms" were to expand as much as "listening platforms."

Offering more ways to give creates more opportunities to succeed. There are dozens of creative ways to go about getting more donors once those new avenues are opened.

The issue, then, isn't getting donors. Public radio knows how to do that. The industry just has a self-imposed limit on how it does it. The issue is the business model, how the money flows. The concept is simple. The more money raised by networks and programs, the less stations have to pay for those programs. Maybe those programs are even free to stations in this model.

Skeptics will offer dozens of reasons why this won't work, but it can. Just recently, NPR reworked its pricing model for Morning Edition to save stations money. Who would have thought that even a year ago?

Change is coming and public radio has to adapt, but contrary to today's perceptions, public radio has a good history of adaptation and evolution. Just pull out any station programming schedule, audience profile, or membership statistics from 1998, 1988, and 1978 and you'll see.

Labels: , ,

Friday, March 28, 2008

Give Listeners the Right Reasons and They Will Give

Northwest Public Radio out of Pullman, Washington held a 1-Day Pledge Drive yesterday raising $262,500 from just over 2,400 pledges. That was about 9% over goal and better results than last year's 7-day drive.

The 1-Day drive was pioneered by WKSG in Binghamton, NY and refined by KBBI in Homer, Alaska. It has succeeded in other markets as well, most recently at WOUB in Athens, Ohio.

Stations achieve this success without using sweepstakes, challenge grants, or premiums.

Even in a down economy.

The point here isn't that every station should hold a 1-Day Pledge Drive, though more would benefit from doing so.

The point is that listeners will give money to a station without all the trappings of traditional pledge drives. They do because they want, and need, the programming. Properly motivated, they will give quickly and generously. Public radio, as an industry, needs to get better at motivating them.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Big, But Not Yet Radio Big

Statistics have a way of bringing perspective to the new media conversation. The most notable item of late -- that 10 million NPR podcasts are downloaded each month.

That's a mighty impressive number in the Web 2.0 world. It's a tiny number in radio.

This has been covered before at radiosutton, but it is worth covering again. The average audience for an hour of Morning Edition is just over 2 million listeners. There are typically 10 content elements in each hour of Morning Edition including newscasts on the hour and half hour, top news stories, in-depth features, news analysis, and commentaries.

If each content element is the equivalent of 1 podcast download, then all of the listening during an hour of Morning Edition is the equivalent of 20 million podcast downloads.

That's 20 million downloads for one hour of radio versus 10 million downloads of podcasts in a month.

Of course, podcasting isn't the only new media outlet for public radio content. On-line streaming audiences, small by today's broadcasting standards, will grow, especially when listeners have inexpensive access to wireless streaming in their cars. Podcasting will reach cars wirelessly too.

The first-time I heard of such a thing was from NPR's Senior VP of Engineering Mike Starling. He was telling some folks at NPR that the day would come when listeners could bypass stations by having customized news, weather, traffic, sports, interviews, features, and music sent directly to their cars overnight. The listener would wake up in the morning to a personalized radio station for his commute.

Starling was saying these things back in 1996.

It's a good reminder that ideas and technology are well ahead of commercialization and ubiquitous use. Change is coming, but it is going to be a while before new media comes close usage to matcheing the sheer volume of radio listening.

Even that's not a zero sum game. There's no rule that says public radio has to trade an hour of broadcast listening for an hour of new media consumption.

So the next time someone points to a new trend in new media and uses as an example of how public radio is dying, help them with their math. What's big in new media is still tiny compared to the reach and volume of service public radio provides today.

Next up: Why predictions of the death of public radio's membership model are off base.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Forgive Us Our Deficiencies

Arbitron's Portable People Meter (PPM) shows that public radio's on-air pledge drives cause significant disruption in listening patterns. Daily Cume and daily time spent listening almost always drop, sometimes by more than half.

Early PPM results also show that listening comes back up to pre-drive levels within days of the drive's conclusion. A quick look at commercial radio listening also shows pretty fast recovery times after tune-out events.

Initially, the fast recovery times seem surprising. But they shouldn't be.

Roughly two-thirds of the audience at any given moment are core listeners to a station. They listen to that station more than any other. They obviously like the programming. They became core listeners in spite of pledge drives, commercials, and the occasional bad music selection, talk show guest, or talent miscue.

In short, they have learned to work around or live with the station's deficiencies.

Knowing this isn't a license to abuse the audience. There's probably a fine line between acceptance and intolerance on many programming choices. But this behavior shows the power of programming that resonates with the listener. And it's a excellent reminder that investing in good content and great execution always has a payoff.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Demise of Age/Sex Demographics?

Arbitron's Portable People Meter (PPM) data reaffirms public radio's appeal to college educated listeners. Public radio's ratings performance is best among people with a college degree or higher.

While college educated listeners are our strength, the majority of college educated listeners don't use public radio on a weekly basis. The data suggest that public radio might still be more a niche medium than we thought.

That niche has served public radio well. That niche will serve public radio well into the future and it might provide an example to all radio stations trying to succeed in a constantly fragmenting media marketplace.

Age/Sex demographics are great for selling radio time as long there are fewer choices for listeners and a substantial audience has been aggregated. But the industry is moving in the opposite direction. Age/sex demographics will be far less useful if HD is the success the radio industry wants it to be, slicing the audience into even smaller cuts. The same holds true as listeners disperse to other sources of radio-like content.

Those who sell underwriting for public radio understand the challenges of trying to explain it to potential buyers. It's not a big format like "country" or "rock." Those big formats have been going away for a while. The process will accelerate.

The niche market of the future will have even more formats and flavors of formats than there are today. There will come a point when naming a format and showing the demos won't be a strong enough sell. It will require explanation and better research to describe the audience.

The question is, will we have that research or will radio be stuck selling in a new market with an old sales model?

Labels: , , , ,

Saturday, March 08, 2008

It's About Listeners, Not Us

One of the hallmarks of public radio programming is its near universal practice of shining the radio spotlight on others. The best program hosts, reporters, and commentators present stories and facilitate discussions with passion and an attention for details that make them jump out of the radio and stick. Egos are put aside in favor of providing a service to the listeners.

This listener-centric approach is critical to public radio's future success on the radio and on the web, especially on the web.

If you can find the time, scan some user-generated content on-line. Most of it is about the user. It's not created with an audience or a public service objective in mind. This even happens on sites designed to be a service. How many times have you gone to a favorite industry or hobby blog only to read an off-point account about the author's vacation, newly deceased pet, or pet peeve with the local government?

The argument for such personal content is that it helps the reader get to know the author. This argument, by the way, is typically made by the author and not the readers.

In public radio we know that familiarity isn't built that way. People trust our hosts and reporters for the value they create in the listeners' lives. In time, those hosts and reporters become friends.

Public radio's niche is not following the Web 2.0 pack by offering up creator-centric content. It is in steadfastly sticking to the core value that our service is about listeners, not us.

Labels: ,