Friday, July 17, 2009

Grow the Audience:Defining Inclusiveness

In 1997, NPR published a major report, funded by CPB, on reaching more Black listeners with public radio. Twelve years later the industry is still trying to figure out how to do that.

One of the top goals of the CPB-funded Grow the Audience project is Inclusiveness. In public radio, that means achieving greater ethnic diversity.

It's been pointed out that targeting an audience by physical characteristics is an odd thing to do given that public radio is an industry focused on the mind. Yet that's pretty much a requirement that goes with receiving federal dollars. The problem, of course, is that physical characteristics say nothing about what people will find interesting to listen to on the radio.

The Grow the Audience project tries to address this by adding the demographic filter of college education to the ethnic demographics since education is a strong predictor of whether someone listens to public radio. That filter, however strong it is, is not a useful as it might appear.

Three decades ago, when researchers first learned that level of education was a power indicator of public radio listening, far fewer Blacks and Hispanics had college degrees. The educated "market" was predominately White and full of baby boomers coming of age.

The college educated population is very different today. It is not only more ethnically diverse, it is also more culturally diverse. This is quite evident when analyzing the educated population, particularly in large markets, using research tools like Scarborough or MRI.

College educated Black, Hispanic, and White consumers make very different media choices. They hold a different mix of jobs. Their political-affiliation profiles are different.

It is a mistake to assume that ethnicity, even filtered with level of education, is a sufficient starting point for reaching the goal of Inclusiveness. Those two demographic characteristics are not precise enough research tools in an increasingly complex media marketplace.

The listener's mind matters more.

If public radio is to become more inclusive it is going to have to address the issue of cultural diversity in its programming and management, locally and nationally. Inclusiveness must be defined by personal, social, and political interests and values.

Do that right and the ethnic audience numbers will fall into place. Stay the current course and twelve years from now Grow the Audience will look like just another failed academic exercise.

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