Thinking outside the core

Commentary by Michael Arnold

These days, the notion of growing audience through radio seems almost quaint. With the rise of digital platforms, some future-oriented seers have even begun predicting the end of broadcast radio.

While it is likely that tech advances will continually alter what we do, we can still grow through radio. Really. We simply have to redefine how we think about our core audience.

Back in the early days of public radio’s audience growth revolution in the 1980s, we had to break ourselves of a lot of habits. We had to stop assuming that a few letters or phone calls, positive or negative, represented the attitudes of our whole potential audience or even our whole actual audience. We had to realize that our listeners needed to hear our call letters more often than once an hour because they didn’t know us as well as we thought. We had to work on strengthening our ability to serve a wider audience by moving away from long-held assumptions of who our audience was. We had think bigger and stop basing our assumptions about audience on what we heard from our friends.

A key factor that helped us do this was the concept of core. Core listeners — or P-1 in Arbitron language — are the people who listen to public radio more than any other radio station. According to a 2010 report by the commercial data company Research Director, P-1 listeners typically represent about a quarter of a radio station’s cume audience but do around 70 percent of the listening (average-quarter-hour). An analysis of P-1 listeners resulted in Research Director concluding that “these core listeners are what drive a station’ssuccess.”

Public radio has known the value of core for some time. David Giovannoni and other researchers emphasized it in major research projects such as Audience 88, Audience 98 and Audience 2010. We know from that research that core listeners are prime supporters to public radio: More than half of them contribute to stations.

By watching the preferences of core listeners, public radio stations were able to devise program schedules that served the listeners more effectively and enlarged the core. Probably the best result of paying attention to the core was when many station leaders recognized that core listeners wanted a strong news and information service and shifted the stations’ formats. Before that shift, the stations’ audiences typically included 30 to 40 percent core listeners. Afterwards, that portion of the audience shot up to between 40 and 50 percent of the weekly audience, with corresponding gains in the cume and the AQH figures overall.

The resulting audience growth continued, despite a few blips, through the past two decades even though the audiences of other radio broadcasters went into decline. By taking cues from the core, stations were able to craft more effective, consistent news or music schedules.

Studying Arbitron data on the behavior of the core audience did not go far enough for public radio. To learn what people loved to hear, we turned to the core — and to station members, who tend to be core listeners — for qualitative information, using listener focus groups, custom quantitative projects and even national efforts such as PRPD’s Core Values of Public Radio Project. (Disclosure: I was the board chair of PRPD when the Core Values project began.)

With all of this attention to the core, we have risked developing a belief that all of our listeners share its views. Assuming the core is the audience is an easy thing to do. At stations where I’ve worked, we heard from the core on a daily basis when we dealt with donors and volunteers, who tend to be P-1 listeners. In many ways, these people reflected the stereotype of the core listener. They were thoughtful, well educated and pleased with most of the things we did at the station. It becomes easy to assume that the audience in general shares the fanlike devotion of super-listeners.

As a result, we may be lulling ourselves into thinking we’ve figured out the radio thing at a time when we still have lots of room for audience growth and more to learn about our audience. It could be argued that we are now captives of a secular theology as limiting as the ones that prevailed before we focused on the core.

In those long-gone days, we assumed that we knew in our gut that the listeners were all music professors and political-science lecturers, and we saw no need for quantitative confirmation. Then as now our heightened certainty about audience preferences has bred a dogma that requires us to please the core and forgives us for driving away other potential listeners.

While our audience stereotypes may be better informed than they were 40 years ago, they can blind us to our potential for growth and change, with equally dangerous consequences. Today there are many indicators that we have room for audience growth on radio if only we expand our view of the potential.

  • A high educational level is the one clear statistical indicator associated with public-radio listening. These days, however, most college-educated people who listen to radio aren’t listening to us. For example, spring 2009 Arbitron/Act 1 Systems data shows there are 67.6 million college-educated people using radio in a typical week. Only about one in four of them use public radio. That suggests that broadcast radio has room for growth if we can figure out how to craft services that appeal powerfully to people who have not yet joined the fray.
  • We also fall short among college-educated African American and Hispanic listeners, and should be able to do something about it. Those slices of the population are significantly less likely to listen to public radio than similarly educated white listeners, according to the Grow the Audience report from the Station Resource Group. When reporting the findings, SRG asked, “If higher education continues to be the hallmark of public radio users, how does public radio most effectively serve the full range of racial and ethnic diversity embodied by that demographic?”

If we spend more time understanding our less-frequent “fringe” listeners, and our non-listeners, we may see ways to grow a new core. CPB has renewed its interest in diversifying public-radio listening, and the major networks have attempted to figure out the how-to. For example, PRI’s research over the past few years has tried to better understand what public radio can do to serve a broader and more diverse audience.

As part of our research for the morning news program The Takeaway, PRI looked beyond the present core listeners and station givers. We identified a few areas where public radio programming puts off some people who might listen more often. Potential listeners say that some news reports don’t get to the point fast enough, or keep going long afterward. Some react negatively to public radio’s tendency to get too academic and say they want to hear more real voices and a better reflection of their life experience on the air. PRI has been using insights from this work to inform the development of The Takeaway and other programming on PRI.

NPR has gotten into the game of exploring the potential for radio with new audiences. A new major research project with Smith Geiger Research (separate story) seeks to identify what causes different groups of listeners to tune in, and what they prefer to hear. We’re looking forward to hearing what NPR learns from this project.

Radio is probably most successful at broadening its audience in several other countries. In Canada, CBC Radio has aimed to diversify its audience by reflecting more accurately the communities served by its stations. The CBC gets to know the racial and ethnic dynamics of a specific market and adjusts staffing and programming for that purpose. In Toronto this means better reflecting the growing immigrant community. There, CBC’s morning show has grown from No. 5 in audience size to a consistent No. 1. CBC Toronto executive Susan Marjetti will talk about her work there in a session at the PRPD Conference in Denver this week.

The BBC has had similar audience-growth success — both in Britain and in countries served by the BBC World Service — by overcoming fears of change and adjusting the subject matter of programs and the variety of accents heard in the voices of news presenters. BBC has also developed entirely new services targeted to specific people, including World Service programs produced for specific countries and domestic services designed to reach more diverse radio users.

If we want to catch up with our international counterparts on this score, it will be important for public radio stations in general to take an active role in broadening and diversifying our audience, rather than leaving it an objective of just a few stations.

For some programs, adding new perspectives will go a long way to expanding audience. In other cases, entirely new services may need to emerge. If we can all put the core into perspective and see a broader community of listeners, we’ve got a chance to build on the gains of our last audience revolution.

Photo: Steve Behrens

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