Selections from the newspaper about
public TV and radio in the United States

Listeners wary of commercialism on stations’ websites

Originally published in Current, Sept. 18, 2000
Commentary by Peter Dominowski and Eric Nuzum

Does the Internet hold a world of revenue opportunities for public radio stations or have they been oversold like so many other things about the online frontier? Focus groups conducted for the CPB-sponsored Public Internet Consumer Insight Study (PICIS) are demonstrating that listeners may have surprisingly clear and restrictive views about what’s appropriate for public radio to do online, especially regarding e-commerce and Internet advertising.

Listeners from four stations, representing a diverse group of markets (WKSU, Kent, Ohio; WUNC, Chapel Hill, N.C.; KPBS, San Diego, Calif.; and Michigan Radio, Ann Arbor), participated in these focus groups.

While public radio’s discussion thus far has focused on what we can do online, the PICIS study shows us it is time to move on to discussing what we should do online. During the recently completed first phase of the PICIS study, Market Trends Research conducted 16 focus groups with station listeners with at least an intermediate knowledge of the Internet (defined as a minimum of weekly Internet use, and having either bookmarked a website or shopped online). While listeners described the impact of the Internet on a wide range of issues, they expressed several core values regarding our online presence.

Significantly, most listeners still view us as a radio service. The walls around that definition are very high: listeners see our primary mission as revolving around our broadcast offerings, and believe that any other media ventures (such as online) are purely ancillary and adjunct to our radio service. Not surprisingly, listeners tend to transfer their values and opinions about our radio stations to our websites.

The most detailed comments offered by listeners in this research focus on advertising and e-commerce on public radio websites.

Internet advertising

The Internet provides new revenue-generating opportunities to stations for e-commerce and advertising. Unlike on their air, stations can legally present any type of advertising on their websites. But listeners do not necessarily embrace our new-found freedom.

The study presented several examples of Internet underwriting and advertising, including banner ads. Listeners were asked whether they viewed the examples as “advertising” or “underwriting,” whether seeing the examples on a website would change their perception of a public radio station, and what kinds of advertising stations should, and should not, accept for their web pages.

While some argued for more or less restrictive practices, most listeners suggested that stations translate on-air underwriting guidelines into the policies governing advertising on public radio websites.

Listeners offered specific guidelines for advertising on stations’ websites:

Based on what listeners have told us thus far, commercial sponsorship can play a role in public radio websites as long as it retains the overall feel and sensibility of underwriting.
While most listeners understand the need for financial support, many also consider public radio to be the last source of information, music or entertainment that is untainted by commercialism. They hold us to a higher standard. Many have difficulty understanding how public radio can be advertiser-supported on the Internet while being listener-supported on the air. Most listeners in the focus groups would very much like to retain the noncommercial aspect of public radio, both on the air and on the Internet.

One interesting exception to listeners’ reservations about the placement of commercial advertising on a public radio website is national entertainment shows, such as Car Talk and A Prairie Home Companion. Listeners perceive these as largely commercially produced programs that are purchased with station dollars. Since these programs don’t rely directly on listener income, listeners have markedly fewer reservations about ads on related websites. The same types of commercial advertising would not be acceptable on a station website, or on a site directly connected with news programming. One North Carolina listener, commenting on a perceived “double standard” regarding advertising on station websites compared to national programs remarked, “Car Talk doesn’t ask me to send money; WUNC does.”


Public radio hosts and reporters are constantly talking about books, movies and other products that some listeners may want to buy. It is logical to assume that these features present an opportunity for public radio to sell those items online. However, listeners have mixed reactions to conducting retail business with their public radio stations.

Listeners seemed to have substantially more questions about the mechanics of public radio website e-commerce than interest in patronizing such services. When shown examples of e-commerce possibilities, many listeners quickly question the station’s motivation and interests in e-commerce. This translates to the point that some listeners question our editorial integrity when faced with the option to sell materials we review.

Since many public radio stations are relying on outside vendors who try to provide editorial content about a product and sell it online, it will be necessary for those entrepreneurs to follow these same ethical standards. Otherwise, public radio may find itself tarnished by association.

Listeners appreciate additional information on our programming. Music playlists, names and authors of books discussed on news and talk programming, and similar programming-related information consistently rated among the most useful features on our websites. When we provide information on these items and how to purchase them, listeners—almost universally—consider this a service. When stations get into the business of selling items not directly related to programming, opinions and support among listeners begins to split and become diluted.

According to study respondents, e-commerce becomes more acceptable to the focus group participants as it comes closer to the programming itself. Listeners were almost unanimous in approving their station selling Car Talk “best of” CDs. When shown e-commerce opportunities featuring books, listeners focused on connections to programming (i.e. if a book had been featured on NPR) to rationalize approval or disapproval. When shown e-commerce items with no relationship to programming (PICIS respondents were shown pages selling garden tools), listeners became increasingly confused as to why we were selling non-programming related items.

When stations engage in e-commerce, it is important that they make certain facts very clear to listeners. Subtle statements were not sufficient. Stations should make the following information easily accessible on their site:

Even without being prompted, many listeners can perceive dangers for stations heavily involved in Internet advertising or e-commerce. But few listeners articulate the economic dangers for stations that don’t tap Internet-related and other new funding sources.

Interestingly, these listeners seem to perceive that public radio stations have finite financial needs and can meet them through current fundraising methods. Most listeners who support e-commerce, or online advertising, assume that the new revenues will enable the stations to cut back on other fundraising efforts. For instance, success in selling of a online banners might translate into fewer underwriting messages on-air. E-commerce could translate into fewer days of on-air fundraising.

The next step in the PICIS research is to use the information from the focus groups to construct online and telephone surveys to test these tentative conclusions with a more extensive sample of listeners. The focus groups helped us understand the intensity of listener opinions. The survey will determine the extent of these opinions in our wider audience. To follow along with update information on the PICIS study, visit on the Web.

We’ve already learned much more about public radio listeners and the Internet than can be discussed in one article. It is too early to conclude whether public radio has a bright future online. But it is clear that as it was necessary to understand our listeners and their radio use habits before public radio could maximize audience service and fund-raising, the same understanding will be required about the Internet before its potential can be achieved. PICIS will continue working to provide some of that essential understanding.

Eric Nuzum is director of programming and operations at WKSU-FM in Kent, Ohio. Peter Dominowski is president of Market Trends Research in Palm Harbor, Fla. The PICIS study is funded by a CPB Future Fund grant plus contributions from the four participating station, PRPD, the Development Exchange and PRI.

Web page posted April 7, 2004
The newspaper about public TV and radio
in the United States
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Copyright 2004


In a 2004 commentary, Mark Fuerst sees public broadcasting's big chance to stake out a place on the Web: a news-based site.


Final report of public radio's Public Internet Consumer Insight Study, 2001, on website of WKSU, Kent, Ohio.

Websites of the authors: Peter Dominowski (Market Trends Research) and Eric Nuzum.

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