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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice article! I wish more people would take a step you have, John...and remember some of the fundamentals.

On a similar note, I have a vague recollection that a couple of years ago there was an article in an influential trade magazine that basically took a lot of foundations and similar grant-givers to task for the omnipresent trend of refusing to fund existing programs' operating costs and instead demanding that all groups always be doing something "innovative and new" and had to have "impact". Basically the grantgiving industry was destroying the non-profit world because everyone was always scrambling to reinvent themselves every 12 to 24 months instead of focusing on actually focusing on their core missions.

It's one thing to argue that funding for public radio needs to go towards finding new and innovative programs and towards planning for a digital future. It's another thing when nobody wants to give ANY money for paying the damn electric bill.

Unfortunately I be go to hell if I can remember who wrote that article or where it was published...

9:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for expressing thoughts that I've long had. We still await a side-by-side comparison of public radio broadcast use and equivalent public media online use. For example, we all know about public radio TSL in aggregate and for our individual stations. A few years ago I came across the stats for use, specifically, average time spent on the site and occasions per month. It tallied out to about 6 minutes for each user per month. That's miniscule use compared to public radio TSL. Am I mistaken? Does a public radio broadcast / digital use comparison exist?

4:15 PM  

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