First We Kill the Bean Counters

The outlook for public radio? This post on MinnPost.com would seem to indicate things still aren’t all so rosy, at least for Minnesota Public Radio — and, by extension — all of public radio that’s intent on chasing the flaky ratings purveyed by Arbitron:

MPR’s three local stations — News (KNOW-FM), Classical (KSJN-FM) and The Current (KCMP-FM) — all have smaller shares of the Twin Cities listening audience than a year ago. News is off 23 percent, The Current is down 14 percent, and Classical has declined a whopping 38 percent in the broadest measure of listenership (people 6 or older, 6 a.m. to midnight).

Of particular interest is the performance of the all-news station, as the peerless prognosticators of public radio are of a mind that the talk-talk format is top dog:

The News slippage has been more gradual but more consistent — its last two months (4.6, 4.4) were the lowest since a new measuring technology, portable people meters (PPM), replaced listener diaries in April 2009.

Madness in the methodology?
To some extent, MPR’s troubles reflect national trends. PPMs, which are wearable and pick up ambient music whether the listener is listening or not, have tended to favor big music stations; talk and classical stations have seen numbers fall across the country.

“It does seem that in diary days, people didn’t forget to note they listened to their news station,” Eskola says. “Did they write down every music station they listened to, or their kids listened to in the car?”

Locally, though, MPR News has seen a bigger slide in the past year than several non-music competitors.

Perhaps there is some feeling amongst the bean counters that it might be time to kill the messenger:

Like for-profit radio execs, [MPR research manager Joe] Eskola worries that Arbitron’s “jury” system — roughly 1300 people metering for 13 weeks with far less turnover than the old diary method — may not have all the kinks worked out. Early on, minorities complained about underrepresentation, and locally, there were big gyrations in the first couple of PPM months.

During the 16-month PPM era, Eskola has seen some big shifts — The Current’s 35-to-44-year-old listenership shrinking dramatically, and then “popping back up” in March; at Classical, “the 65-plus crowd cut in half” — that make him wonder about methodology.

Still, Eskola says, “I don’t want this to be, ‘MPR sees crummy numbers, blames it all on Arbitron.’ Do we feel concern? Yes. Are we treading carefully? Yes. We have started to dig in more, but there’s no major ‘Holy Cow, batten-down-the-hatches’ changes to news because we had low numbers in July.’”

As noted in recent posts, one month’s surge is most likely followed by the next’s plunge, and the format changes playing out like musical chairs in our “public” radio stations may only be a fool’s ploy. So what’s the next good idea at MPR? Do the ratings portend more massive changes?

Eskola says ratings do affect income from MPR’s sponsorships. When it comes to dramatic changes, Eskola says he is preaching caution. PPM isn’t more than a year old, and 2010 is its first full year. “If there are seasons and cycles, we feel like we only have one data point, and we’re at the start of Year Two,” he notes.

While there are no doubt tweaks being explored for each station’s programming day — various teasers and tweaks to keep listeners listening longer — Eskola says there’s probably more to gain by getting more people to listen. That would imply a marketing challenge more than a programming challenge.

However, for a 40-year-old network that is public radio’s biggest by far, how many more listeners are there, and how much longer before bigger programming changes are considered?

When you hitch your wagon to farcical Arbitron ratings, you’re in for a bumpy ride. The suits at our local “public” stations seem to be doing just that, at the expense of local programming and more than a few disgruntled listeners. Could it be that all the heroic talk of “staying the course” gives way to more panic among the suits? How long can the GMs rely on the noblesse oblige of the monied minority kicking in the cash to support management vacillations for the sake of a tax writeoff — at the expense of the unhappy listeners who tighten their belts to contribute to “their” local stations? Will the portentous rumble of a guillotine being rolled out change the thinking of the royalty in our public radio stations?

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