How stations can stay relevant as listeners go elsewhere for NPR content

Commentary by John Sutton

The public radio economy is built on $432 million in annual listener contributions to local public radio stations. Each year nearly 3 million listeners and their families recognize the value of a station brand in their lives, and they voluntarily give that station money.

We’ve known since the 1980s that listeners give out of enlightened self-interest, not altruism. The primary motivation for donating to a public radio station is nearly universal — they recognize that the programming they hear via the station brand is personally important and that they would miss it if it were to go away. This finding has been confirmed through multiple studies over decades and more than 1,000 donor surveys conducted over the past nine months by Emodus Research, which I founded last year to learn more about the emotional connections that motivate audiences to listen and donate to public stations.

But listeners’ attitudes and behaviors were shaped by the monopolies that most public radio stations held on access to public radio programming within their communities. Each station’s role as “the only place in town” to hear NPR News, Garrison Keillor or classical music was one of the strongest elements of the brand. Many listeners perceived the public station as the only local source of worthwhile radio.

The sole-provider dimension of the public radio station brand is rapidly eroding as listeners access public radio’s best national content through an expanding variety of on-demand platforms, such as apps, podcasts and digital content aggregators. The station brand — especially the NPR station brand — is being diluted by digital distribution technologies, and that erosion puts the public radio station revenue model at great risk.

What’s at stake

Public radio’s Audience 98 study showed that listeners valued NPR programs more highly than programming from any other source, including the local station. The report estimated that NPR programming accounted for 36 percent of all listening and 43 percent of all money contributed to all of public radio, including non-NPR stations.

When that percentage of contributions is applied to today’s revenues, it links $185 million in listener contributions back to the value of NPR content heard via local radio stations. There hasn’t been a comprehensive national study on public radio’s programming economics since Audience 98, but the research available to us today suggests not much has changed.

An analysis of audience data for nearly two dozen NPR News stations for this commentary found that NPR programs account for 50 percent to 70 percent of all listening to these stations. The data also show that NPR programming remains the strongest audience draw for these stations in the sample. And donor surveys from a quarter of these stations revealed that listeners continue to give money to maintain their access to NPR content. They want to help pay for the NPR programs they value.

Based on this analysis, I estimate that at least half of an NPR News station’s listener support is at risk as listeners gain more ways to directly access NPR content. For most stations, the number is probably much higher.

This is the conclusion I draw from the data: NPR News stations need to protect their NPR News listening if they are to maintain the levels of financial support that comes with it.

The conventional wisdom in public radio is that “going local” is the answer to pending direct competition from NPR. But this is an incomplete solution for a few reasons.

  1. Local content is much more expensive to produce on a per-hour basis than network content. It is not financially viable for a local station to match NPR’s quality story-for-story, hour-for-hour.
  2. NPR News listeners consider themselves citizens of the world. The geographic constraints on a local station’s content creators cannot fulfill the listeners’ full range of interests. The absence of national and international content will drive listeners away.
Branding in the digital marketplace

Here’s the marketing challenge NPR News stations now face — how do you attract and build a loyal audience when the exact same content is available elsewhere at the exact same time?

It’s the same problem that commercial Top 40 and Adult Contemporary radio stations have faced for years. The primary content — the music — is essentially the same. All things such as broadcast signals being equal, the station that attracts the most listening is the one with the stronger overall brand.

There are several examples of public radio stations that are broadcasting signature NPR content at roughly the same times within their markets. KUOW and KPLU in Seattle, KCRW and KPCC in Los Angeles, and WBUR and WGBH in Boston play all of the same hits — in these cases, the hits are NPR shows such as Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Car Talk and Wait, Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!

Each station strives to differentiate itself in other ways — by presenting music programming or bringing a different focus to its news programming. Instead of being the NPR News station in Seattle, Los Angeles or Boston, each station is trying to brand itself in listeners’ minds as “my station that has NPR.” This is a subtle but important difference. These stations have demonstrated that there is a market for different flavors of NPR News.

Strengthening station brands

As usage of digital audio grows, listeners will increasingly perceive NPR.org and NPR’s mobile apps as their sources for NPR News. Station audiences will segment. Some listeners will leave the station all together. Some will stick with the station, listening over the air and/or online, and choose not to access NPR’s digital offerings at all. Some will split their time between the station and NPR.

Why will they choose the station at all when they can access content directly from NPR.org? Local content will play a role, as will convenience. Some people will simply choose to listen to radio. But the primary reason will be Emotional Connections. The total package of station offerings — from network content to local content to engagement — will foster bonds with listeners who consider the local station their preferred way to experience public radio.

Emodus Research has spent the last year studying the emotional connections that NPR News listeners have with NPR and with their NPR stations. Our measurement of Emotional Connection includes elements of Brand Advocacy, Brand Loyalty and how strongly listeners feel about a myriad of personal benefits they might gain from listening. For example, do they feel very strongly that listening is personally enriching or that it helps them contribute to society?

It will come as no surprise that listeners have a stronger bond with NPR than they have with their local stations. Emotionally connected listeners are vital to the future of NPR News stations because they are four times more likely to donate to the station than Highly Satisfied listeners, who like what they hear but are not particularly Brand Loyal.

What creates an Emotional Connection between the listener and the station?  Time spent listening is a primary factor. The more hours per week a listener spends with a station, the more likely he or she is to be Emotionally Connected. The value derived from that listening also plays a role. Emotionally Connected listeners are far more likely than non-connected listeners to agree that:

  • Listening results in a feeling of personal enrichment
  • They get a feeling of happiness from listening
  • The station has a positive impact on culture and community
  • Choosing to listen to the station is also doing something good for society

Emotionally Connected listeners are also more likely than other NPR News listeners to place a high value on Sense of Place — the idea that news coverage and programming about where a listener lives is an important part of his or her public radio listening experience.

Our research followed up on a 2007 study by Public Radio Program Directors and Walrus Research that examined the value of Sense of Place for listeners of NPR’s Morning Edition. The study found that conveying a Sense of Place in local broadcasts could increase the value of the content to the listener, provided the local coverage and programming matched the quality and values of NPR News content.

Emodus has taken that idea one step further by segmenting the audience based on how much they value Sense of Place. We randomly recruited NPR News listeners via the Internet and asked them questions about their preferred station and the perceived value of the listening experience delivered by that station.

Our objective was to identify how many NPR News listeners value the local enhancements to NPR content that they hear and the extent to which they value it. We included questions about how much they listen, whether they give and their feelings about community content.

It is important to note here that Emodus’s study of Sense of Place does not refer to a specific type of content. The research question was intentionally broad. We asked listeners to respond to the question, “Hearing about my community from [station] is an essential part of my NPR listening experience.”

Current NPR Chart

We found that listeners who place a high value on community content within their NPR experience were more likely to be Emotionally Connected to the station than the station’s average listeners and Givers.

Emotionally Connected listeners to NPR News stations place a higher value on Sense of Place than the average listener. So do Givers; however, they value it a little less than Emotionally Connected listeners.

Our research is too preliminary to conclude that an individual station should move to strengthen its local brand by investing more heavily in local programs, whether it be news or talk.

Rather, our conclusion is very similar to those drawn from the earlier PRPD study. Sense of Place is a vital part of the public radio brand, but stations that focus on it too much risk alienating 25 percent to 70 percent of their audiences.

To succeed in providing value to their listeners, stations will have to continue to deliver a mix of highly valued national programs, including several non-NPR programs, that the listener prefers over any other source.

The right balance of network content and localism will result in a brand differentiated from the NPR-only experience. A station might lose the portion of its audience that finds no value in Sense of Place, but those listeners are less Emotionally Connected and appear to be less financially valuable to the station’s individual-giving program. Further research on these segments is vital to the financial future of public radio stations.

Action items

Based on our research to date, I recommend four tactics for stations working to strengthen their local brands in the near future.

1. Strengthen station branding for online listeners

As listeners access public radio content across multiple platforms, the most important goal a station can pursue is getting current listeners to use its online stream as well as its broadcast offering.

From the user’s perspective, listening via IP is the same experience and delivers on the same value proposition as FM listening: The station helps turn his or her daily routine — getting ready for work, commuting — into time well spent. From the station’s perspective, the branding opportunities of the online listening experience are equal to or greater than radio. The listener hears the station’s on-air branding and is exposed to additional content, promotion and branding via the digital device.

Listeners who access content on demand and via personalized playlists present separate challenges and opportunities. For stations, audio branding on web-based platforms is just as important here, if not more so. The online listening experience should include some form of audio branding before and after every story, which is more than broadcast listeners hear. Remember, the goal is for the listener to credit the station as the source of the quality listening experience.

This gets tricky when the listening occurs outside of the station’s digital environment. When a station’s listeners start experiencing quality public radio content not associated with their brand, loyalty is at risk of eroding. In time, a core listener to a specific station — someone who uses the station as her primary audio source — becomes a fringe listener. She might continue to use comparable amounts of public radio, maybe even more, but she will become less emotionally connected to the station. She becomes far less likely to give.

The solution is for NPR and other national program producers to develop more ways for station branding to appear in the national digital environment. NPR’s new mobile app, NPR One, is beginning to address this by inserting audio branding for the local station whenever a user listens through the app. The app, now in its beta launch, gives stations some of the credit for delivering a quality mobile listening experience.

This might be the single most important co-branding opportunity in public radio given that NPR is prohibited from raising money directly from listeners. The public radio economy will be severely damaged if stations’ core listeners become direct-from-NPR core listeners because NPR has no mechanism to convert those emotional connections into listener contributions.

2. Ditch the sole provider mentality, if you haven’t already

Assume that NPR is a full competitor for your listeners today. Start thinking about how you can still offer NPR’s best content while differentiating yourself from NPR.

3. Program, market and engage based on the emotional values of your station

Your brand isn’t a list of what you do. Your brand is what you mean to listeners, and that brand transcends geography.

As noted earlier, Emotionally Connected listeners derive feelings of personal enrichment, happiness and civic responsibility from their experiences with public radio.

These feelings are among the strongest emotional drivers of listening uncovered by our research. They help explain why the station is personally important to most listeners; when used to inform programming, marketing, and engagement strategies, they will help strengthen the station brand.

Two of the above emotional drivers — personal enrichment and a feeling of happiness — are purely inner-directed. They speak straight to the listener’s mind, heart and soul.

This circles back to being meaningful in the listener’s life. Prior research has established that public radio listeners view themselves as citizens of the world. They are the epitome of “think globally, act locally.” They listen to public radio to fulfill that aspect of their being. They listen to learn, and they listen because it helps them empathize.

Even though the news of the day can often be hard to take, listeners tune in and come back because they believe listening makes them better people, and that makes them happy.

Listening is also influenced by outer-directed emotional drivers. Specifically, listeners tune in and come back because they believe the station has a positive impact on culture. This is not culture with a capital “C,” although supporting the arts through reporting and other means probably helps.

The “culture” emotional driver has more to do with the station being a positive influence in the community. In addition to deriving value from program content, listeners tune in and come back because they perceive the station as a good organization.

This flows into the fourth emotional driver — that choosing to listen to the station is also doing something good for society. This is both inner- and outer-directed. For the Emotionally Connected listener, the act of listening by itself is being a good citizen. It is outer-directed in that the listener perceives the station as a positive influence on culture. It is inner-directed in that the listener associates the station as fulfilling his or her need to “think globally, act locally.”

By understanding these drivers and using them as the foundation for building programming, marketing, and engagement strategies, stations can strengthen their relationships with listeners and givers. Stations can supplement the benefits of listening to NPR with unique, and equally valuable, experiences.

4. Improve the membership program

Emotional Connections are primarily a function of listening, but they are strengthened through the giving relationship.

Yet industry benchmarks show that many stations fail to develop membership programs with strong retention rates. These stations invest too little in reacquiring lapsed donors, and they aren’t aggressive enough in acquiring first-time donors.

One of the best ways to protect the station brand during digital disruption is to use the tools of the membership program — sustainer programs and frequent communications — to strengthen the relationship between the Giver and the station. That goes beyond raising money. It means engaging Givers with meaningful benefits  such as exclusive content and events that deliver even more of the personal benefits they receive from listening.

Putting it all together

Building on these Emotional Connections is key to ensuring that NPR News stations thrive in the future. Not all listeners will abandon stations for NPR. With the right strategies and good execution, an NPR station can keep a good number of listeners and an even greater number of supporters.

It will do that by functioning as the listener’s best button for personal enrichment and relevance in the world, whether that button is on the radio, an app, a dashboard or a computer.

In partnership with national content providers, an NPR News station can also serve its existing audience and attract new listeners through national listening platforms. Each station must aggressively work to convert the listeners’ feelings of emotional connection to the station into financial support and reward that support by delivering even greater value.

Maryland-based consultant John Sutton provides research, marketing and management consulting services to public radio stations and other organizations through two companies: Emodus Research, which specializes in psychographic analyses of public radio listeners, and Sutton and Lee LLC, which assists stations with strategies for building audience and membership revenues.

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