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Project nickname: 'Zach'

Can pubradio speak Gen X? NPR will try — in a.m. drive

Originally published in Current, Jan. 22, 2007
By Mike Janssen

NPR will try to attract new listeners to public radio, inventing for them a two-hour morning newsmagazine that airs at the same time as Morning Edition, and an accompanying web service.

The venture answers mounting calls from public radio programmers and station execs agitating for fresh approaches and new audiences.

As NPR readies the show, still unnamed, other pubradio producers are playing for attention from Generation X, including Public Radio International, with Fair Game, and Chicago Public Radio, with a second news/talk service.

“We’ve been through so many of these discussions over the past years about new and different audiences,” says Jay Kernis, NPR’s senior v.p. of programming, “and this is exactly what the system has been saying to us.”

The show will be the first from NPR, and one of few in the system, created for the daypart widely conceded to Morning Edition for more than two decades. It is part of a bigger push to grow public radio’s audience that NPR announced last month, titled Public Radio 7.8 (separate story).

The network does not yet know which stations will carry the show or how they will offer it. But it is promoting its use on podcasts, web streams and digital multicast channels in addition to primary broadcast signals.

The show will aim to distinguish itself from older siblings Morning Edition and All Things Considered by covering topics of particular interest to listeners ages 25 to 44, showcasing a breezier style and featuring more of their peers’ voices.

“It’s just a different way of communicating with an audience that ought to be listening to NPR,” says Matt Martinez, a 31-year-old producer on Weekend Edition Saturday who has worked on the show since January 2006. Martinez is now overseeing the program’s development.

NPR is looking to hire two hosts for the show, which is known as “Zach” within the network. The nickname is a riff on Jack, an eclectic, jukebox-style music format airing on some commercial stations. Other than rhyming names, Kernis stresses, Zach and Jack share little in common.

The network hopes to launch the program in September but will pilot segments on Rough Cuts, a section added to its website last month and now previewing another NPR show under development with recently hired host and correspondent Michel Martin. Rough Cuts, which features a blog, podcast and streaming segments, asks listeners to sample the audio clips and share feedback.

The sound of Gen X

Even without much targeted programming, public radio has already drawn 7 million listeners ages 25 to 44 into its cume, according to NPR. Other research shows that the ranks of Gen X listeners have been growing.

More listeners from Generations X and Y have been tuning in since 1995, according to last year’s Audience 2010 study commissioned by the Radio Research Consortium. They made up pubradio’s second-largest demographic in 2005, second to boomers and outnumbering the older cohorts.

“If current trends continue, public radio will reach more Gens X&Ys than Boomers by 2010,” the study said.

And despite hand-wringing in the radio industry about the iPod threat, Xers are more likely than boomers to listen to more than 30 hours of radio per week, according to a 2006 Yankelovich study, and they’re about as likely as boomers to listen to pubradio. The weighted survey of 4,110 people defined Gen X as ages 28 to 41.

NPR’s research says listeners in their new show’s target audience want to hear coverage of many of the same topics that interest boomers. But they are more interested in coverage of television, movies and music, a finding seconded by Yankelovich.

They are also keener to hear reporting on the environment, world hunger, the conflict in Sudan and other matters of concern to activists, says NPR’s Kernis. Furthermore, they want to connect with other listeners focused on these issues and to know how current events bear on people their age.

To create a distinct aural signature, the new show will feature more voices of people in the target age group and try to sound less scripted. “We have these great conversations here at editorial meetings, but they never make it onto the air,” Martinez says. “They have flow and energy. It would be great to have that casual feeling translated to the air.”

One model Martinez has in mind is BBC Radio 1, which repackages features from the British broadcaster’s domestic and international services to make them friendlier to listeners in their late teens and early 20s. When Radio 1 recently aired a BBC World Service story about teenagers who abuse cough syrup, Martinez says, hosts introduced the segment differently and asked listeners to share their thoughts via text messages.

“We want to do a lot of that,” Martinez says. “Maybe a health care story airs on Morning Edition — we want to take the meat of that story and use it to have a different conversation. How does this affect this age group that we want to listen to our show?”

Escape from D.C. newsroom culture

Much of the show’s sound and focus remains undefined, to be shaped by the show’s young staffers. The show’s staff, still being assembled, will work from NPR’s New York offices.

NPR’s newsroom culture in Washington is “wonderful . . . and yet quite pervasive,” Kernis says. “I want this group to have the freedom to try things without a lot of grownups saying, ‘Oh, no, no — we don’t do it that way.’”

He adds: “I think we’ve reflected the Washington sensibility very well for the past three decades. I think the show needs another sensibility.”

Tone, not content, could pose NPR’s biggest challenge, says consultant and veteran pubradio programmer Jim Russell. If irreverence distinguishes the most popular media among younger people, “is public radio willing to go there, or is it too staid and responsible to?” he asks. “Can one medium be the New York Times and South Park?”

Russell also wonders whether station programmers will dare to lose current listeners by luring a new crowd. Yet stations might be able to skirt that problem by offering the new show on other platforms, either online or on HD Radio multicasts.

To some programmers, attracting younger listeners presents an effective strategy for countering public radio’s recent audience loss. Stations’ efforts to improve promotion, on-air sound and flow between programs might slow audience erosion but could fail to realize more dramatic gains, says Jeff Hansen, p.d. at Seattle’s KUOW.

“What if the best way to find new audience is with a new channel?” he asks. “I think it’s worth trying, and it’s worth the risk.” Hansen will consider airing NPR’s new show on KXOT-FM, a second news service that KUOW launched last summer.

“It’s always risky to try something that breaks the mold,” says Mark Vogelzang, an NPR Board member and g.m. of Vermont Public Radio. “But it’s been said plenty of times that the only way that you succeed is if you try something new and different.” Vogelzang plans to offer the new show on a college station in Burlington that VPR programs part-time.

Web page posted Jan. 25, 2007
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee

EARLIER ARTICLES

If public radio needs new audiences, asks researcher John Sutton, which should they be?

LINKS

NPR's news release about the new program Jan. 3, 2007.

The network plans to use its new Rough Cuts procedure for soliciting listener aid in developing the new show. The method is now being used in planning another new proposed weekday series, this one to be hosted by Michel Martin.

If present trends continue, Generations X and Y will account for more public radio listening than Boomers by 2010, according to an April 2006 report in public radio's Audience 2010 (PDF) study. (See pages 8 and 9.)

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