Friday, February 05, 2010

Grow the Audience: Accountability Begins at CPB

Accountability is perhaps this biggest challenge for the Grow the Audience project. We wrote about this last year. The project will not meet its goals without strong, mutual accountability among stations, the networks, program providers, and CPB, which will provide significant funding for Grow the Audience initiatives.

The nature of the industry requires that much of that accountability will be voluntary. CPB can, and does, require some accountability from grantees, but those requirements – such as the Audience Service Criteria – are minimal.

It is extremely important that CPB takes a leadership role in accountability. That not only means supporting mechanisms of accountability, it also means that CPB should lead by example. How? By publishing its own goals, regularly reporting on its results, and when necessary, outlining steps it might take to improve its results.

This isn’t as simple as it sounds. CPB is not held accountable by its board or Congress for the audience performance of its programming investments. It never has been and it probably never will be.

Read the annual reports from CPB from the past several years and you will note that CPB reports on how it spent tax payer dollars on radio, but not on the results of that spending. For several years, CPB listed absolutely no audience numbers for radio in its annual reports. That improved a bit in the 2008, but not enough.

For example, there is no report on CPB’s site or in its annual reports showing the number of minority listeners to public radio over the years even though that has been a CPB funding priority. It’s no wonder the minority audience hasn’t grown. No one is actually held responsible for it.

There is one ironic twist to CPB's reporting of audience numbers. The 2008 annual report does tout audience growth for one CPB-funded program -- Weekend America. That program was cancelled by its producer, APM, at the end of 2008 due to budget cuts and "weak prospects for carriage... foundation... and corporate support."

CPB is evaluated based on whether it spends its funding the way it says it will. It is highly unlikely that its board will adopt new evaluation criteria unless dictated by Congress. To create the type of mutual accountability necessary to make Grow the Audience a success, CPB must embrace results-based evaluation criteria and it must make those criteria public. Here’s one possibility.

CPB could help establish an industry website that aggregates information on system-wide diversification efforts. One section could be on audience and another section could house information on diversification of staff.

On the audience side, CPB would publish the goals of its diversity initiatives, the programs or stations it is funding to reach those goals, and regular reports on the audience performance of those programs. All stations and programs receiving CPB funding would be required to participate. Producers and stations not receiving CPB funding could post their activities and results as well.

The key here is CPB’s full participation. Without it, it’s simply business as usual in public radio. This is CPB’s Grow the Audience project. CPB is championing these goals. If CPB doesn’t take the lead on full, mutual accountability, who will?

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