Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Batman Versus Spiderman

Some random thoughts:

A lot of what passes for interaction on the web, even among the Web 2.0 thinkers, amounts to nothing more than a Batman versus Spiderman debate. It's going to take consistently strong leadership to ensure that public radio space on the web becomes more than a place where people post their entrenched opinions.

Public radio risks giving up a lot of brand equity among current listeners by calling itself "public media." The word "media" is a poor choice for marketing the service to new users, especially to those people who have a negative reaction to the world. Think "mainstream media" or "media elite."

It's been more than a decade since public radio's first big initiative to get more Black listeners. Instead of calling those who do not listen "underserved audiences" maybe they should be called "undeserved audiences."

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Friday, August 15, 2008

If Public Radio Really Wants to Grow the Audience

As noted before, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is investing in a new project to grow public radio's audience.

Signifcantly increasing the audience is no easy challenge. Only one of the three past major audience growth initiatives has succeeded. That was the audience doubling project of the 1980s. While that project failed to meet its goal on time, it helped create the foundation for nearly 20 years of growth.

The other two initiatives (if they could be called that)-- getting younger listeners and getting more Black and Hispanic listeners -- haven't come close to succeeding.

The reason is simple.

The goals were wrong.

Public radio never set out to reach a specific demographic with its original programming. The current demographics are a reflection, a side-effect even, of the values embedded in the programming. Even the most predictive public radio demographic characteristic, level of formal education, is only a proxy for what really explains public radio's success.

People listen to public radio programming because it speaks to them. Public radio resonates with their interests and values. Most people who don't listen choose to not listen because public radio does not resonate with their interests and values. They choose to not listen because public radio doesn't speak to them.

We've known this for a while. In fact, the Grow the Audience project principals -- Tom Thomas, Terry Clifford, and George Bailey -- have done some of the most extensive work in public radio on the psychographics of public radio listeners. That would be the VALS (Values and Lifestyles)research that came out of Audience 88 and Audience 98.

Yet the initial work from the Grow the Audience project appears to be starting in the same place of past audience growth failures -- age and ethnicity -- and not with values and content.

Here's a link to a piece I wrote for Current nearly four years ago on this topic. The essential point of the piece is that reaching listeners with different values requires programming created by people with different values.

Public radio was fortunate that it's early leaders could articulate and turn into content public service ideas that ended up resonating with those people VALS describes as Innovators and Thinkers. Understanding those market segments helped public radio grow its audience.

It's entirely possible that the VALS research that served public radio so well during its 20-year growth phase has little or no application public radio's next growth phase. There might be better ways of looking at how non-listeners view themselves and see the world. Gaining that understanding is the first step in identifying new public service opportunities.

That's the discussion public radio should be having. From those discussions, thought leaders will emerge. Those leaders, who might not even be in public radio today, will lay the foundation of new, meaningful content and future audience growth. Getting there requires letting go of the idea that public radio can grow by chasing age/ethnic/education demographics.

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Monday, August 04, 2008

Why National Goals Matter

Today's topic is two interrelated industry-wide goals.

1. The Grow the Audience Project
2. The 3MG - 3 Million Givers - Project

Actually, the Grow the Audience Project doesn't have a goal yet, but it will have to for anyone to know if it is a success.

Industry-wide goals are an interesting beast. On the surface, they sound great. Then you get down to questions such as, "who benefits from having 3 million givers?" Or who benefits when public radio has an average audience of 2,000,000 listeners? The answer is relatively no one.

Sure, the big national numbers help CPB justify federal investment in public radio and they help get funding from some foundations, but they don't mean much to individual stations or program producers. Why should a small station in the Midwest care whether public radio has 3 million givers?

They irony of this is that it takes change on the part of individual stations and program producers to reach a "national" radio audience or membership goal. And that's why national goals matter. They serve as a focal point to help us all get better at what we do.

The original "double the audience" goal from the 1980s is a good example of this. The goal wasn't met on time but the collective effort resulted in better research tools, better programming strategies, opportunities to create new programs, a more professional approach to programming and on-air presentation, and better promotion efforts.

The 3MG project is off to a good start in this regard. DEI's Benchmark data is helping stations see their growth potential. NPR and DEI are collaborating on some powerful approaches to help stations get better direct mail results with lower costs and less effort. There are other plans in the works.

The Grow the Audience Project, initiated by CPB, is still in its early phases. Whatever goal is picked, it will have to have clear benefits to many stations for the project to be meaningful to the industry.

Just as 3MG is helping stations learn how a goal of 3 Million Givers can help them boost their own giver base, Grow the Audience needs to help stations answer the question, "how will this help Grow My Audience?"

If successful, then the Grow the Audience project will likely lead to the success of the 3MG project.

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