Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Are On-Line Listeners Even More "Elite?"

Among the comments AIR Executive Director Sue Schardt made to the NPR board is that NPR has attracted an audience that was "predominately white, liberal, highly educated, elite."

Elite is such an interesting word to use to describe public radio listeners, especially in the context of diversifying the audience.

What make them elite?

Certainly not being white. What about being liberal?

NPR refutes the claim that the audience skews liberal, showing a relatively even distribution of political orientation among its listeners. What about age?

It turns out that the median age of the NPR listener is 50, just 5 years older than the national average. Does being slightly older make one elite? Probably not.

What about education level? Does being well-educated make one elite?

NPR Podcast users are much younger than public radio users (33 vs 50), yet are more likely to have a college degree (83% vs. 68%).

If elitism and education go together, then public radio's on-line audience is shaping up to be more elite than its radio audience.

Maybe it's money that makes public radio listeners elite. The median household income in the U.S. is $53,600. For public radio users its $90,000 per year. For NPR Podcast users its $76,000. 33 years old and making $76,000 per year. Imagine how much money they will be making when they are 50.

If elitism and income go together, then public radio's on-line audience is shaping up to be more elite than its radio audience.

All of this runs counter to the rhetoric in public radio that on-line services are the answer to diversifying the audience. If anything, the current trend is for on-line to attract a younger, more educated, and wealthier version of the current audience.

NPR hasn't released data on the ethnicity of on-line listeners, it might not have that data, but that doesn't really matter. Even if the skin color of on-line listeners is more diverse, it doesn't mean those listeners will be less elite.

If the goal to diversify public radio by making it less elite, then the public radio's on-line efforts might be hurting rather than helping the cause.

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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Wittingly Growing the Audience We Have

What happened … is that we unwittingly cultivated a core audience that is predominately white, liberal, highly educated, elite. "Super-serve the core" — that was the mantra, for many, many years. This focus has, in large part, brought us to our success today. It was never anyone's intention to exclude anyone. -- Excerpt from comments by AIR Executive Director Sue Schardt to the NPR Board of Directors.

Actually, it was intentional.

It is an indisputable truth that every programming decision is a decision to serve a specific segment of the population. Every choice rules out far more people as potential listeners than it includes. That is how radio works. That is how all media work. To believe it could be otherwise is naïve. To spend as if it could be otherwise is folly.

By focusing on the building the core audience public radio programmers, managers and funders perfectly understood they were choosing to serve some listeners and exclude most others. After all, the majority of people in this country are not interested in hearing 8 minutes on credit default swaps or spending a few hours on a Saturday afternoon listening for the F-bomb to drop during the Met Opera’s broadcast premiere of Nixon in China.

Some history. In the late 1970s and early 1980s public radio attracted a very small and unique audience. Those listeners turned out to be knowledge-seeking global citizens who were curious about science, had a strong interest in art and culture, possessed diverse tastes in music, were concerned about community and committed to social causes.

Those listeners came from population segments now known as Innovators and Thinkers, as described by VALS research from SRI. Innovators and Thinkers are mostly white, highly-educated, and have above average household incomes. Today, they represent about 25% of the U.S. adult population and the overwhelming majority of public radio’s weekly audience.*

Beginning in the mid-1980s, public radio wittingly chose to use research and good radio practices to serve Innovators and Thinkers better. In doing so, public radio chose to exclude from its audience most of the other 75% of the U.S. adult population, people who didn’t necessarily have Innovator/Thinker traits or at least a high enough concentration of them to find public radio’s content of personal value.

There are several reasons this was a good choice. First, there were not enough resources to serve 100% of the population, or even 50% of it, well. There still aren’t enough today. It’s taken hundreds of radio stations, billions of dollars, and decades of work for public radio to build the audience it has. Second, public radio’s federal funding came under attack in the early 1980s. Industry leaders correctly recognized that the audience it had could help support public radio financially, especially if that audience grew. Third, the people in public radio, with a few exceptions, weren't capable of making programming for people who weren’t like them. That’s still true today.

By concentrating resources on the listeners it naturally attracted, and choosing to not serve most of the population, public radio efficiently and effectively grew a sustainable audience. It’s an audience that has grown in the face of strong competition from new media and a serious decline in overall radio usage.

The path public radio followed to achieve its current audience success is still the right path to follow if public radio wants to serve a different segment of the population. That segment has to be identified by its interests and values (not the color of its skin) and it has to be super-served by people who share those same interests and values.

Anything less would be a waste of time and money.

* Source: Audience 98. SRI changed VALS segmentation slightly over the years. Innovators and Thinkers used to be Actualizers and Fulfilleds.

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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Failure to Diversify is a Leadership Issue

There's nothing like a Federal Funding crisis to send public radio into fits of guilt over the size and diversity of its audience. The latest wave seems to be started by Sue Schardt, Executive Director of the Association of Independents in Public Radio (AIR). She spoke to the NPR Board about rethinking public radio's programming strategies and who public radio serves. Her comments appeared in the industry newspaper Current.

For Schardt, it's not enough to have 11% of the U-S population listen to public radio weekly and more than 20% listen monthly. That's right. 20% of Americans listen to public radio each month according to the audience estimates created by Station Resource Group (SRG) for 170 Million Americans campaign. Twenty percent!

And Schardt is let down by that.

Her disappointment is due largely to the demographics of public radio's audience, which despite more than two decades of major efforts to diversify, remains predominately well-educated, upper middle class white people.

Schardt attributes this to public radio's focus on growing the Core audience over the past two decades. There's a lot of truth to that. We’ll cover that topic in the next posting and why it’s not a bad thing, even though it is now being positioned as such.

There's also one other essential fact that Schardt leaves out of her public radio audience overview.

Public radio's demographics look almost exactly like the demographics of public radio's executive leadership, including her.

It turns out that the predominately well-educated, upper middle class white people in charge of public radio policy, funding, and programming are very, very good at making radio for their demographic peers and no one else.

The leadership talks a good game when funding is on the line, but the track record shows a different story. After two decades of trying, public radio’s white leadership is incapable of diversifying the audience in any meaningful, measurable way. Just try and find an audience report from CPB or NPR that shows a diversity initiative that yielded audience growth among minority listeners.

Or, look at Grow the Audience, public radio’s current “effort” to diversify listenership. Here’s a CPB-funded project that listed Inclusiveness (the new “diversity”) as its primary goal, yet the project was managed exclusively by white people and its Task Force was initially formed without a single Black or Hispanic station manager, program director or program producer. After public criticism, the project added one Hispanic station manager/programmer.

Here was an opportunity to diversify from within the industry, to bring new people to the seats of public radio power, and CPB fumbled it. Remarkably, this happened around the same time CPB Radio VP Bruce Theriault challenged public radio to “throw open its doors to new people.”

It also turns out that the Grow the Audience Task Force was formed almost exclusively from members or partners of the SRG. That’s not exactly throwing the doors open to new people, especially at the executive level. And finally, there is CPB radio management. There’s no new blood there either -- the executive team is made up of white, public radio veterans -- even after Theriault’s challenge to the rest of the industry.

CPB isn’t alone in talking diversity while failing to implement it at the highest levels of public radio power. Programming executives and major program hosts at all three major networks are predominately white. Even the Association of Independents in Radio chose a white, 20+ year veteran of public radio to be its leader – Sue Schardt.

You know the saying, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” It applies here. For two decades, public radio policy-makers and executives have viewed diversity as a problem to be solved outside its predominately white, veteran power structure through the distribution of money and top-down management. But that’s failed too many times to believe it could ever succeed.

As an industry, we are extremely good at serving listeners like us and no one else. The only way for public media to realize Sue Schardt’s vision of reaching more and different Americans is to hand power and money over to more and different Americans and let them take a shot at it. The question is, do we believe in the mission of public media strongly enough to do that or are we keeping the money and power for ourselves?

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