Monday, July 16, 2012

Let's Not Get Small

Change is inevitable but it's really interesting how so many people in public radio have latched on to the idea that radio is on the decline, even public radio, when that's not really true. 

One of the more popular myths is that young people don't listen to the radio anymore.  Also not true. The Radio Today report at shows more than 90% of all 25-34 year olds listen to the radio about 14 hours per week.  There's a tiny amount of streaming in that number, but not much. 

What's happening is that rumors of radio's death are being greatly exaggerated by those who have an interest in new and disruptive technologies.  While it is essential for all of us in public radio to understand how those technologies will change our industry, it is even more important to push back against the industry outsiders who try to minimize the value of radio today and in the future.

Another area in which the value of public radio is being minimized is philanthropic giving.  Increasingly foundations are insisting that grantees show they created "impact" with the grant money the receive.  There's no single metric for this.  There's only the idea that the grantee has to show something was changed with the foundation's money.

NPR CEO Gary Knell was beating this drum a bit during his speech at last week's Public Radio Development and Marketing Conference.  He said, "ratings and eyeballs aren't good enough anymore."

The fact is, they never were.  At least in public radio.  Even though public radio looks at Arbitron data and other market research, we've understood for a long time that those numbers represent how many people consume our mission each week, and even more importantly, how much of our mission is consumed. 

Those numbers tell us that nearly 65 million people each month* are served by terrestrial public radio each month and they listen to public radio stations more than 10 billion hours each year.  That's 10 billion hours that Americans spend consuming the mission of public radio.  Each year.  On the radio.

Listeners come to public radio because we make their time more valuable. Think about that for a moment. Each year, we make 10 billion hours more valuable to the people who listen to us. 

The trap for public radio is accepting another institutions success metrics as our own.  Our greatest leverage is that we reach significant audiences with significant content.  Every day we help millions of people learn something new about the world. We have a bond of trust with listeners that this exchange of ideas and information helps create better people and a better society.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to help our funding partners meet their goals. If "impact" is one of them, then we should try to find ways to help them deliver impact, provided that impact doesn't conflict with our mission.  That's an important part of building community. 

But if public radio buys into the argument that "impact" is the only metric that matters, or even the most important metric, then we make our current service to the public less significant.  It's kind of like saying the only people who matter to a talk show are the callers and not the listeners who never call.  We make ourselves smaller and we devalue the significance of what we do every day. 

No amount of philanthropic money is worth that outcome.

* Source: 170 Millions Americans
The 10 billion listener-hour number comes from NPR's Fall 2011 Arbitron audience estimate of 37.6 million weekly listeners to public radio.  That number is multiplied by the average of 5.5 hours of listening per week per listener found in Public Radio Today 2011.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Future Revenues

Public Media Futures Forum:  We participated in a robust discussion about revenue growth opportunities for public radio. Once again, we raised the idea that public radio is leaving money on the table by not allowing NPR to raise money directly from listeners. 

We see up to $50,000,000 in upside revenue for the industry and we think we've found a way to protect station's membership fundraising at the same time. has a summary of the discussion here.

Previous posts on the topic are at the end of this post.

We believe significantly different revenue results require a significantly different effort.  That's why we keep coming back to this issue.  Also on our list of opportunities:

1. Public Radio's national leadership has to fall in love with radio again. There is still plenty of room and opportunity to grow the radio audience and reap the revenue benefits that come with more listening. 

2.  Public Radio's national leadership has to rekindle its passion for station success.  Large national goals mean nothing.  Helping the greatest number of stations succeed is more important than reaching a big number nationally.

We also love the work Barbara Appleby and Valerie Arganbright are doing with sustainer giving.  So much so that we suggested to NPR that it find the means to make their services available to stations at no cost.  (But not through a tax on stations.  Been there, done that).

More to come as the conference progresses.

Links to past posts:

Monday, July 09, 2012

Car Talk Controversy: The Dearth of New,Good Public Radio Programs

Ira Glass puts the blame for lack of program innovation in public radio on station program directors. The argument, and it is not just Ira’s argument, is that program directors are risk averse. From my experience, the opposite is true. Stations are craving new, good programs to try. In this case “good” means programs that meet the station’s mission, show potential to build audience loyalty in an underperforming time slot, and also pack some on-air fundraising punch.

The simple fact is that producers aren’t delivering programs that come close to meeting all of these needs. They often have the mission piece down, but most new programs are sorely lacking when it comes to audience performance and fundraising support. The reason is public radio’s top-down mentality to program creation.

Here’s a brief history lesson. Public radio’s signature news programs were created at the network level, top down, and took decades to develop into audience powerhouses. With the exception of Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, public radio’s top-performing entertainment programs were developed at stations, over years, and then took a good 3 to 5 more years as network programs to become audience powerhouses.

Garrison Keilior, The Magliozzi Brothers, and Ira Glass cut their teeth at local stations where they could make mistakes while figuring out how to make great radio programs. They tried new things. They learned from audience and fundraising feedback.

This American Life (TAL) presents an interesting case study. For its first five years in national distribution, TAL was a lousy audience performer. Quite a bit of the content wasn’t suitable for air before 7p. Stations first struggled with whether to clear the program at all and then where to schedule it. But Ira was also providing his stations with many of the best fundraising spots ever made. And they worked in Morning Edition! That was an incredible incentive for existing outlets to keep the program and even convince others to add it.

Over time, This American Life found its voice and became a strong audience performer for stations. While TAL doesn’t have the sheer numbers drawing power of A Prairie Home Companion, Car Talk, and Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, none of those programs have the mix of storytelling, journalism, and entertainment that makes This American Life the embodiment of public radio ideals.

Ira worked hard to make TAL a successful radio show. He had a passion for station success, first for WBEZ and then for the stations carrying his program. Solid audience performance in lesser dayparts and a stellar public radio image earned TAL the prime time slots on Saturdays it now enjoys.

Wait Wait also struggled in its first few years and the program was on the verge of losing valuable affiliates. Wait Wait was saved by a frank letter from Producer Doug Berman to stations acknowledging the program’s problems and a heartfelt promise to fix them. It required a host change and eventually recording the show in front of live audiences but that passion for station success helped Wait Wait blossom into an elite audience performer.

The passion for station success is almost always absent in the top-down model of making radio programs. NPR’s Tell Me More is a great example of this and it is one of the newer network offerings. It has the least station-friendly program clock of any major weekday network program. There are too few opportunities for station IDs, local underwriting, and local promotion. There are no pledge drive friendly cutaway opportunities during the program. Its audience loyalty is weak and there seems to be no plan to address that.

The better model is for producers to partner with a station for a few years to develop a radio program that delivers solid audience performance and good fundraising results. This is especially necessary for first-time producers. There’s a big difference between putting together an hour of good audio content and making a great radio program. It is something that is learned, not taught. 

Ira learned those lessons and he continually applied them to TAL without compromising his vision for the program. Helping stations succeed made TAL a success and that helped Ira become the star he is today. Producers who want station airtime would do well to emulate Ira’s path to success rather than blaming station program directors and Car Talk for their inability to get on the air.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Car Talk Controversy: The Intersection of Idealism and Income

There’s an interesting debate at over Ira Glass’ assertion that stations should drop Car Talk when it goes to full-time repeats. Ira’s stance is that air time is too valuable to waste on repeats and should instead be used for experimentation and innovation.

NPR Programming VP Eric Nuzum takes issue with Ira, responding that Car Talk actually fuels innovation because it generates large audiences and significant revenues for stations and will likely do so in repeats. Nuzum argues that those listeners and that money are irreplaceable at this time.

The topic has generated hundreds of comments and interesting threads from industry professionals and listeners.

It is a classic “mission versus money” debate. And as with most debates within public radio today, it’s starting from the wrong place. This is not an either/or proposition. It’s a both/and issue.

At the heart of the matter is the difference between understanding listeners and understanding audiences.

The listener is an individual who hears the content. Ira understands listeners quite well. He creates compelling stories and, by far, the most compelling on-air fundraising bits in all of public radio. He’s helped stations make millions of dollars, if not tens of millions, through his ability to connect with listeners.

Audiences, on the other hand, are groups of listeners whose behavior helps us understand what listeners like about our programs and stations. Understanding audience behavior is central to programming a station effectively and raising the necessary money to keep the programming on the air.

It is impossible for a public radio station to succeed without understanding both listeners and audiences. Ira knows listeners but his understanding of Saturday audiences is all wrong.

First, Ira suggests that Car Talk needs to move to make room for new innovative shows in prime Saturday time. That’s not at all necessary. There are plenty of prime hours on Saturday afternoons for new programs to make a mark. Most stations lose audience from 1p to 5p on Saturdays even though lots of public radio listeners are using the radio then. For many stations the potential audience on Saturday afternoons is as great as it is during weekdays from 10a-4p.

The problem is that most of the weekend programs available to stations are mediocre audience performers as best. They drive listeners away more than they bring them in. Stations are not lacking for available times to try new, good programs. They are lacking new, good programs.

Second, Ira says “…we don’t need Car Talk to shore up audience numbers on Saturday mornings. Thanks to Doug Berman, there’s another public radio blockbuster that’s building audience and loyalty on Saturday mornings right now — Wait Wait... Don’t Tell Me!”

Ira’s logic is that it is better to have one successful program on Saturday mornings instead of two.

Had he done a little fact checking he would have seen data that shows considerably stronger overall performance on Saturdays, not just Saturday mornings, when Weekend Edition, Car Talk, and Wait Wait air consecutively.

And make no mistake about it, Car Talk will remain successful in repeats, at least in the short run. Even if Car Talk’s ability to pull in listeners drops by 15% or 20%, it will still be a stronger audience draw than This American Life. It is also likely to generate more income for stations in repeats than This American Life will generate with new programs in the next few years. That’s how powerful the program is.

Eric Nuzum was exactly right in his response. Stations absolutely need Car Talk on Saturday mornings. In fact, stations need to be running Car Talk and Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me twice each weekend. Those programs draw listeners to the station and make weekend listening stronger for all programs.

In the real world of public radio economics stations need programs that generate surplus revenues to help pay for innovation, overhead, and the “mission” related activities that require subsidy. These days that also includes local programming and digital offerings. Car Talk is among only a handful of programs that generate such revenue. Public radio needs more Car Talk’s, not fewer.

The argument that stations should walk away from Car Talk and all of its value in the name of “mission” is ridiculous. It’s as ridiculous as suggesting that This American Life should give its program to stations for free so they would have more money to invest in innovation.

The intersection of Idealism and Income is not a four-way crossroads where stations must choose one direction. It’s a three-way intersection where two important paths to public radio success merge into one.