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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Anonymous Lisa said...

This sounds a promising idea for research: targeting value groups instead of demographic groups to expand audience. How are those 8 values groups defined? Is it from some factor analysis of audience survey data? I'm a producer at Wisconsin Public Radio and a PhD student studying people's media habits. I find this blog entry very stimulating and promising for further research.

2:20 PM  
Blogger RadioSutton said...

VALS is a syndiacated service. You can read more here.

Public radio listeners, identified through their response to Arbitron surveys, participated in a recontact study that linked their VALS data (and other survey responses) to their radio listening as measured by Arbitron.

4:37 PM  

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