It's the Steak, Not the Sizzle
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 Current.org.
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.