FM, web audiences elusive so far for innovative Vocalo

By Mike Janssen

Chicago Public Radio’s board, staff and executives didn’t mince words in their latest strategic plan about their bold experiment known as Vocalo.

“As a website Vocalo must be seen as unsuccessful so far.”

“Vocalo has not yet built visibility or loyalty consistent with norms for successful Internet startups, and remains a costly early stage venture for us.” (Emphasis theirs.)

As for the broadcast side of Vocalo: “… [M]any listeners, staffers and even several [Chicago Public Radio] Board Members find the content and listening experience of Vocalo to be substandard and unappealing thus far.”

The comments in the plan approved Oct. 30 lay bare the challenges CPR faces as it angles for success with Vocalo, its effort to reach new audiences with a mashup of old and new media. The service combines a loosely formatted FM station staffed by newcomers to radio with a website that augments the broadcast with content contributed by users.

This hybrid is CPR’s attempt to develop a more ethnically diverse audience that finds traditional public radio fare staid and not to their liking. But this effort, a pioneer attempt to expand pubradio’s demographics, won’t succeed easily. After more than two years on the air and online — it launched in June 2007 — Vocalo has yet to attract a significant audience on either platform.

Over the past year CPR has worked to make the station easier to listen to, and a redesign of the website is planned to make it more user-friendly. The web audience is now well below what CPR execs would like to see, while the FM arm of Vocalo lacks enough listeners to get into an Arbitron book.

Unofficial estimates from the ratings company put the weekly cume of 89.5 WBEW, Vocalo’s 25,000-watt signal in Chesterton, Ind., at somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 listeners.

In comparison, CPR’s successful news station, WBEZ, with a much broader coverage area, had 575,000 listeners a week in December. The smaller, 5,000-watt noncommercial jazz station WDCB, at the College of DuPage in the western suburb of Glen Ellyn, attracts a weekly cume of 188,000.

CPR execs acknowledge Vocalo’s numbers will have to grow significantly before it can sell much underwriting or web advertising — a necessity for paying its own way in the future. Vocalo foregoes on-air fund drives, part of its strategy to avoid sounding like conventional public radio.

As for underwriting, CPR made just $15,000 in sales last fiscal year and expects $55,000 this year — a sliver of Vocalo’s $1.7 million budget. As a result the service has subsisted largely on support from CPB, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and other funders, as well as infusions from CPR’s operating fund.

Other past attempts to fuse radio and online media have delighted fans with their style and innovation but failed to reach fiscal viability, such as NPR’s Bryant Park Project and Christopher Lydon’s Open Source. CPR’s strategic plan indicated that at least some stakeholders in Vocalo’s future are watching the calendar.

“An important strategic question for some is how much time we think the experiment deserves before we elect to intervene,” it said.

Concentrating a scattered sound

Given the lackluster audience data, CPR staffers have turned to qualitative metrics to justify Vocalo to board members, some of whom are said to be skeptical about the service. (Board members did not return Current’s calls for this article.)

Results from recent focus groups and analyses of Vocalo’s community-outreach efforts have proven to CPR President Torey Malatia that the experiment is paying off, even if it’s not drawing as big an audience as some would like.

Malatia speaks at Vocalo open house near Indiana transmitter, 2007. (Photo: Usama Alshaibi, released under Creative Commons license.)

Malatia speaks at Vocalo open house near Indiana transmitter, 2007. (Photo: Usama Alshaibi, released under Creative Commons license.)

“The target audience is definitely resonating with what’s there,” he says of the focus groups, conducted in November. Participants in the groups were picked to reflect the audience courted by Vocalo. On average the focus-group members earned less and had less formal education than listeners to WBEZ. The groups were also more racially diverse.

Focus-group participants responded positively to the concept of Vocalo and the programming they heard. They liked the user-generated content that Vocalo pipes from its website to the airwaves — a hallmark of its sound and its Web 2.0, social-media sensibility. Since its launch, close to 1,900 users have uploaded more than 24,000 items of content.

As well as encouragement, the focus-group research indicated changes Vocalo might have to make to attract more listeners and users. The unorthodox sound of the on-air service got both positive and negative marks.

Vocalo sounds like few other radio stations, commercial or public. From 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays, its hosts, most of whom joined Vocalo with no previous experience in radio, provide a flow of interviews, music and user-generated content. The remaining weekday hours are devoted entirely to bits of UGC, served up jukebox-style in rapid succession. CPR’s Robin Amer, formerly a Vocalo host/producer, describes these hours as “Vocalo on crack.”

This loose approach has been controversial. Some detractors have said it sounds like “bad college radio,” but Malatia points out that the sound is not meant to appeal to traditional NPR lovers.

Focus-group participants said while they at times enjoyed hearing something different every five minutes, the randomness also frustrated them and caused them to tune away.

“They seemed to want to be guided a bit more,” says Wendy Turner, who served as Vocalo’s g.m. until taking a new position within CPR in November as v.p. of systems. CPR is now looking to hire a managing director to replace her.

Even before the focus groups, Turner and her colleagues were moving Vocalo toward a more coherent sound. In March they started organizing on-air content around monthly themes such as sports, education, marriage and local music. Hosts and producers base segments each hour on the themes and encourage web contributors to provide complimentary material.

Evidence suggests the themes are registering with listeners. Several months after they were introduced, Vocalo.org visitors who were asked to recall specific stories they had heard on the station more frequently mentioned pieces that related to the themes.

Big-name bloggers boost traffic

Other challenges remain for Vocalo. A big one surfaced in the November focus groups — a “huge lack of awareness that Vocalo even exists,” Malatia says.

The station’s broadcast signal is partly to blame. When Vocalo launched, WBEW’s 7,000-watt signal didn’t even reach Chicago reliably. After a long-delayed power increase, the signal still gets only as far as Chicago’s South Side. This has hampered Vocalo’s broadcast audience and made underwriting a difficult sell, Malatia says. He hopes an upcoming marketing campaign will help.

CPR has managed to boost traffic to Vocalo’s website, in part by equipping it with a selection of blogs housed at the address blogs.vocalo.org. They’re not exactly new voices: Most of the non-WBEZ staffers are either alums of the station or former Sun-Times writers.

The first well-known blogger to join was Robert Feder, previously the media columnist for the Sun-Times. As a middle-aged white guy, Feder might seem to diverge from the audience Vocalo wants to attract. But Malatia says Feder and his old paper are well known among the city’s Latino and African American communities.

Feder and his co-bloggers went live in November, and traffic to Vocalo.org rose 226 percent over the previous month. CPR points out that traffic to Vocalo’s non-blog pages was up 79 percent over the same time span.

“The blog feature . . . has helped raise awareness of Vocalo and create natural synergy with the WBEZ brand,” said CPR spokesperson Daniel Ash in an e-mail. Yet it remains to be seen whether these blogs will further the key Vocalo mission of creating two-way synergy between the website and the radio broadcast.

Vocalo’s website will also be redone to make it more user-friendly. It “was built with the content creator in mind,” Turner says, because Vocalo desperately needed UGC when it launched. It now has plenty, but the site hasn’t changed, and staffers say users find it hard to discover and share the content.

Turner says she wants to see Vocalo achieve a combined online and broadcast cume of 100,000 by 2012. If its FM station could make an Arbitron book within a few months, “I would feel much more comfortable projecting when we’ll hit the moment of being self-sufficient,” she says. “But I just don’t know. We don’t have those broadcast numbers.”

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