What to do about public radio’s ratings slide?

By Mike Janssen

Now that Arbitron’s new ratings methodology is providing consistent and crunchable year-to-year data on radio listening, public radio programmers and producers are getting a clearer picture of listening trends — and it’s not a cheerful one.

Chart showing audience decline for NPR news stations

Arbitron’s move from diary to Portable People Meter measurement challenged researchers to get accurate readings on public radio’s audience. Now that PPMs are in place, however, the audience declines are continuing and real. (Click for full size.)

Cume and average–quarter-hour audience for NPR News stations has been falling for a year, according to NPR data. AQH began falling in 2008, after stations in the top 48 markets began the switch from diary to Portable People Meter ratings. Weekly cumes remained relatively consistent through spring 2011, then began a sharp decline. The slides have been driven in part by a fall-off in drivetime listening.

Strategies to reverse the drop-offs were a focus of discussion during the Public Radio Program Directors conference in Las Vegas Sept. 11–14.

“Flat seems to be the new up,” said J.J. Yore, g.m. of Marketplace, referring to public radio’s scaled-down ambitions. The comment drew laughter from a gathering of news/talk programmers.

The session was convened by Jeff Hansen, p.d. of KUOW in Seattle, who argued that public radio needs to renew the systemwide discussion about how to draw more listeners on the platform that has traditionally defined it.

Arbitron’s gradual switch from paper diaries to Portable People Meters, which concluded in 2010, threw off measurements on a national basis and made it difficult for local programmers to analyze their ratings until they had year-to-year PPM data. The numbers are in, and programmers are just beginning to ponder what to do about them.

“I’m not hearing any ideas within the system about how to grow the radio audience,” Hansen told Current after the conference. “In fact, it almost seems like we’re not interested in growing the audience.”

At the conference, Hansen argued that public radio stations can make the most headway by fixing a condition that has long persisted, even in times of audience growth: the relative drop in listening between Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Since newsmagazines perform better than anything else on weekdays, the solution may be to fill middays with similar programs, Hansen said. That would constitute a shift from the current strategy of using mostly one-hour talk and interview shows, which are less expensive to produce than newsmagazines.

KUOW has already been experimenting with such an approach in the form of KUOW Presents, a one-hour show that airs at 2 p.m. Monday to Friday and at noon on Saturdays. (Listen to a sample episode.) The show pulls together segments from a variety of sources, including the Public Radio Exchange, other stations and nationally syndicated shows.

The station shaped KUOW Presents as a continuous stream of pieces, rather than a more rigidly structured and formatted show. It has no theme song and no opening billboard. Independent producer Jay Allison has called it a “non-show show,” Hansen said.

The p.d. declares KUOW Presents a success. It draws more listeners than the talk show that previously aired in its time slot, and it at least retains and sometimes grows the audience from the preceding hour of programming. The listener response makes sense to Hansen, given that the average duration of a period of listening for a public radio listener is just 11 minutes.

“Maybe we’re spending a lot of time creating this feel of a show when it’s not even important to the average listener,” Hansen said. When people say KUOW Presents doesn’t sound like a show, he said, “We say, ‘Terrific.’”

KUOW has had to get permission from national program producers to repurpose their pieces on KUOW Presents. Creating more newsmag-like midday content will require much broader collaboration among stations and networks, Hansen said.

At New Hampshire Public Radio, the midday show Word of Mouth incorporates segments from PRX, national shows and other stations, but these pieces make up only a small portion of the show’s content, said Abby Goldstein, v.p. for programming.

Goldstein said she would consider programming a full hour of such pieces, as KUOW has, but adds that the national talk shows her station airs are already performing well. Not only newsmagazines perform well in middays, she pointed out. At KERA in Dallas, where Goldstein previously served as p.d., a popular midday talk show staked a third tentpole in the station’s listening curve.

“Midday performance depends on a lot of things,” Goldstein says. “There are so many factors to be considered. I don’t think you can make a generalized comment that one thing will work and one thing won’t.”

During a Q&A in Las Vegas, John Van Hoesen, v.p. for news and programming at Vermont Public Radio, asked NPR Chief Content Officer Kinsey Wilson whether NPR would produce more newsmag-like programming for middays.

Wilson questioned whether NPR has the capacity to help fill that gap. But both he and David Kansas, c.o.o. of Minnesota Public Radio/American Public Media, said that stations and networks could work together more to share content, creating a system for allowing local stations to pick up and air each other’s reporting. “There are some interesting things that new technology makes possible there,” Kansas said.

Morning conditions

PRPD-goers focused on another troublesome time in the schedule for news/talk stations: mornings. PPM data have revealed that listeners flip around more in the morning than they previously reported in paper diaries.

Average–quarter-hour listening for all of public radio’s news stations has dropped, particularly in the 7 a.m. hour, and morning drivetime listening has declined among all NPR news stations in PPM markets, according to Ben Robins, programming research manager at NPR.

In addition, listening to all radio is declining in drivetimes, and fewer college-educated adults are listening to radio in the morning. That decline is “critical” to public radio stations, according to NPR, because building audience for ME and ATC is even harder when total radio usage is in decline,” he said.

To better understand listening habits, NPR asked about 120 Morning Edition listeners to report on their morning routines. They found that listeners were checking in with an average of six different media sources before 10 a.m. on as many as five different devices. Some listen to podcasts of other public radio shows, such as Marketplace, during their commutes.

“The number of choices was astonishing to us,” said Sarah Withrow, senior research analyst at NPR, at a PRPD session.

A portion of listeners reported that they wake up to smartphones instead of alarm clocks, and, perhaps not surprisingly, they’re not immediately listening to an audio stream of Morning Edition. Most of those who reported using mobile devices as alarm clocks said they started using them before getting out of bed.

Station reps suggested tactics that NPR could adopt to keep listeners tuned in, or at least engaged on other platforms. The network could push out notifications of news updates to listeners’ smartphones via its app, said Steve Yasko, g.m. at WTMD in Towson, Md. Some other news apps, including the New York Times’s, already do that.

NPR could also create an app that allows users to wake up to an audio stream as an alarm clock, said Steve Nelson, p.d. for MPR News at Minnesota Public Radio. Podcasts that combine local and national content could also be created, he said.

Moderator Warren Kurtzman, president of media-research firm Coleman Insights, said NPR should also increase its marketing efforts. Many people aren’t aware of public radio and don’t know about their local stations, he said.

NPR is planning to roll out marketing campaigns in four markets, Robins said. The Ford Foundation provided a $750,000 grant to NPR to support the campaign, which is being designed to build awareness and listenership of KERA, Dallas; WFYI, Indianapolis; WMFE, Orlando, Fla.; and KPBS, San Diego.

The stations were chosen for their geographic diversity and because they are the only stations providing NPR News programming in their markets.

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