Core value of PRPD: ‘Think audience’

Interview by Karen Everhart

Current Q&AWhen the “gang of four” program directors began commiserating about their day-to-day jobs at local pubradio stations in the mid-1980s, the knowledge-sharing and audience-focused approach to decision-making that came of their efforts laid the foundation for the Public Radio Program Directors Association. When PRPD convenes its annual conference in Las Vegas this week, three of its founders will be there to celebrate the organization’s contributions over 25 years to public radio’s audience growth and ascendance as a trusted source of news and information and cultural programming.

Former PRPD President Marcia Alvar and two members of the “gang” — research consultants Peter Dominowski and Craig Oliver — recently participated in a telephone interview with Current interim managing editor Karen Everhart to discuss how the jobs of station-based p.d.s have evolved, and the challenges those in the profession face today. PRPD’s founders also included Ellen Kraft (who now uses the surname Spear), p.d. at WGBH-FM in Boston through most of the 1980s; and the late Don Otto, director of Eastern Public Radio and namesake of PRPD’s annual award recognizing career contributions to the field. 

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Shortly after its founding, PRPD convened a series of workshops providing training on how to use research to build audience for local public radio stations. The association’s founders, pictured during a 1988 “PD Bee” with Radio Research Consortium founder Tom Church at left are: Peter Dominowski, then p.d. at Orlando’s WMFE, second from left; Marcia Alvar, Seattle’s KUOW; Craig Oliver, Washington’s WAMU; Don Otto, of Eastern Public Radio; and Ellen Kraft, Boston’s WGBH.

In the mid-1980s, p.d.s were program schedulers and managers, and they lacked the research and training to think strategically about building listenership. The concept of “thinking audience” — advanced by researchers Tom Church, David Giovannoni, George Bailey and Don Otto — “felt like a complete revolution,” Alvar recalls in the interview. “The idea that you were actually doing things for an audience — as opposed to being a kind of vanity press of the airwaves” — was controversial. But it took root and spread as a foundational principle in the discipline of public radio programming.

The trio discuss how this principle and the research that sprang from it still apply to various aspects of a p.d.’s job — including decisions such as whether to schedule Car Talk when the Magliozzi brothers retire, how to balance the demands of digital news publishing with listeners’ expectations for public radio news reporting and determining where to invest the field’s limited resources to best address the challenges public radio faces today. 

Current: What set of circumstances prompted you to establish PRPD 25 years ago? What problems did you hope to solve in the day-to-day work of program directors?

Marcia Alvar: All of us have our own tales — I had been a program director in the mid-’70s at WBFO in Buffalo, and then I’d gone off to Alaska where I worked in radio and television news.

After eight years in Alaska, I found myself back in a station, as program director at KUOW in Seattle. And I found that what I thought I knew about being a program director had changed. Instead of a funky, 5-kilohertz interconnection, there were multiple channels of programming coming in, every minute, via satellite. I had never heard of radio research: This was a new thing that I knew absolutely nothing about. I felt fairly comfortable with the management parts of the job, but all of these other new wrinkles had been introduced in the programming of stations. And so I started calling people and saying, “I don’t know anything. Can you tell me what you do?”

I’m not quite sure how I figured out who to call, but Craig and Peter were among the people I talked to. We all shared this feeling of “Gee, what is this job? There doesn’t seem to be any manual or any guidelines for it.”

Craig Oliver: We all learned that the job was a little undefined. Previously, it had been very operational: We were people who scheduled. Many of the programs, at least at WAMU in Washington where I worked in the 1970s, were recorded. So we scheduled and acquired programs; we made sure there were people to work on holidays and vacations. Being a p.d. wasn’t strategic at that time.

We weren’t thinking about the audience and how to direct the station’s programming in a way that would reach more listeners. We weren’t thinking about dayparts or how people listened — we had yet to learn all those things.

A key principle was overlooked in the debate over Car Talk’s continuation, Dominowski says: “The audience makes decisions about whether programming is or is not useful to them.”

Peter Dominowski: Two things happened to me, not quite at the same time, but very close together. One was that I was fortunate to be program director of a brand-new station at that time, WMFE in Orlando. Orlando was the largest market in the country that didn’t have a full-time public radio station.

Secondly, shortly after I took that job, I became familiar with the work of Tom Church, the founder of the Radio Research Consortium, and his analysis of public radio listening.

At that time, Tom was just basically in the back of the room saying to anyone from a station who would listen, “I want to say this gently and politely, but very few people are listening to your stations, folks.”

Wow. I’ll bet that shook you up.

Dominowski: Yes. I started working with Tom, and he mentored me. I didn’t know much, but I was trying to find anything I could — whether it was books on advertising, psychology, on consumer behavior. There was a handful of books out there about commercial radio programming. I was trying to adapt these ideas somehow to public radio, to serve our mission and our needs.

I was trying lots of wacky stuff. Some of it made a lot of sense; some of it, looking back in retrospect, was kind of crazy. But I was trying to make sense of this. When Craig, Marcia, and I came together, we realized that we were all trying to make sense of the same thing.

Marcia probably called me because we put WMFE on the air and became the most listened-to public radio station in the country for our market size in less than two-and-a-half years.

Alvar: The research workshops that Tom Church and the Radio Research Consortium put together were incredibly influential in establishing PRPD. I went to one in 1985. This was where I met the researchers who were so influential on us as program directors — Tom Church, David Giovannoni, George Bailey, and Don Otto — and was introduced to the idea of thinking audience.

It felt like a complete revolution, and later it became so controversial. The idea that you actually were doing things for an audience — as opposed to being a kind of vanity press of the airwaves — that was how a lot of station schedules had been put together.

Oliver: The term “vanity press” is a good one. It refers to the practice of programming what we thought listeners should hear, as opposed to what they wanted to hear.

Dominowski: It’s hard to believe it, but at that time people were debating whether the audience should be considered in stations’ decisions about programming. A large number of people advocated that the audience’s needs shouldn’t be considered; they found the concept of audience service threatening because they were so used to broadcasting for their own self-interests. The message we were putting across was that audiences’ interests come first, they’re primary.

Alvar: People would talk about thinking audience as “dumbing down” and “pandering,” and what a terrible thing it was. Today we know that we have the smartest, most demanding, most intellectually curious listeners in radio. The objections raised in those debates — that by doing a better job of programming we would somehow water down the service — many years later, it seems like a great irony.

That dynamic seemed to come into play this summer when the producers of Car Talk announced that they were going to continue producing the show with archival material after the Magliozzi brothers retire. It is such a powerful program for driving weekend listening, if you’ll pardon the pun. Ira Glass of This American Life got a big reaction from his fans and listeners when he said Car Talk itself should be retired so that the airtime could go to new programs.

One implication in that debate was that station p.d.’s were too risk-averse, too concerned about holding on to existing listeners instead of trying to serve new listeners by scheduling any number of new programs. Was that fair?

Dominowski: That is a classic example of decision-making that is not listener- and audience-focused. We see it all the time from stations, networks and producers. Quite often it comes with very good intentions. With all due respect to Ira, who obviously is fantastic at what he does, he’s not a program director. And I’d add that it has to be an audience-focused decision. The audience makes decisions about whether programming is or is not useful to them.

Oliver: Going back to what Marcia said about Tom Church, one of his favorite expressions was, “Most people don’t hear most programs. Most people don’t hear most pieces. So, the audience-driven decision about that is, if it’s new to the listener, it’s new.”

Car Talk isn’t the only popular program that involves succession issues. There’s uncertainty about what will happen when Garrison Keillor and Diane Rehm retire.

How does a p.d. weigh a decision to continue carrying a show that has dedicated listeners and stars who seemingly can’t be replaced? How do you balance that loyalty against the recognition that sometime soon you’ll need some kind of successor for that show? Is this even within the purview of a station p.d.?

Dominowski: Yes, it certainly is. The decision, at least in my point of view, is very different, if you’re currently carrying those programs or if you’re considering whether to start carrying those programs.

If you’re currently carrying the programs and they are performing well for you, it demonstrates that the audience is responding. I’d certainly be concerned about succession issues, but that wouldn’t prompt me to remove the program while it’s still performing well and audiences are still appreciating it.

If I were starting a brand-new station, might I think twice about scheduling certain things? I might, but it depends on market conditions, what my listeners want, and what other programming we might offer during those times. Also, whether the new programing would be of equal or greater value to our audience.

Public radio’s content should be ‘platform-neutral,’ Oliver says, and available wherever listeners are.

Oliver:It’s a good research question. As a p.d., I would consider whether the program is host- or content-driven from a listener’s point of view. Why do people listen? If it’s content-driven and the show gets a new host, as long as that host is confident and able to deliver in the same way as the previous host, it’s very likely that’s what the audience wants.

Alvar: A good illustration of this situation is the transition at Morning Edition when Bob Edwards was removed as host. A certain number of people saw that as the end because he was so closely identified with the program. How could it go on without him? There are a number of major shows that could go forward with new hosts because they really are content-driven, even though they have incredibly popular hosts. If you put it on a scale, it’s the content, the approach and all the values that are embodied in that program — not the personality.

For stations that have been expanding their newsgathering and their local programming, the first Sense of Place study was a big wake-up call in 2006. Listeners said that local news and information shows were boring, a letdown compared to the quality that they expect from public radio.

Peter, I know you’ve been working on an update of that study. How much progress have stations made in creating more compelling local talk and news programs?

Dominowski:That groundbreaking study was right on. Marcia was very involved in that and, as she knows, it was done in parallel to the two local-news project studies that I was working on at the time, using different methodologies and different stations. We essentially came up with almost identical conclusions, and this gave us a lot of confidence in those results.

Overall and speaking generally, station-produced product has improved a lot. But, as one might expect, there are still a number of issues. Some stations are still airing feature stories that haven’t been edited. This is a cardinal sin of journalism, but it happens. It happens at stations I was visiting as recently as two weeks ago.

When something as fundamental as editing, which is a building block of journalism, isn’t happening consistently and often enough at stations, it’s a problem.

Alvar: There’s a really strong ambition to do more things in news, without the recognition that it’s better to do something extremely well than to do a lot of things not so well. In news, it’s referred to as “the beast.” You have to feed it all the time, and there’s tremendous pressure to do a lot and do it quickly. The bottom line of all the research that the three of us have been involved in is that it’s really self-defeating to do a lot if it’s not very good.

Oliver:Again, it comes back to the listeners — they have a sensibility about what resonates with them, and they use language that tells us whether it’s working or not.

For example, I remember George Bailey telling me about some focus groups he conducted for a station. A listener in one focus group used the word “interrupted” to describe local programming — “The station interrupted the NPR story with something local.” In other words, it wasn’t up to their standards. But, in another focus group, a listener said something like, “There was this great story on NPR about . . .” As he went on to describe it, it turned out that the story really wasn’t “on NPR,” it was a locally produced story.

The difference in that case was that the local story met the listener’s expectation for the quality of public radio news. And to him, whether it was local or not didn’t matter. He identified it generically as “NPR.” It addressed a concern or a need, and the quality was what he expected from public radio.

So, when listeners’ expectations are met, they respond positively. And when they aren’t, their reaction is negative. And the word “interrupt” was a negative in that focus group.

Dominowski: Another way people express this in focus groups is: “When I hear the station’s reporting, I always wonder what I’m missing on NPR.” And that’s another indirect way in which they indicate that station-produced journalism may not be filling their needs.

Peter, you have been working on an update of the Sense of Place study. What is the scope of the research you’re doing?

Dominowski: The charge from PRPD was to come up with a way to conduct the Sense of Place study that would be more affordable for stations. We used an online survey for the first two pilots, and I expect that to continue as the project goes forward.

Fundamentally, we’re looking at things that will help journalists understand the different communities that they serve, and how the listeners in these communities react to various issues and how they are covered.

I’ll try to give an example. The Core Values study that Marcia spearheaded still stands. In the broadest sense and in psychographic terms, it revealed that public radio listeners have similar fundamental expectations, especially for news, whether they’re listening in New York City; Ames, Iowa; or Bakersfield, California.

When journalists are trying to make decisions about issues in the news and what’s important to people in their communities, it’s quite easy to look at these values as monolithic. But we’ve discovered that this is not quite true, especially for stations that provide service to the same regions. We’re working with these types of stations in the pilot. The cultural institutions they’re aligned with, the primary issues of concern for their communities are quite different throughout the region.

Just because the stations are broadcasting to the same region — greater Sacramento or greater northeast Ohio, for example — doesn’t mean their institutions and the issues they value are the same. So the concerns and issues of importance vary considerably, even within this minute geography.

We’ve only completed the research at two stations, so I can’t postulate for you 100 percent that this is true every time and in every place, but it seems to make sense on our first launch. We’ll certainly be doing another pilot or two over the next year as we revise and refine our efforts in this area.

So this is the first stage of your research, and it’s going to be ongoing?

Dominowski: It was designed as a pilot, and there will be probably as many as two more pilots over the next year or so. We’ll continue to refine how we ask questions, what questions we ask, and how the research could be made of best use to listeners.

One interesting tidbit I can tell you is that we asked questions about different types of news and the value that listeners found in them. National news was generally considered the most valuable and useful for the two stations in our pilot surveys. International news and some station-produced news had roughly the same ranking in interest and value. And we also asked about hyperlocal news — reporting about what’s happening on my block or just down the street. It ranked lowest in interest and value.

That might be surprising to some folks who are trying new things on the Internet, but it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who’s ever read the Core Values studies.

Alvar: There’s another piece to this that came out of the first Core Values report in 2000. It was what we called “filters,” and it came out of our inquiry with producers about how they continue to produce very high-quality programs, day after day, week after week, year after year.

It came down to these three filters — talent, content and craft. I think those remain unchanged over time. The successful techniques that were used to develop talent remain the same, as do the standards for how content is developed, refined and shaped for listeners.

The push to expand public radio’s digital newsgathering and multiplatform reporting capacity, as well as increased distribution of public radio content via mobile apps, has been a top priority over the last few years. Has it come at the expense of radio programming and things that are needed to strengthen audience service for broadcast?

Dominowski: The bit that troubles me is a lack of perspective about digital that appears in many circles of our industry, and it’s not clear to me whether this has taken root by design or by default. If you express any sort of opinion questioning why digital is such a high priority — even if the opinion is based on facts — you’re looked upon as a three-headed monster, or a person who is not keeping up with a contemporary audience service.

But quite often these attitudes about the primacy of digital aren’t reality-based. There’s an example of this in the Aug. 20 edition of Current: the front-page story is about the Kickstarter fundraiser for the 99% Invisible podcast. I’m not downgrading the achievement of having 4 million downloads of a podcast since September 2010, but let’s add some perspective here. Morning Edition has 9 million or so listeners every single week. That’s not in the headline, and somehow it’s not considered comparable or it doesn’t matter.

What we’re trumpeting is the fact that somebody had one-quarter or one-eighth of that amount of audience service. There seems to be a lack of perspective as to how we are providing the greatest service to our listeners. We’re missing an explanation of how, if a program is delivered through a mobile app, that somehow improves or changes the quality of it. It doesn’t.

Oliver: I agree that we need to keep it in perspective. Right now, most of the delivery is still on the radio.

It’s still important to provide our content to listeners on all these new platforms. We should be “platform-neutral” and be where listeners are. These new delivery systems give public broadcasting an opportunity to experiment and be more creative.

One of the things the commercial radio trade magazines keep hitting is how media companies are going to monetize these platforms. You can’t monetize them until you create something that resonates with the audience. We have a little bit more opportunity to try things and experiment because we’re nonprofit and noncommercial, so we should be doing that.

But we need to keep focusing on the things we learned from the Sense of Place and Core Values studies and to be mindful that we have to meet the needs of the listeners where they are.

Alvar: We have to be wherever the listeners are and remember that anything that leads to more editing is good. That’s a sentiment that came right out of the Sense of Place study. Listeners are keenly aware when is story isn’t edited.

We have to always keep our values and listeners’ expectations in mind, and the process of applying those filters that I talked about earlier; making sure the reporting is factual and in-depth — all of the high standards listeners expect. If these values get dropped by the wayside in a rush to do different things on different platforms, then we have a problem.

There’s promise and there’s peril in everything. What listeners want — what the public radio audience wants in values is so clear. We know where the bar is, and we have to pay attention to that and not squander the remarkable accomplishments we’ve made in audience service.

I just reread the PublicMind poll that was released this spring. It measured how well-informed people are based on their preferred sources of news and found that public radio listeners are the best-informed people in the country. That’s a remarkable accomplishment.

That’s the standard we should use in setting priorities for new platforms: How is it going to help maintain that high standard that’s been established?

This is the first year that Arbitron has provided Portable People Meter data that allows stations in all 48 PPM markets to make year-to-year comparisons under its new methodology. Craig, can you give us a sense of what difference PPM has made to our understanding of public radio listening? Are you seeing any surprises in the data?

Oliver: Year-to-year data has been available for a while but just not in all 48 markets. Arbitron recently has been using this to look at trends across all the markets. I’m not sure how many of their new findings apply to public radio, but one in particular is interesting.  They recently reported that morning drive is no longer king in terms of all radio listening within a market. The top hours for radio listening are afternoons, like 2 or 3 p.m.

I doubt this holds true for public radio. Morning drive is still probably more prominent in terms of total amount of public radio listening that occurs.

Another change that I’ve observed among my client stations is more anecdotal. News stations have slipped in their overall market ranking, but their time-spent-listening (TSL) data are looking very strong. So, for example, a lot of people are tuning into the big commercial rock-and-roll music stations; the cumes of these stations are large, and they’ve gained in the rankings. But their listeners don’t stick around as long as our listeners do.

Arbitron also reported that occasions of listening or the average number of tune-ins per week is the metric that drives success in PPM markets. Public radio has always been an occasions medium because we’re program-oriented; we have the opportunity to drive people back. We tell the audience, “If you’re listening now, please come back later for this program,” because there are similarities that appeal to the public radio news listener. It’s to our advantage to maintain TSL, because it’s a predictor of success in fundraising.

Have these findings about TSL changed the way programmers should think about their schedules and on-air promotion?

“We should be trying to create more occasions for listening, not just trying to extend the length of the listening occasions.”
— Craig Oliver

Oliver: What I’ve told my clients is this: In terms of on-air promotion, try to build more occasions for listening.

We used to tell p.d.’s to try to get people to listen for one more quarter-hour. This hasn’t changed; they should still do that. The granularity of the PPM data has revealed a lot about listeners’ lifestyles and the things that lead to interruptions. People stop listening when they get out of their cars and go to work. They may not be able to listen while they’re working.

So we should be trying to create more occasions for listening, not just trying to extend the length of the listening occasions.

Think of the promotion hierarchy involved in getting people to listen for one more quarter-hour; now it’s probably just as important to get people to come back later in the day, or to come back at the same time tomorrow. If we can drive that with program scheduling and with on-air promotion, it will lead to more success.

Dominowski:Back when we had diaries, people would write down that they listened from “9 a.m. to noon” without any interruptions. With PPM we now know that they listen from 9 to 9:15 and they go to a meeting. Then they listen from 9:45 to 10:03, then they go to the restroom. They listen from 10:07 to 10:30, then they go for a snack or coffee. We know listening is much more interrupted than the diary system led us to believe.

In the Morning Edition Grad School workshops, we emphasized promoting the next quarter-hour or two. This is forward-promotion in the classic sense. Because we now know people are tuning in and out more frequently, we can think about forward-promotion as promotion that also builds occasions to listen at the same time.

For breaks, you definitely want to continue promoting in the next quarter-hour, but you also want to promote to later in the day, with programming that has similar and strong appeal. That’s absolutely basic Promotion 101, as far as we’re concerned.

Classical music is experiencing a revival in major markets where public radio stations have kept the format alive and expanded to provide 24-hour noncommercial service in many cities. But classical stations have the oldest audience in public radio — more than 70 percent of listeners are ages 65 years and older, according to Arbitron’s latest report on the public radio audience.  Does this demographic profile compromise the format’s viability over the long term? What can be done to address this?

Dominowski:There are several factors at play. No. 1 is the public radio funding model, which can have an insidious impact on how and what we program.

Let’s say, for example, that someone designs a classical-music format that would lower the median age of our listeners by 25 years.  Because of the stylistic and musical differences of the presentation, the stations implementing that format would drive away a number of their long-term, traditional listeners. These people are very likely to be among their most significant donors. So, even if we had a solution to that issue, there’s a tension over whether and how it could be implemented.

That’s a real hurdle that any music format — and particularly classical — faces. As far as I know, it hasn’t been discussed on the national scene. I’m not proposing that I have a solution, but I’m just raising the question.

There’s been research over the years looking for ways to make the format more accessible, and there have been explicit efforts to try to engage younger listeners. But it doesn’t seem to have had a demonstrable impact.

Oliver: I’ve been kicking around public radio for almost 40 years, and classical music has always appealed to older listeners. I’m not convinced that’s a bad thing. If you’re playing classical music and programming news and information on the same station, then you have a sort of a dual-audience appeal, and that may be problematic.

In some markets we have separate classical and news channels operated by the same station. So the classical station appeals to an older audience and the news station appeals to an audience that is a generation younger. Ultimately, more listeners are served.

Public radio is often criticized for catering to a core audience that is characterized as affluent, highly educated and primarily white. Leaders at NPR and CPB have put a lot of money and effort into initiatives aimed at cultivating a more diverse listenership in terms of age and ethnicity. Is this something that can be addressed programmatically? Could there be a new format that would be culturally relevant to a more diverse set of listeners?

Dominowski: David Giovannoni wrote three of the most powerful words ever written about programming and journalism in our industry. Those words were: “Programming causes audience.” They seem very simple, but they’re incredibly powerful words. This principle is true whether the programming is on radio, or offered through an app, or a live stream. The programming causes the audience that results.

We know well from experience just how challenging it is for the relatively small percentage of split-format stations to serve and appeal to audiences that may be primarily different. Those difficulties carry over when you are trying to successfully appeal to individuals that have quite dramatically different characteristics in age and in other aspects of demography. It’s certainly desirable and possible to appeal to both, but not necessarily on the same program service.

Marcia Alvar

Since broadcast is the “primary pathway” for listeners to experience public radio content, Alvar says, “our primary focus has to be making sure that what we put on the air every minute of every day is good.”

Alvar: It’s important to keep in mind that the primary marker for public radio listening is education. Higher income flows out of that because people who have a lot of education have more options and choices in employment. The real question to me is: Is public radio appealing to educated nonwhite listeners in the same proportion that it is to educated white listeners? To me, that is the starting point.

If there is indeed some kind of difference in appeal, why is that? When I worked for Marketplace on the Voices of Color project in 1990, I came to the conclusion that you have to recognize that you don’t know what you don’t know. If you don’t have people producing content who are from those communities, you’re not speaking to them.

CPB’s investments in research and training have helped to elevate the profession and professionalism of public radio program directors. Where do you see the need for investment now, given all the challenges public radio stations are facing both programmatically and with the uncertainties of the funding picture?

Dominowski: I’ll start with one that’s particularly relevant to CPB’s uncertain funding prospects. We have a good understanding of what causes listeners to become financial supporters of a station. We have very, very limited knowledge of the activity of pledging on the phone or online and how it fits into their lives. Why — after hearing the same pledge message every day — do they contribute on Thursday morning at 7:10 rather than on Friday morning at 7:10? What is the difference in the messaging and in the way on-air and online fundraising techniques are carried out? Which of our efforts are most effective?

There’s an old quote from John Wanamaker, the Philadelphia department store magnate, who said, “I know that half of my advertising money is wasted. The problem is, I don’t know which half.” We’re in a similar situation with fundraising. We’re trying all these various techniques, and we don’t always know which of them are actually the most effective. And given how much we depend on listener support, directly and indirectly, I would think that would be an area that would merit further examination.

Alvar: I’d like to see a concerted effort to provide some comprehensive training in public radio news. We have this unique set of values that resonate with the audience, and there are methods of journalistic practice that are needed to produce the rich, in-depth programming that public radio provides. I question whether there’s enough training available to journalism students in the public radio style.

You’re talking about something beyond NPR’s internship program or those of local stations — training that can accommodate more people?

Alvar: For NPR’s summer internship program, there are many more applicants than can possibly be accepted. Wouldn’t it be great if we took the top candidates who didn’t get in and paired them with local stations in their communities? This would be a way to bring more young and diverse journalists into public radio newsrooms.

Oliver: Since one of the primary products of public radio is news and journalism, this is where we can have the biggest impact. We need to bring the next generation along.

Commercial radio has largely abandoned radio journalism, and we’re now the primary outlet for it.

As Marcia was saying earlier, journalism involves a lot of editing and curating, and that’s where I think we should invest training dollars, in both the programming and journalism sides of it.

As we move forward with digital media, journalists will work in more than one medium. In addition to radio, they may be producing video or print stories that appear online, or they’ll be using Twitter or other social media.

With all these various outlets, one thing we know from research is that the more we edit, curate and apply other techniques that appeal to the educated, curious listener, the better we’ll be able to meet those needs on different platforms. This sort of training is going to help expand and grow the audience.

Dominowski:There’s been talk over the last few years of having 100 journalists working in the newsrooms of every major-market station, but very little has been said about the training of these journalists. If we had the bodies, how would we know and ensure that they would be public radio journalists who understand our mission, our values, and the listener expectations, which are quite high?

When you think back to the world of public radio at the time of PRPD’s founding, which of the problems that you were dealing with still exist?

Dominowski: There are still quite a few of those problems. On-air promotion is the one I’d point to as one that still needs attention. In the MEGS project we’ve listened to more than 100 stations in great, minute detail. And the unfortunate fact is that few, if any, consistently do on-air promotion very well. I don’t know why this is, and it’s such a fertile field for audience service and growth.

In the MEGS workshops, we talk about the goal of getting 50,000 listeners to tune in for one more quarter-hour per day. Whether that’s your entire tune-in audience, or just a fraction of your entire tune-in, if you get them each to listen one more quarter-hour each day, it adds up to more than 3,500,000 additional hours of listener service every year.

It’s not just a technique or something that adds work to program directors’ jobs; promotion is crucially important to continue our audience service. The more people listen, the more likely they are to generously support the work that we all do.

Oliver: I’d add something else to that. The more time that program directors spend listening to what’s on their air, the better the product is. It goes back to those words “editing” and “curating,” and beyond what Peter just said about promotion — to the station’s sound overall, how it hangs together. It’s the sound and execution of breaks between programs that keep listeners engaged from one program to the next.

There are a lot of demands on p.d.’s these days, and some things can become distractions. But one of their most important responsibilities is to pay attention to what the station sounds like and consider whether they’re giving people a reason to switch off or to stay tuned.

The sound of the breaks between programs is one of the things that determines whether they switch off or stay. Does the announcer who is on duty prepare what he or she is going to say in the next break, or do they just treat this as something they rush into or do mechanically? The need to pay attention to this has never changed.

It was one of the sounding bells of PRPD very early on, and I think it’s still very important.

Alvar: Our primary focus for creation of content has always been and remains radio. In thinking about new technologies, I see tremendous potential to give our listeners more of what they want — a deepening of our content and new and different ways to engage them more. There are things you can give people on the Web that you can’t give them as effectively on the radio. But we must keep in mind that if it’s not very good when it’s produced for the radio, it’s not necessarily going to get better just because you put it on the Web.

So as long as the radio service is the primary pathway for people to experience the content, it has to be excellent there. Just putting it in another platform is not going to enhance it. That’s why our primary focus has to be making sure that what we put on the air every minute of every day is good.

  • Joseph

    I would suspect that in the future, decisions on what programming public radio stations broadcast will be based on just four words: Will It Pledge Well??

    Meaning will the program attract financial support from listeners??

  • http://twitter.com/michvinmar Michael V. Marcotte

    The weirdest moment at PRPD’s 2012 conference: Commercial radio consultant John Lund — invited back decades after his first “attack” on public radio — proceeds to pound on the imperatives of local radio, including (and I swear to God he said this multiple times and meant it), “If it bleeds, it leads!”

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