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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Anonymous Tapeleg said...

It is way past time for your digital idea to happen. There are enough quality public radio shows that will never see the light of day on a station's primary feed, and deserve a distribution channel. An internet radio station with a real interest in these alternatives would be the perfect way to program towards a younger audience. And while there have been attempts in the past to cater towards a younger audience, an internet station that does so isn't going to eat up the resources of a station with an FM or AM signal.

HD radio secondary channels come to mind as well, but I don't know anyone who listens to HD radio, and I know plenty who are listening to the internet.

Great idea.

11:35 AM  
Blogger Aaron Read said...

Hi John,

I wonder if a major problem with pubradio's audience is that most public radio stations operate their promotion on a "let the mountain come to Mohammad" model...where they don't really promote themselves at all outside of their existing audience, and instead rely on people eventually deciding to seek public radio out. Or stumble across them.

For example, you don't really see many public radio stations on billboards. Or co-promoting events outside of their core audience. Or out in the field holding events at underwriters' businesses or even just at an event in the field, period.

Granted, you ARE seeing pubradio stations learning to leverage social media better than many of their commercial colleagues, but even then I see a lot of pubradio Facebook pages with a lot of dry, boring posts. You rarely see the more "dirty laundry" posts that tend to captivate the voyeur in all Facebook users. (I'm speaking very metaphorically here, of course, but I think my point stands)

1:01 PM  
Blogger RadioSutton said...

It's a good question Aaron, but marketing isn't the answer. It's the content. I'm going to do a full posting on that in the next few days.

7:57 AM  

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