we aired on public radio what we valued ourselves. Second, we studied
numbers about the listeners. Now it’s time to turn up the creative volume
and set off in
a Third Direction
What makes C-SPAN successful? In a Chicago Tribune interview, founder Brian Lamb explained with a hint of pride: "We don’t sit around asking, ‘How do we generate a bigger audience.’ We don’t check the ratings. That gives us tremendous freedom."
Lamb’s reasoning no doubt will sound disturbingly familiar to public radio programmers. It was the original approach of public radio: applying your own standards, taste and instinct to shape programming. But over nearly two decades, public radio has slowly moved away from the notion that it can ignore the standard measurements of broadcast effectiveness. The consultants’ refrain, "Think Audience," perennially reminds us that we serve others, not ourselves. A primary goal of public radio is to offer programming that is welcomed and used by many, programming both attractive and companionable. While we know that public radio can’t possibly be mass appeal broadcasting, we quite reasonably strive to serve the greatest number of listeners possible.
We’ve devoted ourselves to a methodical pursuit of that end. We work to generate a bigger, longer-listening audience. We use ratings services to measure our success, along with any other available indicators — qualitative research, on-air fundraising performance, surveys and audience comments.
Before we completely dismiss Mr. Lamb’s point of view as antique, though, note his conclusion: "That gives us tremendous freedom."
Today, freedom is public radio’s impossible dream. It seems unattainable because of our diligent pursuit of audience growth. Right or wrong, we’ve become pragmatists — business professionals who’ve seen the positive results of paying attention to what attracts and what repels listeners. We’ve conditioned ourselves to dread displeasing them, because they may leave and never come back.
For many years we proudly ignored audience size, but failed to make the best use of the freedom that gave us. It certainly wasn’t working in the late 1980s. While commercial radio audiences grew rapidly, ours hardly grew or declined. This was alarming, especially on the heels of NPR’s near collapse.
And, so, with the Audience 88 study and the audience-building initiative of the Station Resource Group (SRG), the public radio system began to focus on this challenge. Stations tracked the behavior of listeners. Program directors imported many fundamental principles of audience building from successful commercial radio operations. We fitted our schedules to listeners’ expectations, making them reliable, predictable and consistent.
In its infancy, public radio may have wandered on its initial path of self-indulgent whim. Today we travel a more cautious course, avoiding unmapped frontiers.
But just as public radio lost ground 20 years ago because it used the programming methods of its educational radio past, we stand to lose some of the audience we gained to new media. It’s time to put today’s methods to bed and move in a new, third direction. The strategies born in Audience 88 and refined in Audience 98 will increasingly prove less effective in this decade.
The quaint competitive environment that shaped Audience 88’s cautious, consistent-appeal programming objectives has already dissipated. A decade ago, new cars didn’t have CD players built in. Internet streaming was only a dream. MP3 players weren’t for sale on Main Street. Satellite radio hadn’t graduated from theory to reality. Congress had not yet given corporate conglomerate broadcasters its blessing to dominate media, as it did in 1996.
We can take some reassurance from radio’s historic resilience and the technical and marketing challenges faced by competitive technologies. George Bailey’s recent Public Radio Internet Study finds that to date Internet radio seems to be draining time from television viewing and reading, not from listening to conventional radio. The embarrassing year-long delay in the launch of the two satellite radio services, due to financing and marketing problems, makes satellite radio seem less fearsome. Even in its recent launch, XM experienced technical difficulties. And best of all for alarmed NPR stations, NPR has promised to withhold Morning Edition and All Things Considered, at least initially, from its Sirius Satellite Radio feeds.
Nevertheless, complacency is a mistake. The forces that are lining up against conventional radio are unlike previous challenges. Never before have so many promising technologies mimicked radio’s unique portability. Never before has it been so easy for listeners to program their own content to fit their tastes and schedules. Never before has radio been more vulnerable to competition—commercial radio because of its research-driven formats and public radio due to its march towards uniformity. The very factors that undermined the dominance of broadcast television—channel proliferation and audience fragmentation—are now in play against broadcast radio.
In short, it will no longer be acceptable to choose familiar techniques of audience building at the expense of creative freedom. But we can revive the ancient art of radio experimentation to create programs and schedules that, for a change, satisfy both audience appeal and our mission for innovation.
I am not arguing that we return to the old patchwork schedules created out of impulse, or to unprepared, unprofessional announcing, or to music rotation more random than reasoned. In many ways, we’re fortunate to leave that past behind.
But within our specific formats we must adapt our objectives of being reliable, predictable and consistent. Public radio stations in 2002 are specks in a media Milky Way. The effective competitive strategy is not blending in, but standing out. The next decade demands that we adapt our objectives:
We may still want listeners to depend on us for services within a clear category, such as music or news, but we need to infuse these services with vitality. To build cumulative audience and time spent listening, we designed "companionable" background listening. But public radio cannot be a player in a new era replete with such services and for a public-service broadcaster it’s not a proper objective to pursue.
If our programming competes with other generic services, we can’t count on people staying around. If our programming is predictable, it can be duplicated. Indeed, listeners will be able to outdo us by harnessing the powers of search engines, MP3 players and other emerging and merging technologies.
Freshness—departing from formula—becomes one of the radio programmer’s best friends. A real companion is present and engaging. Our on-air talent must be, too. We must reinforce the vigor of our radio presence, embracing audiences in community events and through the Web. We must re-examine traditional methods of presentation and music rotation, to use the stunning to polish the familiar and comfortable.
One of these fresh efforts is Rick Goddard’s limited series Fake?, aired last year by CBC. Goddard’s program is at first blush lighthearted, a kind of To Tell the Truth, but more deadpan and journalistic. Each show is a series of interviews with guests telling peculiar stories. The audience learns at the outset that only one will be true, and they vote for the fakes on the program’s website. A week later they can compare their scores with others’. This may sound like a quiz show, but it isn’t. The program is serious advocacy, a weekly morality play in which we begin to see that doubting all media is healthier than believing what we hear.
Background radio? Hardly. Taking the third direction requires us to turn up the volume.
Our content must have value to the listener beyond mere diversion. It must be thoughtfully and respectfully chosen, segment by segment, to be relevant to the community of listeners. It must be produced to the listeners’ standards of professionalism. "Think Audience" means more than never giving listeners a reason to tune away. It requires broadcasters to invest in the audience’s human development. This sounds lofty, yes, but it is indeed what focus group listeners tell us they treasure about public radio. The third course requires that every time listeners tune in, they should learn a little, grow a little, think a lot. We have to design our content not only to be predictably professional, but ceaselessly valuable.
In the mid-1990s, the program director of KUOW, Ross Reynolds, building on a foundation built by Marcia Alvar, redesigned the station’s middays from music to talk. He carefully selected a mixture of acquired and original vehicles to make KUOW’s mid-morning and mid-afternoon as indispensable to Seattle radio listeners as Morning Edition and All Things Considered. The mixture of original talk shows with the national productions made the station relevant to listeners’ issues, while also offering information about the wider world.
Even without original programming in the mix, strategic choices of acquisitions can compellingly serve listeners. But it means questioning conventional wisdom. A schedule or approach that is crafted to be predictably meaningful may not necessarily look like those built on ratings affinity.
The hardest task of all is to craft a signature for the station that sets it apart from all other media choices. Nevertheless, it is the most powerful shield we will have in warding off the decade’s competitive challenges.
For two reasons, this concept requires dramatic shifts in our habits.
First, we never had to think about this before.
Distinctiveness for most National Public Radio outlets came by default. We were distinctive because we offered NPR. As web streaming and satellite radio increasingly present NPR programs (and other syndicated programs) in direct competition with member stations in their own communities, our new mandate is to be distinctive and offer NPR. We can’t count on our former NPR, PRI and Pacifica franchises to promote listener loyalty when the same programming is everywhere.
Thus, the part of the service we design—and its scheduling, formatics, original content and positioning—must communicate in a very concrete and consistent way who we are, as a separate entity. Instead of co-branding our stations with NPR, we should be cross-branding. The station brand will dominate while the NPR brand survives as just one feature of the station brand.
Radio has a rich tradition of distinctive station brands with zealous followings. While many public stations have wrapped their identity in the coverlet of their Wash-ington production center, others have always set themselves apart with distinctive characters—for example, eclectic KCRW in Santa Monica, Madison’s community WORT, Jersey City’s freeform WFMU, Pacifica’s New York City outlet WBAI, and New Orleans’ community WWOZ. The homemade identities of KCRW and WBAI clearly outweigh their network brands. Listeners value them for much more than acquired programs. We can build listener loyalty by providing the community services that make us distinctive and essential.
Second, we have been headed in the opposite direction from distinctiveness. Our sound has been standardized as programmers adopt the best practices of the most successful stations and networks in the system. We acquire programs proven in other markets first and schedule them when they seem to work best nationally. We choose music based on pooled research built on national averages.
We even seek to sport, down to the nuance, a uniform public radio sound set by NPR and other national producers. In this new age of direct competition, stations bedecked in borrowed garb only further legitimize NPR or another national competitor. Instead, we must work to create something new and individual.
Station signatures are built slowly, one programming decision at a time. Originality and risk-taking needn’t be earth-shattering, but they do need to come from a specific point of view, an awareness of the precise difference the station seeks to make in the community.
A weekly program that signals a new signature for BBC’s Radio 4, for example, is the astonishingly original weekly montage Home Truths. This is the stuff distinctive brands are made of. The listeners themselves provide stories, which are produced and edited by the BBC staff and accompanied by host John Peel’s agile writing. During the broadcast and after, the audience can provide instant critical reaction through the Radio 4 website—and provide content for future episodes. This kind of experiment infuses a station with energy and vision. It makes it a destination.
A nonderivative station signature does not come from programming by whim. It results from a profound commitment to audience and standards. It is the product of hard labor, creativity and skill.
As we take the third direction, we can’t spurn fresh programming concepts on the grounds that the talent or their ideas are unproven. Failed experiments aren’t devastating. Audiences are very supportive when we clearly put thought into our work and continually strive to improve it. Following the third direction will require that we have faith in their support—and repay that faith by adjusting programming as the audience responds.
What we’ve learned in past evaluations shouldn’t evaporate with the shift to the third course. We want a purposeful, not aimless, freedom. We must be certain that we are indeed reaching listeners, in more meaningful ways than before.
As the audience fragments, we need to investigate audience attitudes and behavior more closely, regularly investing in surveys, focus-group studies and forums for listener comment—on the Web, on the phone and in person with the station staff.
Following this direction will give each station a solid identity. It will give each listener a unique relevant public radio resource. And it will give each programmer an intense challenge.
As before, we should study what methods serve audiences elsewhere and explore formulas and patterns that have proven successful. But we cannot do this with the tracing paper of our present direction. Best practices are no longer the finish line; they’re the starting gate.
In the third direction, we must encourage creative freedom and freshness, measure station performance and overall value thoughtfully, and correct weaknesses to best serve our most steadfast listeners.
Web page posted March 6, 2002
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