Sunday, January 31, 2010

Grow the Audience: By the Numbers

The Grow the Audience project set three broad audience growth goals for public radio. Over the next decade, the project aspires to:

1. Increase the average audience – the number of people using public radio at any given moment – to half again as large as it is today.

2. Double the number of people who use public radio every week – on-air, online, and on other platforms.

3. Triple the amount of listening by people of color.

The numbers are intentionally vague at this time because of Arbitron's transition from diaries to PPM measurement, and that's appropriate. Still, the concepts adopted by the project leaders point to very specific actions required to meet the goals.

The first goal, increasing the average audience, validates public radio's multi-decade strategy of increasing audience loyalty through strengthening programming. Average audience grows when the current audience chooses to listen to public radio more times per week.

To meet this goal, stations are going to have to jettison underperforming programs. The challenge facing the SRG and CPB is developing a compelling case for change at stations that have chosen to ignore best programming practices for the last decade or more. Additionally, the networks have to improve or discard programs that are average or below average performers. There is no room for "good enough" on the network level.

The second goal, doubling the weekly audience across all platforms, will prove tricky to measure. Currently, there is no measurement of unduplicated broadcast, streaming, and time-shifted audience. The weekly broadcast broadcast audience will increase significantly if the "average audience" goal is achieved, but it will not double.

The on-line audience, streaming or time-shifted (on-demand or podcasting), will most certainly double in the next decade. That won't be difficult to achieve. Determining how many of these on-line listeners are new to public radio will prove difficult. It might require proprietary, and expensive, research to measure this.

The third goal is tripling the amount of listening by people of color. For the first time on a national level, a diversity goal is properly stated. The non-white audience must grow faster than the white audience for public radio to diversify. Anything less is status quo.

As we've written before on this blog, that will be extremely expensive. The cost to create an hour of listening from a new target audience is always more expensive than the cost of creating an hour of listening from the current audience.

Tripling the number of minority listeners to public radio stations will cost hundreds of millions of dollars over the ten years envisioned by SRG and CPB. The costs could be lower if most of that new listening is on-line or through media partners with existing minority audiences. Still, the cost of growing the minority audience faster than the white audience will be great.

CPB's past investments in minority audience growth have been too little to make a measurable difference in minority audience growth. Projects such as Talent Quest are a move in the right direction, but fall far short of the amount of content needed to meet the growth goals.

On the whole, the Grow the Audience goals are spot on. There aren't enough resources to meet them all so priority-setting becomes critical. And the Grow the Audience report was a bit vague on the lines of accountability for meeting these goals. That will be the topic of our next post.

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Anonymous John Proffitt said...

Oooh... I like that idea of "public radio" folks getting involved with existing media outlets that cater to minority audiences. That makes a ton of sense. Seems to me that strategy has several beenfits:

[1] You're much more likely to reach the audience goals because you can leverage existing consumption patterns and relationships -- there are built-in audiences to whom you can appeal.

[2] The audience goals should be cheaper to reach (utilize existing platforms -- don't build whole new ones).

[3] This approach shows respect for the existing media outlets and communities; rather than looking down the collective public media nose at other outlets, saying "we know better," it clearly says: "You have media, we respect it; can we work with you? We *need* your expertise."

That's some bold thinking and I suspect it would have a hard time getting traction in the hallowed halls of public broadcasting. But I hope it's embraced.

I can easily imagine Univision, Telemundo and BET (and other networks I don't know because I'm not part of that world) making use of top-notch commercial-free public service media as part of their portfolios or as a new joint venture of sorts. I hope someone follows up on this exciting idea and thinks it through.

12:58 AM  
Blogger Aaron Read said...

I like your analysis, John...but to play devil's advocate a bit: aren't the first and third goals incompatible?

Given that building a non-white audience has proven incredibly difficult for NPR to do, despite a lot of airtime and money invested in it...isn't that inherently an "underperforming" initiative?

Obviously I'm taking a logical outgrowth to an illogical extreme, but I'd love to know where to draw that line.

Also worth noting: I'm not necessarily as down on "underperforming" shows as your post would suggest I should be. My reason is that there are certain times of the day for all stations (less so for major market players, of course) where you'll have a small audience no matter what show you air then. Accordingly, I think it's a viable strategy to air "weaker" shows during those times if there's at least some small audience for it. Especially if there's little or no cost for such shows.

It's possible you might actually feel the exact same way, but I'd be concerned that some PD's would take your article as justification for airing four hours each of ME and ATC and then right to the BBC, ya know?

6:24 PM  
Blogger Aaron Read said...

Interesting. Bob Bittner (O&O of WJIB 740AM) just posted on a thread about Howard Stern's next move after his contract with XM/Sirius expires in a year. He says that Howard's got the ability, should he choose, to run a really sharp progressive (or even left-wing) talk show.

It occurs to me that Bob is spot-on. I never cared for Howard's fart & lesbian jokes schtick, but you can't deny he's very smart, very skilled at radio, and he's a genius at getting callers to say exactly what he wants them to say.

Going further, if he wanted to (a big "if") I'd opine that Howard could run an excellent national daily talk show for NPR/pubradio stations. Think The Colbert Report but less snarky, more angry, and more cutting...and with callers.

Sound crazy? Maybe so, but maybe not...even if 90% of Howard's audience leaves after one show because he (presumably) wouldn't be doing the fart & lesbian jokes anymore? That still leaves several hundred thousand new listeners to NPR. Not too shabby for the first day out the gate. And there's a good chance that audience would skew a lot younger than the standard NPR demo. It could a long way to achieving the Grow the Audience goals.

Of course, would Howard be willing to do it? And can NPR (or anyone else in public radio) afford to pay him enough? And how many stations would have the stones to air him at all, or at any time other than overnights (safe harbor)? Those are tough questions to answer.

12:41 AM  
Blogger RadioSutton said...

Thanks for the ocmments. John, thanks for commending me on a bold idea. But... the idea of using delivery platforms not owned by public radio is not new. We had many conversations anout that in the early 90s when I was Research Director at NPR. We even talked about unbranded newscasts for commercial stations. Our goal should be "to be heard." Where are how is increasingly irrelevant. I guess this is a case where the idea got lost along the way.

Aaron, as for underprforming dayparts. We do know they are underperforming by looking at AudiGraphics analysis. We can see public radio listeners using the radio, but choosing commerical stations instead of us. The more that happens, the more a program is underperforming. The information exists. The willingness to act is the issue.

1:25 PM  

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