Researchers invite others to use Audience 98 data

Major study led by Giovannoni compares costs and revenues of public radio programs -- and will examine other factors that volunteers suggest

By Jacqueline Conciatore

Public radio audience researcher David Giovannoni this week will present findings from Audience 98, a major study that aims to extend programmers’ understanding of listener behavior developed in the widely influential Audience 88.

Audience 98 is based in part on a rare re-contact survey of 8,000 Arbitron diary-keepers who indicated in fall 1996 that they listened to public radio. The survey was designed to elicit their pledging behaviors, personal beliefs, and attitudes toward public radio.

Though Audience 98 begins this fall with analyses by Giovannoni and colleagues, it will continue next year with queries initiated by programmers and others. In photo, Sutton, Peters, Giovannoni and Kroeger meet at the project director's kitchen table. (Photo: Steve Behrens)

Though Audience 98 begins this fall with analyses by Giovannoni and colleagues, it will continue next year with queries initiated by programmers and others. In photo, Sutton, Peters, Giovannoni and Kroeger meet at the project director’s kitchen table. (Photo: Steve Behrens)

Giovannoni will release Audience 98’s first national report, “The Value of Programming” Sept. 11 when he gives the keynote address at the Public Radio Program Directors Conference in Denver.

In coming months, Giovannoni and a team of researchers will deliver one or two additional reports on national programming economics–an approach to programming decisions that compares the costs of programs with the revenues they generate through listener donations and underwriting.

But the researchers will also invite public radio programmers, producers and other practitioners into the study. Volunteer “associates,” with help from Giovannoni’s company, Audience Research Analysis, will use the Audience 98 data to test their own hypotheses on issues relevant to the entire public radio system–programming, membership, underwriting, for example.

Audience 98 will also incorporate:

  • online availability of raw data from the study for those who want to do their own number-crunching, and an Audience 98 web site and online discussion group);
  • local studies–paid for by participating stations and conducted by audience researcher George Bailey–that zoom in for a look at listening and funding patterns in specific markets; and
  • an update of research on public radio listeners’ values and attitudes.

Initially, stations will get access to the national reports through the Internet and in pages of Current. In early 1999, a printed, annotated anthology will be sent to all CPB-qualified stations and be made available to others as well.

A move to listener-driven

Though some in public radio–particularly producers–regard audience research warily, there is no doubt Audience 88 had a significant impact on they way program directors think about programming. The study introduced many of today’s commonly used programming and audience concepts, such as program appeal and affinity, and core and fringe listeners.

“I think one of the most stunning things to come out of 88 was this idea that the public is not as absorbed in our radio stations and our programming as we ourselves are absorbed,” says Roger Sarow, president of WFAE, Charlotte. The research showed that any station is going to reach only a portion of the community, he says.

“[Audience 88] helped us realize we’re dealing in a highly mature medium. … highly segmented, highly fragmented,” Sarow says. “The people who got most upset about it were perhaps those who–with the best of intentions–had the mindset their efforts were truly going to serve the entire community.”

Audience 88 helped move the public radio system out of a producer-driven environment, says CPB radio chief Rick Madden. Audience 98 in turn will help move the system from a station-driven environment to a listener-driven one, Madden contends. It will give the public radio system “a fresh contemporary assessment that should affect stations and how they program and producers how they produce,” he says.

Audience 98 project’s web site offers raw data and audio abstracts

Besides the usual sheaves of numbers, conference presentations and articles in Current, Audience 98 will have an extensive new online manifestation.

The website for David Giovannoni’s Audience Research Analysis Inc. opens for browsers this week with the first of the Audience 98 reports, and will eventually have the project’s entire data set, plus some 60 earlier articles on public radio’s audiences by Giovannoni and colleagues.

Researchers will be able to download the raw data on 15,000 anonymous public radio listeners if they want to crunch some numbers themselves.

ARA Net will also operate a “listserv” for online discussion of findings. Internet users will be able to sign up for the mailing list on the web site; the discussions will come to them via e-mail.

Giovannoni’s earlier research reports, including Audience 88 material and CPB-supported columns that appeared as columns in Current and in CPB’s infop@cket newsletter, will be linked to about 15 short, newly written “research reviews.” Many of these reports are out of print but still in demand.

With a feature known by the project team as “Giovannoni in a Box,” web-site visitors will be able to hear summaries on those topics by playing RealAudio files. Frank Tavares, a former NPR programmer and announcer, worked with Giovannoni to write and voice the clips.

In web format, thematic connections will be readily apparent. Giovannoni promises: “We’re going to go hyperlink-mad.” — Steve Behrens

The national portion of the Audience 98 project, like much of Giovannoni’s research over the years, is funded by CPB. The national project will cost between $400,000 and $500,000, Giovannoni estimates.

Audience 98’s programming economics reports will look at the financial return that stations receive on their investments in certain programs and formats. “Are we making money on some of the most expensive investments?” Giovannoni asks pointedly. “Are we losing money on some of the least expensive investments?” He suspects so.

It will look at the financial return, per listener-hour, on NPR and PRI programming generally, local versus national programming, and the more common formats. It will study the return on individual shows including Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Fresh Air, Talk of the Nation, Performance Today, Car Talk, Classical 24, A Prairie Home Companion, BBC news, Marketplace, Whad’Ya Know? and The World. And on formats including classical, jazz, Triple A, blues, call-in, and news.

Audience 98 will show stations that tracking pledge calls to determine which shows are bringing in the most money is not a reliable method, Giovannoni predicts. The on-air pitch is the catalyst for the call, but the cause is the listener’s total use of a station, he says. Pledge tracking provides a skewed picture of listener preferences because people pledge when they have a free moment to call or when they happen to be near a phone.

Sarow, whose North Carolina station is one of the 91 participating in the local “piggyback” Audience 98 research project, says he will be watching for results pertaining to the value of local programming. As economic realities force many stations to favor national and regional programming, p.d.’s wonder how to present enough local stuff to remain relevant to their communities, he says. Sarow believes that the increasingly accepted notion that listeners value national programming more than local because it’s of higher quality is “being a little bit oversold from a research standpoint.” The research might be misleading, he says, because respondents may have varied notions of what is local versus national programming.

Besides looking at programming as it relates to “listener-sensitive income,” Audience 98 will explore:

  • how listeners’ values and lifestyles connect with radio behavior;
  • the impact of the Internet on listening;
  • what listeners think of today’s on-air fund drives; and
  • what they think of enhanced underwriting.

Overall, Audience 98 measured over 200 characteristics of public radio listeners, allowing nearly endless possible relationships that could shed light on listener behavior.

Bailey’s company, Walrus Research, is developing a series of Audience 98 reports for the piggy-back stations. The local findings, paid for by the participating stations and also based on re-contact data, are proprietary.

But evidence of local station performance can be drawn from the national data and may be analyzed in public reports, Giovannoni noted.

Databases

To compare national listening and giving patterns, Audience 98 relied on two databases:

  • more than 30,000 public radio Arbitron diaries, filled out in fall 1996;
  • an Arbitron re-contact survey of 15,000 of those fall 1996 diary-keepers (about 8,100 responded).

The re-contact study was postponed for years because Arbitron stopped offering that particular service earlier in the decade. Giovannoni eventually persuaded the company to do it just this once.

The sample is richer than the one used for Audience 88, which looked at listeners for 72 stations and had 4,270 respondents. Audience 98, by comparison, re-contacted listeners from more than 300 stations–including non-NPR stations and those without CPB funding.

To gather the pertinent underwriting income data from stations, Audience 98 consultant John Sutton asked 112 stations to participate; about 55 did, Giovannoni says.

Questions and hypotheses wanted

Audience 98 is asking public radio professionals to propose ideas for and write two dozen of its anticipated reports.

Pulling in associates “lets all of public radio buy into [Audience 98] by participating in it,” Giovannoni says. And the associates will enhance the project with their “questions, experience, and concerns about the utility of the findings.”

ARA will put out a request for proposals this month and expects to have associates chosen by Nov. 7. Those selected will get a $2,000 honorarium.

The Audience 98 core team–Leslie Peters, who is leaving NPR as director of program marketing Sept. 30, and Kent Kroeger, taking a year’s leave from his NPR position–manager of strategic planning and policy research–will direct and support the associates’ efforts. ‘

Giovannoni will host a briefing in Denver to kick off the associate’s program. The Sept. 10 meeting will also include a presentation about the values and lifestyles portion of Audience 98, from a representative of SRI Consulting, creator of the VALS 2 psychographic typology.

At the Public Radio Conference in May, Giovannoni and audience researcher George Bailey discussed some of the VALS findings.

Seventy percent of public radio listeners surveyed fell into two of eight categories: “actualizers” and “fulfilled.” The former are financially successful, well-educated, take-charge folks, with high self-esteem and a wide range of interests. “Fulfilleds” are principle-oriented, older, satisfied with their lives, reflective and well-informed. Many are retired.

The other categories are: achievers, experiencers, believers, strivers, makers and strugglers.

The VALS info will be useful for stations in writing on-air or direct-mail solicitations, Bailey said at the PRC.

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