Studies suggest classical radio may be missing out on audience growth

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A pair of studies presented at last month’s Public Radio Programmers Conference in Portland, Ore., highlighted the significant potential for classical radio to expand its audience.

During sessions held Sept. 10 and 11, station representatives examined results of studies conducted by Coleman Insights and Edison Research. The Coleman study included focus groups convened in mid-2013 in markets with public classical stations — Phoenix, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Los Angeles and Charlotte, N.C. Focus group participants ranged in age from 30 to 64.

Of the 1,000 or so respondents, 16 percent “expressed some proclivity for the consumption of classical music,” according to the study. Joseph Eskola, director of audience research for American Public Media, added that the study also showed that of those who liked classical music, a quarter weren’t aware of their local classical stations. Only 20 percent of people who said they liked classical music were listening to it on public radio stations.

“These are our people, and only 20 percent are listening,” Eskola said.

Altogether, he said, the findings suggest that stations should reach out to an untapped pool of potential listeners. “There is absolutely upside here,” he told attendees. “There is room for some growth here compared to what we seem to be getting on the FM dial right now.”

Stations need to prioritize getting the word out, Eskola said. Research showed that if the classical format is underperforming, it’s due not to people not liking the music or the presentation but to a lack of knowledge of the stations they could be listening to.

“Classical radio should direct as much of its resources as possible towards the funding of external advertising,” Eskola said. “Simply not enough people know about it, and that’s a shame.”

The discussion followed up on talks at the 2013 PRPD conference, where classical programmers agreed to take a holistic look at their format and find ways to grow audience. One tactic they identified was to carry out studies and get a better handle on the challenges they face and opportunities to pursue.

The number of public classical stations has increased in recent years, largely due to conversions of previously commercial classical stations to noncommercial operations, such as KING-FM in Seattle. Stations that air both news and classical have increasingly moved the formats to separate frequencies.

At a second session, Edison Research President Larry Rosin presented results from Edison’s Share of Ear report, conducted in May, that illustrated the demand for audio content. The report surveyed listening habits of 2,096 respondents over the age of 13 across multiple platforms including over-the-air, streaming and satellite radio.

Respondents listened to an average of four hours of audio per day, with 52 percent saying they listened to AM/FM stations. The next-largest group said they listened to their own music collections. Internet streaming accounted for a little less than 12 percent of listening, while SiriusXM accounted for around 8 percent.

Edison Research also added a question about classical music listening to its 22nd annual Infinite Dial study for the first time this year. Respondents were asked in a telephone survey if they had listened to more than an hour of classical music in the past month. Thirty percent responded yes.

“I think you guys undersell yourselves on some levels,” he told attendees. “This shows just how big you can be.”

Rosin added that format research showed that classical stations should see Internet streaming service Pandora as their biggest competitor. With apps for classical music discovery lacking, Pandora has become a go-to source for classical.

“Pandora is stealing your listeners everyday,” Rosin said.

The Coleman research also found that 33 percent of respondents who streamed classical music used Pandora, while just 7 percent used station websites.

Public radio stations should collaborate on an app for discovering classical music to take on services like Pandora, Rosin said. With the experience and expertise of those in the system, classical programmers should be able to create an app with greater appeal for classical fans than Pandora and Spotify, which Rosin said listeners use mainly because of a lack of alternatives.

“There is a bigger audience out there than you know,” Rosin said. “And the force of you all together is greater than the sum of your parts.”

Read more about the Coleman study at Scanning the Dial, a blog by Joe Goetz, music director at classical station WFIU in Bloomington, Ind.

  • altfactor@hotmail.com

    While some public broadcasters have purchased or launched 24/7 classical music stations, the number of stations programming classical is still in a slight decline as many former split-format NPR member stations that were news/information in drive times and classical in middays, evenings and overnights now run 24/7 news and information.

    The main reason for the classical format’s woes is despite it’s loyal audience, it’s all about the money. News and information programming brings in donations to NPR member stations. Classical music (or any music for that matter) usually does not.

    I would think that in some places where one public radio licensee runs both a 24/7 news/information station and a 24/7 classical music station, the news/information station might subsidize the classical station since the classical station by itself might not make enough money from underwriting and especially listener pledges to make it self-sustaining.

    Maybe a publicity push might get more listeners to classical stations who might pledge and thus, make the format more financially viable.

  • pcantrell

    No, no, no, the problem isn’t that people don’t know about their local classical radio stations. Believe me, we do.

    That Pandora is “stealing” audience gives a clue to the real problem: classical music is a huge category, and its audience isn’t all looking for one thing. Pandora lets people hear the sort of music they’re interested in.

    That means in part that some people like baroque lute and some people like romantic flute. But there’s an even bigger schism: for half of its audience, classical music is a passion; for the other half, it’s wallpaper.

    It’s all but impossible for a radio station to satisfy both those audiences. One group gets mad if you put them to sleep; the other gets mad if you wake them up. Most radio aims for the second group, marketing itself as a pleasing, gritless narcotic.

    Apparently, that’s a pretty narrow segment.

    Here in the Twin Cities, despite being a classical music lover — and concert pianist, and composer — I listen all the time to The Current (the local public radio alt rock/pop station), but rarely to the local classical station. Why? The Current takes an attitude of (1) playing a wide variety of music usually placed in separate categories, (2) playing music and making juxtapositions that challenge expectations, (3) emphasizing new music, and (4) featuring local artists. It’s not afraid to make choices that put off some of its listeners — but holds on to us with the promise that if we stay tuned, we’re always sure to hear something different.

    If a classical station took that attitude in all its programming, I think I’d be a regular listener.