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.