Friday, November 30, 2012

Will Listeners Voluntarily Support Public Radio Web Services?

Corporate support of NPR was off nearly $9 million last year.  You can read about at

One item of particular interest in the Current article comes from the section on the state of corporate support for NPR's digital offerings.  

 "The potential for growth in digital ad revenues is limited because of increased competition and downward pressure on the prices of online ads."Stephen Moss, NPR’s chief sales rep at National Public Media.

It's a good reminder that listener contributions are the financial foundation on which public radio stations and NPR are built.  They are the most important and reliable source of income for public radio delivering $327,000,000 in FY 2010, up from $185,000,000 in FY 2000, and never a down year despite the economic roller coaster we've been riding.  (Source CPB)  

NPR's board and management are insistent that the future of public radio is digital and not in radio.  So much so that NPR's recent strategic planning meetings with stations focused on public radio's Digital Transition rather than planning for a future that is based on some combination of radio and digital.

Words matter.  And the words Digital Transition... meaning from terrestrial radio to digital... are significant.
If the outlook for digital corporate support for NPR isn't bright, then it won't be any better for local stations.  

That makes this a good time to revisit the question, "Will Listeners Voluntarily Support Public Radio's Web-based services?"  Here's our thinking from 2006.  We believe it holds up today.  The link to the original post is at the end.

Will Listeners Voluntarily Support Web-based Services?
A recent, excellent article by Jake Shapiro asked whether public radio’s membership model could work with podcasts. To help answer that question, let’s turn to what we already know about turning listeners into donors.

The Stairway to Given is based on a statistical model that outlines the steps listeners go through to become contributors. Originally published as part of the Audience 98 project, it is a refinement of more than two decades of research on how listeners become contributors.

I’m pretty certain it will apply to public radio services delivered via the Internet, whether those services are from a station, a network, independent producers, or some new entity. But let’s travel the Stairway to Given and see.

The First Step: Someone must listen to a public radio station
This seems self-evident but it still needs to be applied to the web. People who don’t use podcasts or streaming media or public radio web sites aren’t going to donate money to keep them on the Internet. Non-users won’t give. Users might give.

The Second Step: The listener must rely on the programming
Reliance has a very specific meaning here, one that is useful when considering web-based content. Reliance is based on the listener’s use of public radio. It is a measurement of behavior and includes factors such as Loyalty, the number of weekly tune-in occasions, the number of different programs and dayparts used by the listeners, and years spent listening.

This is where we see the financial importance of converting Fringe listeners to Core listeners. This is where we see that it takes an average of 3-5 years of listening before someone will voluntarily contribute money to public radio.

Consider the implications for web-based content. Will listeners use public radio podcasts or streams more than any other source of Internet audio? Will they use them 10, 12, 15 times per week? Will they use them consistently over years, not just weeks or months? Can public radio create in listeners the same level of Reliance on its podcasts and streams as it does on its station broadcasts?

If so, it begs the question on whom is the listener relying? A station? A network? A producer? So far, public radio has looked at this mostly as a delivery question. Who delivers the service? In the end, it is really a branding and marketing question. More on this in a future posting.

The Third Step: The listener must find the programming personally important
Where Reliance measures listening behavior, Personal Importance measures how well the content connects with the listener’s personal values and beliefs. The specific research question is this, “The programming on WXXX is an important part of my life. If it went away I would miss it."
The more a listener agrees with that statement, the more likely he is to become a public radio contributor. Let’s try this with the Internet.

“The podcasts from _____ are an important part of my life. If they went away I would miss them."

“The _____ web site is an important part of my life. If it went away I would miss it.”

“The (classical, jazz, AAA, bluegrass, folk) music from (web site) is an important part of my life. If it went away I would miss it.”

Public radio’s on-line services – audio, print, social networking, you name it – will have to pass the Personal Importance test with users in order to earn their voluntary financial support. Users won’t give if what is offered won’t be missed.

Personal Importance and Sense of Community
One key aspect of Personal Importance is the concept of “Sense of Community.” This is the idea that public radio programming is one of the ties that bind together people with certain shared values. Their common listening experiences creates a Sense of Community.

Today, many public radio listeners hear the same news stories, talk shows, and entertainment programs in roughly the same time frame. They talk about what they heard and relive the experience together. That won’t be as common in an on-demand world. There will be more individual and fewer "communal" listening experiences.

The Internet provides opportunities to compensate for this. Listeners e-mailing audio links to one another is one example of this. Social networking is another. Not all listeners will do these things, but Sense of Community might become even more powerful in the decision to contribute among those who engage in on-line community activities.

The Fourth Step: Funding Beliefs
Listeners must believe that listeners, and not the government, are the primarily source of income for public radio.

This is probably not as much of a problem for on-line services as it is for public broadcasting, which has a long history of federal and state support. That said, public radio has the chance to start educating web content users about how it is funded and the importance of listener contributions.

Audience 98 did not test the question of business support, so we cannot predict how that will factor in voluntary giving decisions regarding web content. That said, a parallel could be drawn between government support during the infancy of public radio and business support during the infancy of on-line content.

If users learn at the outset that someone else will pay for their web-based public radio, it will make it more difficult for public radio to get their voluntary support when it is needed. Public radio should start cultivating those future donations now with appropriate marketing and messaging.

The Fifth Step: Income
Audience 98 showed us that household income was a contributing factor in whether someone would give to public radio, but that it was not nearly as significant as the other steps of The Stairway to Given.

Not all donors are wealthy. Not all wealthy listeners are donors. Public radio is not just for those who can afford to pay. That’s a fundamental aspect of the business. No matter who pays for it, it is available to all. That’s what makes it a public service.

The Stairway to Given provides a wonderful listener focus for the question of whether listeners will voluntarily support public radio’s web-based content. Can you imagine hundreds of thousands of people donating if they do not rely on it, do not find it personally important, or do not believe their contributions are truly needed?

The doubters and skeptics will use that last question as ammunition for arguing that the voluntary support model is dead. I disagree.

I believe The Stairway to Given is a blueprint for designing public radio’s web-based services. Let’s start asking how users will rely on us in meaningful, measurable ways and then construct our service offerings accordingly. Let’s ask if our content resonates with users deeply enough that it becomes personally important. Let’s find ways to use the web to build Sense of Community around the values we share with our listeners. Let’s ensure that we don’t create misperceptions about our funding that we will have to undo down the road.

We know what we need to know to get users to voluntarily support public radio. If we successfully hold our new, web-based offerings to the Stairway to Given standard, they will financially support those too.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Rinse and Repeat

Nationally, audiences are off slightly.  NPR's underwriting revenues are down.  The Digital "scare" level for public radio remains high.  That makes it a great time to dust off an old blog posting or two.  Here's one from  nearly seven years ago.

Minding the Franchise

Public radio stations generated more than a quarter-billion dollars in listener support in FY2004. Underwriting revenue from businesses was around 140 million dollars. This is called "listener-sensitive" revenue in public radio because it is driven by the amount of listening to individual public radio stations.

Businesses pay more to reach more listeners. People who listen more are more likely to give. Givers who listen a lot are more likely to give larger gifts. But we're not talking about weekly listening. No, giving is greatly affected by the amount of listening done over years.

That listening is the public radio franchise and it has never been more at risk. There are very real threats from competition, including an increasing number of commercial broadcasters putting news/talk on FM. We are also a threat to ourselves.

Most stations still have weaknesses in their significant parts of their program schedules. Several national programs, especially weekday programs, under-deliver given the available audience. Failure to fix these problems makes public radio more vulnerable to all competition, whether it is coming from the radio dial or the iPod.

Much of the discussion in public radio is that audience loss is inevitable given the growth of new technologies. That assumes listening to podcasts will come at the expense of listening to public radio stations. It doesn't have to be that way.

Public radio listeners, on average, spend more time listening to commercial radio than to public radio. Our Core listeners spend about one-third of their radio listening time with the competition. That could be the listening that goes to podcasts, even public radio podcasts. Or, it could be the listening that public radio stations capture to reverse the tide of audience loss.

Even if public radio loses current listening to new delivery platforms, there will always be radio listening to capture from the competition, much of it being done by our own audience. We can still grow radio listening.

The point here is that public radio can never stop fighting hard for every available hour of radio listening. The shear volume of that listening will always make it the most financially productive hours of listening public radio will ever capture. More important, every hour of listening we don't get today negatively affects how much money our listeners will give in the coming years.

Radio listening is the financial foundation of anything that public a radio station might want to do with podcasting, Internet streaming, local programming, or the next cool thing to come along. It's the franchise and public radio needs to give it the lion's share of new investments of time, money, and attention.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Outside Expertise vs. Public Radio Wisdom

Conventional wisdom holds that NPR and its member stations are quite fortunate to have avoided the fates of public television and the newspaper business.  Viewer loyalty to public television is low, on-air fundraising is heavily dependent on transactional infomercials, and cable competitors have created good quality alternatives to many of PTV's best content categories, which in turn erodes the distinctive look and sound of PTV. Newspapers suffered significant losses in local revenues and had to shed staff because their new revenue streams aren't bringing in enough money to support the old infrastructure.

For more than a decade, outside experts have telling public radio leaders that they must act swiftly and boldly to avoid having similar market forces affect public radio in similar ways. 

So where do we stand today?  

Well, the top executive positions at NPR, the recently filled or created positions, are now held by former public television and newspaper people. Stations are being encouraged to spend more money by investing in more newsroom infrastructure even as radio audiences are predicted to decline. NPR stations remain distinctive, standing out on the radio from their commercial counterparts, but NPR and station web sites increasingly look like dozens of other national and local news web sites. And the discussion about public radio's future economy is almost solely focused on new revenue models rather than on whether the old economic infrastructure is even viable in a new media marketplace.

In short, public radio is well-positioned to repeat many of the same mistakes made by PTV and the newspaper industry. It will take much more than smartphone apps, mobile websites, and local news to avoid the fate of these other industries.  It will take a renewed and sincere commitment to growing public radio's traditional audiences and overhauling public radio's current economic model, revenues and expenses.  Accomplishing that requires industry leaders who understand they have has as much, if not more, to learn from public radio as public radio has to learn from them. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Words Matter

The well-chosen word.  The well-turned phrase.  Public radio, and especially NPR, thrives on good writing, careful editing, and thoughtful presentation.

So it must tell us something about NPR's priorities that the strategic planning agenda for this week's annual membership meeting fails to include the word "radio."