Public Radio 2018: Sibling Rivalry
The largest cause of any station audience erosion will come from within the public radio industry, not from outside competitors.
The reason is simple. Public radio news and entertainment programs have developed to the point that no single source can match the sheer volume of quality content delivered on a daily basis, seven days a week.
Public Radio spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually to create its content. NPR alone invests $72 million annually in news. Its total annual programming expense is around $88 million. The cost of matching the volume and quality of public radio’s content is very high, especially in the digital space, where most media organizations still struggle to break even.
There are only three serious competitors for today’s public radio station audiences – the stations themselves, the networks that distribute the high quality national programs to stations, and listener indifference.
The best way for stations to keep, and indeed grow*, the audiences they have is to continue to provide a compelling mix of high quality network news and entertainment programs during peak radio usage hours, supplemented by local content and programs produced to network standards. Stations should extend their entire terrestrial radio brand – national and local -- into the digital space. Stations brand should be the same across platforms and they should supplement that brand with additional content and the effective use of social media.
But this is not the strategy public radio’s networks are pursuing. Their digital strategies prioritize network access over local access. So today, public radio’s best radio content is now available in near-real time on the web. For example, all of the stories in Morning Edition now post as a playlist by 7:30am Eastern Time. A listener can now go to NPR.org and hear all of the network stories consecutively and without interruption.
Compare this to the policy around satellite radio. The NPR Board was very concerned that running NPR News in real time on satellite radio would kill local station audiences. And kill is not too strong of a word here. So the board prohibits, to this day, the real time airing of Morning Edition and All Things Considered on satellite radio.
The NPR Board recognized that the biggest competition stations could ever face was NPR itself. As mobile devices and digital dashboards become more common, the circumstance that is most likely to pull listeners away from a local FM station or its digital stream is an alternative way to get the same content. And this is now the strategy set by the NPR Board.
Times have changed. Significant competition will not come from a commercial news entity or a non-profit start-up. It will be other public radio outlets. We know this because we see it already in markets where two stations carrying Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
But there might be an even bigger competitor for local station audiences -- listener indifference. This is already happening two ways at some stations.
First, station program offerings are suffering from too much local content for the sake of local content. Listeners don’t tune in for local. They tune in for interesting. They tune in for quality. And when they don’t find it, they are pushed away.
Second, some stations aren’t executing the programming basics as well as they used to because the energy and resources required are being diverted to digital. Weak programs remain on the schedule. Interstitial content fails to add value to the listening experience. It’s an issue of quality control. And when listeners don’t find quality, they are pushed away.
Pushing listeners away is typically how public radio stations have lost audience over the decades. Listeners are lost when they become indifferent to the station.
That will be true in the digital age. Increasingly stations have the means to be on all digital platforms. They have the means to market and promote where and how to find the station in the digital space. But if the current station offerings are diluted in the digital space, then the listeners will become indifferent. If the station brand they know from the radio – national and local – is different in the digital space, then the listeners will drift away.
They won’t have to go far to find what they want because the most significant competitor will be in the family.
* Yes, there is still room to grow the broadcast audiences for public radio. Most stations capture between 35% and 40% of their own listeners’ listening. That is, the typical public radio listener spends less than half of his radio listening time with the station. The balance of their listening goes to the competition. Better programming and promotion wins more listening from the competition. And remember that the average weekly audience is just that – average and weekly. Some weeks the audience is bigger than average. And then there are those people who listen every 8 days, or 14 days, or 30 days. Get them to listen more frequently and the weekly audience goes up. Some studies show the monthly audience to public radio stations is 50% higher than the weekly audience. There is room to grow the audience. But it requires recommitting to radio growth nationally and locally.