The Grand Plan

Mention of a report called Public Radio in the New Network Age by the CPB in a previous post piqued some interest with the following quote: “A report commissioned by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting called Public Radio in the New Network Age says that ‘for the near term, HD2 and HD3 channels are not a viable choice for the presentation of multiple, differentiated services aimed to reaching measurable audiences.'” The complete version of the report, for those with a high tolerance of wordiness, is available here in a 99-page PDF. For those who like a condensed version, here are a few excerpts. Taken in part, they often make much more sense than the programming decisions made on a local level. A few paragraphs scattered about talk about the trend now to buy up additional stations (with much more beginning on page 73 of the report):

The classical and jazz findings point toward a second key element in an overall strategy for audience diversity – the importance of multiple stations with different formats in realizing audience diversity goals. Different programming causes different listeners to listen. Encouraging multiple public radio services in as many markets as can support them, and, equally important, encouraging meaningful differentiation of the services offered by each of them, will increase audience diversity.

“Going forward, we think that public radio could serve more listeners, raise more revenue and block the competition by establishing at least two NPR news stations per market, a winning strategy so long as each NPR news station takes a distinct position, clearly differentiated from the other.”

Public radio’s largest audiences and highest listening levels occur in markets where public radio offers its best-performing formats, both news and music, over multiple stations that are differentiated from each other. The most powerfully performing combination is a news station featuring NPR and other network news programs and a classical music station – as seen from Washington to Cincinnati to Portland and 18 other top-50 markets.

The primary driver of audience growth for classical music stations over the past several years has been public radio’s “capture” of the classical music franchise through market changes and station acquisitions. This has occurred through abandonment of the classical format by a commercial station – in Washington, DC, WGMS shuttered its classical service and WETA assumed the franchise with great success and in Los Angeles commercial K-Mozart closed shop and KUSC became the sole classical outlet. It has also happened through acquisition of a station or control of the service through a management agreement – American Public Media purchased WKCP in Miami and Detroit Public Television now manages WRCJ in Detroit. As this report was being finalized, WNYC acquired the WQXR classical franchise in New York and WGBH purchased classical WCRB in Boston.

Although less dramatic, growth of listening to AAA stations has been driven by similar developments in availability, including acquisition and a format change (“The Current” in Minneapolis-St. Paul), AAA stations entering the CPB-supported system (WTMD, Baltimore), and emergence of the AAA format from a previously eclectic schedule (KRCL, Salt Lake). Most recently, KERA acquired and launched a new AAA service in Dallas, KXT, to complement its existing news and information channel.

The availability of jazz stations has been going the other way, with a station in one large market leaving the format (Milwaukee) and three jazz stations failing to remain qualified for the CPB-supported system (St. Louis, Orlando, and Murfreesboro, TN).

Other paragraphs highlight the goal, through Project Argo, of a local news network — with acknowledged support from the CPB:

Ten to fifteen stations (or state/regional networks) have already embarked on efforts to build substantial daily reporting capacity. They are in communities in which we can envision long-term, sustainable funding that will grow as their efforts grow. Public radio, as a system, should invest in accelerating their development – much as was done at earlier stages of public radio development with “production center” and “major market improvement” grants – because of the immediate value these operations can deliver to the large audiences they reach, their role model for other stations that may follow this path, and the “talent magnet” such high impact, high visibility operations provide for both new and veteran reporters.
We have emphasized the importance of assuring a range of views and voices throughout the news reporting process at national producers. This is also true for these emerging “first tier” local news organizations and should be a feature of investments in building increased local capacity.

A ramp-up of targeted major, station-based newsrooms warrants a sustained, multi-year effort in which national funds from CPB and elsewhere would stimulate and match growing local investments.

Of particular interest at stations like WUMB in Boston and KUT in Austin is an emphasis purportedly given local talent and personalities — which would appear to be at odds with actions taken at these stations in their blind, blunderbuss pursuit of Arbitron Valhalla:

Public radio’s music stations must aspire to higher standards of presentation and greater value for the listener – compelling, trusted personalities, a sense of connection with audience and community, and excellence in production values.

First, recruit, develop, and keep compelling personalities that build trust with listeners. The music is always the “star” of the show, but an engaging and trusted guide sets apart a top-performing service from the generic offerings available online, from satellite radio, cable companies, and elsewhere. Public radio listeners appreciate it when a knowledgeable host introduces them to new music or new performances or shares a little bit of information about the music, its composer, or the artist. Public radio music listeners like to learn – a little bit – and they enjoy the companionship of smart, familiar hosts.

Any “reinvention” of public radio should be done incrementally, with a careful weighing of institutional priorities against the advantages or disadvantages of each prospective new approach.

And, of course, there’s the call to involve listeners, which to date has fallen on deaf bean-counter ears, bent on their pursuit of TSLs and cumes:

Encourage and assess audience reactions; get representation from all demographics; learn, adapt and grow. Hire smartly (ex-print people are one opportunity – much of the NPR News brand was built this way, taking strong print journalists and teaching them the craft of aural storytelling). Invite listener feedback and participation through social networks and new venues of consumer access.

And, oft forgotten in suits’ panic:

Remember that compelling content always trumps delivery technology. If you provide something listeners want to hear, they will find their way to it, however cumbersome. Conversely, the most convenient and up-to-date media-access methods are of little value if they provide no interesting content.

Particular attention should be paid to the data given beginning on page 82 of the report, detailing public radio’s losses where Arbitron has shifted from the diary method of recording to the Purple People Meter in the top 50 markets:

“Regular listeners,” those who show up several days a week and make the station one of their top two or three choices, reported more listening in their diaries than is captured by the meters, as evidenced by listeners who may have reported that they listened to a station “all day,” when in fact their listening was interrupted numerous times.

All together, the average weekly time spent listening for the 46 diary-to-meter public radio stations discussed above declined from 5:44 to 3:12, a 44% loss. The news was slightly better for the top-ranked public stations in each of the markets – the decline was 37%. The average loss in time spent listening, for both the top-ranked stations and for all the stations taken together was the same, about 2½ hours.

And in the concluding section of the report, under the headline “Renewing the Vision of Service,” you’ll find many fine words — and much of what has been missing on the local level in the haphazard disruptions to our “public” stations:

We must address the continuing renewal of vision and strategy by putting those we serve – listeners to our stations, users of our broader services, and our communities as a whole – at the center of the exploration. We must engage with listeners and community leaders throughout the planning, design, development, and presentation of our programming and services.

Kit Jensen, Chief Operating Officer at Cleveland’s ideastream®, in a GROW THE AUDIENCE interview, suggests that vision and strategy starts with local community leadership, their view of the community’s needs, and their vision of how to serve those needs. From there, she says, the needed content focus and platforms of delivery can be determined.

“This kind of goes back to the old-fashion ascertainment stuff. If you can get your customers or your audiences to tell you what they want and then you do it, then you’re aligned. It is interesting, we say that we want to know a lot about our audiences and we want them to be interactive. But we – our journalists – actually resist and we infrequently ask what they’re interested in and then act to be responsive.”

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2 Responses

  1. Cable companies are already offering bundled internet and cable tv services at a cheap price “

  2. […] radio stations could make a down payment on junk HD radio channels. As reported here earlier, the CPB itself has waffled on that huge outlay: “A report commissioned by the […]

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