Database for public media looks to standardize, simplify station metrics

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The Public Media Company is looking to drum up support to pilot the Public Media Database, an all-in-one dashboard to help stations track finances, audience ratings and the impact of their journalism on listeners.

The concept is to cull data from a variety of sources, reach agreement about which metrics are significant and weed out the less important information. Each station would maintain a database of measurements, to be displayed in a dashboard for easy access and review. Uniform metrics among stations would help them compare performance and make presentations to funders.

Scott McPherson

Figuring out which metrics really matter became a source of frustration at New Hampshire Public Radio, McPherson said at the Public Radio Super Regional. (Photo: Ben Mook, Current)

PMC, a nonprofit based in Boulder, Colo., hopes that adding participating stations will enable more meaningful comparisons of metrics across the public radio system. New Hampshire Public Radio has been testing a prototype for the better part of the year, and PMC has brought in other interested stations, including WXPN in Philadelphia, Oregon Public Broadcasting, KUSC in Los Angeles, American Public Media, Kansas City Public Television, Colorado Public Radio and WUNC in Chapel Hill, N.C.

PMC presented the dashboard project to station executives at the Public Radio Super Regional conference in Las Vegas in November. Panelists agreed that having information about a station’s performance that is months or years old, such as CPB reports and biannual Nielsen diaries, makes little sense in an era when stations use multiple platforms and need to respond quickly to changes.

“We’ve been getting frustrated with the legacy tools we have,” said panel moderator Jenny Gentry, senior v.p. of finance at Colorado Public Radio. “They’re not keeping up with the pace of information that we need.”

As a proof of concept, PMC worked with NHPR to build a prototype of the database and dashboard. The state network has been using the prototype to figure out which data to pay attention to and how the metrics are best presented.

As a statewide network with 13 signals, NHPR has struggled to quantify its performance, said panelist Scott McPherson, v.p. of operations and finance. The network’s stations cover six different markets tracked by Nielsen, and only one uses the company’s Portable People Meter. The rest use the old diary method and give results twice a year. “So getting audience data is a challenge for us,” he said.

For about 18 months before PMC launched its dashboard project, NHPR tried on its own to organize its data into something like what the dashboard offers. But the network quickly started to get overwhelmed trying to figure out what was useful.

“We kept getting frustrated at what to measure and what really mattered, and what we could do with the data,” he said.

For the prototype, NHPR wanted to make sure it had as much data as possible. The network cobbled together data from Nielsen, CPB, audited financial reports, Target Analytics and less orthodox sources — “even data that was literally on a yellow, lined sheet of paper laying in someone’s file cabinet about how many emails a month we were getting,” McPherson said.

NHPR eventually whittled the data into more manageable pieces for dashboards that could be presented to different parties. For monthly advisory board meetings, it settled on a more streamlined dashboard with six color-coded metrics tracking major gifts, listenership, online traffic, overall revenue and expenses and a breakout of digital revenue and expenses.

For quarterly meetings, NHPR uses the prototype database to create a deeper-dive dashboard with dozens more datasets, including the behavior of website users and the performance of station investments. Areas performing well get a green check. Those needing attention get a yellow exclamation point, and problem areas get a red “X.”

By using the dashboard, NHPR aims to more accurately gauge its return on investments. As an example, McPherson said NHPR hired a producer for Morning Edition for the first time in 10 years to bolster local content and presence during the show. That move could cost NHPR as much as $90,000 a year.

“So I want to be able to connect those investments to audience numbers for Morning Edition and overall,” he said.

Growing participation

PMC now aims to grow participation in the database and add stations, said Dennis Hamilton, PMC managing director. A large number of participants would make comparisons more relevant and help spread out the costs of tweaking metrics and running and maintaining the necessary software.

Hamilton

Hamilton

But stations on tight budgets will be able to save money, Hamilton said, by cutting spending on data that aren’t useful. Stations can also spend less time and resources on determining what’s working for them.

“We’re talking about a comprehensive, universal management platform and an evolving repository for engagement metrics,” Hamilton said, “so we can find more quickly if the actions we take move the needle on issues in the communities we serve.”

While standardizing reporting of information like revenue and audience numbers will be helpful, Hamilton said, determining a system-wide approach to measuring impact will also aid stations that approach foundations for funding.

PMC’s business plan depends heavily on station involvement to cover the costs of the dashboard, which will drop after initial development costs. PMC is considering a system of tiered payments that would provide access to differing levels of data.

Expanding the prototype will be expensive up front, Hamilton said. For the expanded project, PMC will manage the process and contract with others to implement it. PMC has been running projections but doesn’t have an exact estimate of costs to create the dashboard, he said.

“We think we’re close to getting a handle on it,” he said. “But you don’t know until you really get into it.”