Friday, October 22, 2010

Fox Reports, Public Radio Listeners Decide

Day Two of the Juan Williams predicament. We've heard from about a dozen stations holding pledge drives. All of them are fielding lots of complaints about NPR's firing of Juan Williams. But they still are meeting or exceeding pledge drive goals. New member results appear to be as strong as usual.

What's up with that, you ask?

It turns out there are two types of complaint calls -- those coming from thoughtful, calm people who express their disappointment at NPR's handling of the situation and those coming from people who were incited to call by watching Fox News.

A large number of callers are claiming to be donors but their names do not appear in the station's donor database. Very few current donors are asking for refunds on contributions.

We're also starting to hear about people giving additional gifts to the station. That's not surprising given the calls to eliminate federal funding for public radio. Loud opposition to federal funding always motivates listeners to give.

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Juan Williams and the Opinions of Journalists

NPR terminated the contract of Juan Williams yesterday in response to a comment he made on Fox's Bill O'Reilly Show. Here's what he said, according to

"I mean, look, Bill, I'm not a bigot. You know the kind of books I've written about the civil rights movement in this country," Williams told host Bill O'Reilly during a discussion on the dilemma between fighting jihadists and fears about average Muslims.

"But when I get on a plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they're identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous," Williams said.

This incident comes at an interesting time for public radio. There is a movement in the industry towards having journalists do more of their work in the first person. The idea is that reporters also have to have some personality and let the listeners know who they are and that will attract a bigger audience. Sometimes that means including the reporter's laugh in the final edit. Sometimes that's injecting the reporter's personal anecdote into a story. Sometimes that's allowing the reporters to share an opinion on the topic or subject of the report.

It was suggested twice on the closing day of last month's Public Radio Programming Conference that it's okay for a reporter's opinion, even bias, to show as long as the report itself is balanced. The concept even has a name -- "opinionated journalism."

That seems to be a slippery slope, one that leads straight to the current situation with Juan Williams. Once personal opinions become part of the on-air equation, who gets to decide which reporter opinions are appropriate for air -- the reporter, the editor, the supervisor, the Board of Directors, a corporate funder, a major donor? Even more to the point, who gets to decide which opinions are appropriate for employment in the newsroom in the first place?

Everyone has an opinion. Everyone is biased. Public radio news listeners expect that bias to be put aside in the name of honest, accurate journalism. It is one of the most treasured standards of professionalism in our industry. It's one of our Core Values.

There's room in public radio for opinions. There's room in public radio for journalism. But as the Juan Williams story unfolds, it's pretty clear they don't mix. "Opinionated journalism" is not only a bad idea, it's an oxymoron.

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Monday, October 18, 2010

New Study Shows I Was Wrong

A new study from the Peyou Research Center overwhelming shows that I was wrong in everything I believed about public radio. The study, conducted among 2,426 public radio listeners around the country, shows that everything I thought I knew about pledge drives, programming, and audience response was, in fact, wrong. The margin of error is four percent.

For decades, everything I’ve blogged about and presented at conferences – wrong. Every single recommendation as NPR Research Director and as a station consultant – you might as well just believe the opposite. Some highlights from the study:

Pledge Drives

Listeners actually love pledge drives. Foremost, they treasure the break from regular programming, especially when the news is hard to take. Survey comments show that nothing relieves the tension of ongoing wars and economic woes more than hearing about a new stainless steel travel mug. As one 44 year old female respondent put it, “I often turn the radio up during the pledge break because the announcers are so entertaining as they debate the hue of the station logo. You need that after hearing the tragic stories of tiny children in war-torn countries.” The study also shows that 98% of donors do believe the sweatshirt alone is worth the $150 they spent on it.


Contradictory to everything I thought I knew, listeners, including most young listeners, love opera and any other broadcast aimed at the highest common denominator. In fact, they value and commend public radio for raising the common denominator to record levels. It keeps the low-lifes out of the audience. This point was especially strong among listeners with at least 3 post-graduate degrees whose parents forced them to take singing lessons through high school.


Listeners also like self-indulgent correspondents and hosts who talk in the first person, inject personal references into their stories and use the phrase “If you’re like me.” The study shows that most listeners (83%) really do want to be just like the person they are listening to at that exact moment, even though they’ve never seen them. And that bring us to the most stunning finding of all, the one where I was most wrong.

There are way more Black and Hispanics listening to public radio than I ever thought. Tons more. It turns out that listening to public radio’s elite and highbrow announcers make minority listeners feel “just like them” – White! So when Arbitron asks about their ethnicity...

Who knew?

Not me. I was wrong.



Looking ahead to future posts -- why trying to attract more public radio listeners using first person reporting and satire might be a bad idea.

Monday, October 11, 2010

It's the Steak, Not the Sizzle

Last month’s Public Radio Programming Conference was heavy on new technology and the changing media landscape. There was also a lot of discussion about how public radio programming must change to get new listeners.

On the last day, NPR presented new research defining audience segments that represent growth opportunities. There’s a lot to like about this research but there are some findings and conclusions that generate concern. You can read more about it at

On the up side, NPR’s new research provides audience insights that will help with promotion, marketing, and fundraising. There are also good insights on how listeners are using public radio and other news outlets across media platforms. This should be useful to programmers as they consider how to serve listeners over the air, on-line, and through mobile devices.

Once again, however, public radio is confronted with a study that says a key to future radio audience growth is an issue of style over substance. Public radio’s “eilte” and “highbrow” sound have again been targeted as a barrier to entry for non-listeners, especially minorities and younger adults. This is an over-simplification that public radio cannot afford to accept. Here are some reasons why:

1. It Ain’t Broke. Public radio’s current style is growing audiences in the face of declining radio usage. If “style” is in play as a barrier to listening, then it must also be considered a factor in attracting and keeping listeners. Changing it will have a negative impact on the current audience.

2. All Content Helps Determine Who Listens. Imagine a young and hip sounding story or interview on Morning Edition immediately followed by a local announcement asking listeners to remember public radio in their wills. Increasingly, the underwriting announcements on public radio are aimed at the medical, retirement, and on luxury item interests of listeners ages 50 and older. A quick tour through the NPR program rundowns this year reveals many interviews with people who are culturally significant to Baby Boomers but not to younger Gen Xers and older Millennials.

The NPR newsmagazines represent less than half of all listening done to the public radio stations that carry them. It is folly to believe that minor changes to NPR’s style will result in major changes in program or station audience composition. Public radio makes this mistake again and again. Significantly different results require a significantly different effort, not just tweaks to the core programs.

3. Demographic segmentation, not aggregation, is a four decade long trend in media. Audiences are becoming more niche. They are not broadening. There’s a great saying for this, “25 to 54 is not a demographic, it’s a family reunion.” Public radio might be able to attract younger listeners with different content on new media platforms, but it’s not going to grow the younger audience among broadcast listeners without losing Core listeners, and donors, among the 50+ audience.

In the past decade NPR replaced Bob Edwards with Steve Inskeep and Renee Montagne. The program is more conversational, moves at a quicker pace, and lets the hosts interject first person references and laugh out loud. The Takeaway was specifically designed to address the “problem” of public radio’s style. In the past two years, This American Life and Planet Money have reinvented economics reporting making tough issues easier to understand by “talking the way normal people talk.”

Yet the latest research once again shows that public radio’s elite and highbrow sound remains a barrier to growth. Changing hosts and presentation style hasn’t changed the perception. Public radio’s audience has grown despite the perception among non-listeners that it is elite and highbrow. That doesn’t add up, unless the objections to public radio’s style are not the true barrier to listening.

It could very well be that public radio’s audience has grown, in part, because of its style. No one is asking new listeners why they have come to public radio and how they became core listeners. Unfortunately, there seems to be little interest in researching and understanding public radio’s ongoing success. And that could turn out to be quite harmful to public radio’s audience growth in the future.


Digital idea: Radio presents barriers to growth because the formats are becoming more niche and because of limited bandwidth. Decades ago, research David Giovannoni suggested public radio could develop two news networks -- NPR "old" and NPR "young," if you will.

The industry might not have enough radio stations to pull off two separate networks but there is sufficient bandwidth on the web to do that. What if there was a separate "program director" of an NPR web service (web site plus social media) aimed at younger listeners? Imagine being able to pull from NPR content plus PRX and other resources to target an under-40 crowd on the web. All of the content, including ads and promotions could be aimed at that audience. That would be an important and worthwhile experiment in attracting a demographically different audience.

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