Many stations say yes, despite
Originally published in Current, Sept. 11, 2006
By Mike Janssen
Nevada Public Radio in Las Vegas spends $400,000 a year on a two-hour weekday talk show that airs at 9 a.m. The next two hours of programming are also a talk show. Price tag for the station: $36,000.
What’s the difference? The first show, State of Nevada, is produced locally. The second, Talk of the Nation, comes by satellite from NPR. And for all that expense, the local show achieves only a small edge in audience size and loyalty over the national offering.
Yet to Flo Rogers, director of programming, the payoff from that hefty investment is immeasurable. “We absolutely believe that this is the way we will retain our relevancy as a community institution,” she says.
Adding up the net value of local production, with its all-too-tangible costs and its sometimes squishy payoffs, is no easy task. But it is becoming increasingly familiar to public radio stations as they stake their future on giving listeners unique programming that grounds them in their communities.
Station programmers say local news can distinguish them from commercial competitors who have mostly stopped covering community issues. It also protects them from being bypassed, as national producers reach listeners through podcasts, web streams, satellite radio and other platforms.
The penalties for misjudging the value of local programming could rise, however, as stations ride out an audience slump that could hurt revenues. Those experienced in local production urge sensible business planning and a commitment to give new shows the promotion and attention they need to thrive.
Programmers will discuss these issues this week during a session at the Public Radio Program Directors Conference in Philadelphia. Conference attendees will also hear the results of PRPD’s “Sense of Place” research project, which corralled listeners into focus groups to gauge the value they place on local programming.
Earlier this year, the Audience 2010 reports by researchers George Bailey and David Giovannoni bluntly underscored the risks of local news production. Commissioned by the Radio Research Consortium, the study sought to explain why public radio had lost audience since 2003 and fingered local programming as a possible culprit.
The analysis of Arbitron data did find that audience loyalty to local news, information and entertainment programming was rising until listening levels slipped. Yet in general, listeners remain more loyal to nationally produced news, information and entertainment programming by a 10- to 12-point margin.
“[A]udience outcomes of local production are often cruel, and the economics are always brutal,” Bailey and Giovannoni wrote. “Local shows are usually less competitive than network shows, less important in listeners’ lives, and more difficult to sustain through listener-sensitive support.”
“The point we were trying to make is that the local programming aspirations of some stations may, in fact, be the cause of their audience decline — or at least a significant contributing factor,” Giovannoni told Current.
Station execs have long known the rigors of local news production, even in rosier times. Local news and talk shows demand far greater investments than what stations pay for national shows — KNPR’s State of Nevada costs the station more than Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition combined.
A 2004 study commissioned by CPB further emphasized the financial wallop of local programming. The “Having It All” report by consulting firm Brody Weiser Burns [PDF] found that the 314 licensees surveyed increased spending on programming by $112 million from 1999 to 2003. Most of that — 77 percent — supported local production.
“Increases in programming costs generally were associated with decreases in net revenues,” the consultants wrote. Forty-five percent of the licensees were in the red in 2003.
Some station execs raise big sums from foundations and major donors to cushion the high costs. North Carolina Public Radio/WUNC in Chapel Hill, N.C., is tapping proceeds from a $3.25 million capital campaign to back The Story, a new national talk show that started locally. NPR got State of Nevada off the ground with a three-year grant from CPB that peters out this year.
Audience 2010 questioned this strategy as well, warning against “protracted reliance on listener-insensitive support,” such as grants and major gifts, rather than on support from listeners of average means.
The study aimed to remind readers “that you become what you measure,” says Giovannoni. “If you’re measuring public service, you will provide public service. If you’re measuring listener-insensitive money, you could go very far astray.”
Others respond that big gifts and grants serve as an important vote of confidence for public radio and as a path to creating significant mission-driven programming.
“One of the hallmarks of public broadcasting from its very inception has been to create, experiment with and present programming that is innovative, distinctive, different and challenging, and that may not immediately find success in straightforward marketplace propositions,” says Tom Thomas, co-c.e.o. of the Station Resource Group. Many station leaders aspire to outcomes for their local shows that are broader than the audience metrics that Audience 2010 examined, he says.
Thomas adds that the audience data need a closer look for a fuller understanding of how local news has performed. The strong performance of national entertainment programming raised overall listening to the category of national news, information and entertainment (NIE) programming, helping it to outshine the local NIE category that is composed primarily of news shows. [Correction] “You’re pretty much letting the local news efforts hang out by themselves there,” he says.
Programmers stress that successful local production depends not just on large gifts but on patience and planning. “We’re seeing that the lead time that it requires to . . . achieve some stability is much longer than many people would think,” Thomas says.
That has proved true at New York’s WNYC, where midday talk show hosts Brian Lehrer and Leonard Lopate uphold the loyalty that the station draws during Morning Edition and, at 9 a.m., an hour of the BBC World Service.
It is perhaps no coincidence that Lehrer, Lopate and other popular local talk hosts throughout the system — including Diane Rehm, Terry Gross and Connecticut Public Radio’s Faith Middleton — share long track records on the air. Local shows “take a much longer time to bake than anybody ever thinks,” says Dean Cappello, WNYC’s chief creative officer and senior v.p. of programming.
Before embarking on the process, programmers should take care to think it through, Cappello says. “It’s important for people at stations to understand why they’re producing what they’re producing,” he says. “If you’re doing a local talk show because you think you should have one, I don’t think that’s a sufficient reason.”
Cappello also says that creators of shows must consider when shows air and how they fit with the rest of the schedule — what programmers call “stationality.” WNYC is developing a new midday talk show, its first in 16 years, and Cappello and his staff are considering how to build on the success of Lehrer and Lopate.
“Instead of this show starting, then ending, how do we make it sound like much more of an ongoing conversation?” he asks.
With all its attendant worries, local production can weigh on stations, especially smaller ones. Cappello and others foresee that stations will team up by region or other affinities and pool resources for local news. One example already under way is the Northwest News Network, a collaboration of nine stations in Idaho, Oregon and Washington that began in 2003.
“It may be that it’s too expensive for local stations to do it right,” Cappello says. “But a station working with some other people who want to do similar things might be able to afford it.”
KNPR’s Rogers says the system should also develop metrics to gauge the benefits of local production that Arbitron can’t measure.
Since State of Nevada’s 2003 debut, local newspapers have picked up on show topics, she says, and prominent Las Vegas “movers and shakers” come through the station for on-air appearances. After a show about mental health issues, two guests who had never met struck up a half-hour conversation in the station’s parking lot.
“You can’t measure the value of that,” Rogers says. “Is that worth $400,000 a year? I think it is.”
An earlier version of this article misrepresented comments by Tom Thomas, co-c.e.o. of the Station Resource Group. It paraphrased Thomas as saying that measurements of audience loyalty in the Audience 2010 study need a closer look and that the strong performance of national entertainment programming helped to raise loyalty figures for the category of national news, information and entertainment shows. Thomas in fact had referred to total listener-hours, not loyalty, and stressed that understanding the comparative performance of local news programming required recognizing the strong audience growth of national entertainment shows in recent years. The corrected version accurately reflects Thomas's comments.
Web page posted Sept. 26, 2006
Updated Oct. 11, 2006
Copyright 2006 by Current Publishing Committee