Public radio needs more weekend hits, and fast

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(Photo: Nicholas Eckhart, via Flickr)

Without new “anchor stores” for its weekend programming, public radio will be challenged to build audience in the time slot. (Photo: Nicholas Eckhart, via Flickr)

Public radio faces a big problem on the weekends: It hasn’t had a new hit show in nearly 20 years.

According to a fall 2014 report by Audience Research Analysis, only three non-news weekend programs have more than a million listeners and deliver above-average loyalty, or positive power, on stations.

Positive power is important because shows that have it attract new listeners to public radio. Morning Edition and All Things Considered have positive power. The three non-news weekend programs that have it are Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, Car Talk and A Prairie Home Companion.

Each of these weekend shows has been around for a while, and two of them face uncertain futures. The youngest, Wait Wait, began airing in the Clinton administration. Car Talk has been out of active production for years, and Prairie Home has a host who may retire soon.

Public radio relies on these weekend blockbusters to attract and grow audiences. Their positive power makes them like the anchor stores in a shopping mall: They draw listeners into our audio mall and raise the profile of everything else we do. With no new hits in the wings, listeners have fewer reasons to sample our stations and find things they like.

We need a couple of new hits on the weekend, and fast.

It’s not like people haven’t been trying over the past decade. Networks, stations and independent producers have launched many new programs. Some shows have even gotten big carriage on stations. A few, such as This American Life and Radiolab, have exceeded the benchmark of attracting a million listeners each week. To some public radio professionals, shows with audiences this large qualify as hits. But according to ARA’s data, neither TAL nor Radiolab has the audience appeal, or positive power, of the old stalwarts.

In fact, many of public radio’s newer weekend programs — including This American Life and Radiolab — either drive listeners away or mostly appeal to public radio’s core audience. They are like the boutiques that bring cache and unique experiences to mall shoppers with acquired tastes.

Their success in attracting loyal fans has influenced the sound of public radio and reshaped stations’ weekend schedules into a collection of niche hits. Though This American Life, Radiolab and many other weekend shows have strong followings, none delivers the audience heft of the old classics with broader appeal. They aren’t the Macy’s or Sears we need to anchor our audio mall.

(Full disclosure: My station produces three national programs that aren’t Car Talk–scale hits but still earn carriage. I also worked in content development at Public Radio International from 2005–2012.)

If you ask program directors about the lack of anchor shows in public radio’s shopping mall, you will likely get a mix of responses. Some p.d.’s may question the value of metrics like loyalty and audience in this disruptive age of podcasting and digital media. Others may speculate that weekend shows are less compelling to broadcast audiences because they’re available as podcasts. They may even question the numbers because of the switch to Portable People Meters.

It’s very easy to chalk up weak listening to changing media use or to allow ourselves to be content with the mix of weekend programs we now have to fill gaps in our local schedules. I think rationalizing our performance with acceptance of the status quo would be a huge mistake.

Here’s why: Radio continues to be one of the most vibrant ways that public media reaches people. A recent Pew study reported that public radio’s weekly audience was 27.4 million listeners in 2014, which marked a 4 percent decline from 2013. NPR’s Spark campaign has shown that it’s still possible to grow audience on radio. The fact that the three big weekend hits hold on to their positive power demonstrates you can deliver solid audience loyalty on stations. We just haven’t been able to do this with anything created after 1998.

While radio’s audience is declining, one reason for the stall could be that we haven’t been thinking about what’s needed to keep radio vibrant. If we actively seek a new hit, we’ll get one. For example, Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! was created in response to station demands for networks to help them “fix the weekends.”

Being a practical person, I’d like to offer three recommendations that would help us begin developing vital new anchor stores in our radio mall.

1. Recognize we have a problem.

We won’t address this issue until leaders at public radio stations and networks agree that it demands our attention.

Any other business takes issues like development of new products or services seriously. If a shopping mall was in threat of losing its main anchors, its management team would do all it could to improve the situation. No mall survives with a weird collection of Orange Julius and Things Remembered stores. The mall operator would offer incentives for anchor stores to stay and may even seek better anchors. Stations need to start asking for new big programs and actively seeking our next hits. With 27 million weekly listeners, radio remains our most powerful platform.

Program directors at stations need to analyze what’s available from the current mix of programs and dig into the data to see if any new shows may have potential to become their next hit. If public radio has new high-performing programs that aren’t getting carriage, we should identify them and schedule them for weekend prime time, Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Data should be used to measure the success of these programs. Going from the gut isn’t enough. And the hype of program marketing can often anoint programs as hits before their time.

There are many new programs now airing in weekend prime time on local stations that don’t lure new listeners to stations with the positive power we need. If a program doesn’t work in this prime time, it needs to be replaced with something new.

2. Understand what works.        

While putting promising new content in good time slots could be a step in the right direction, it’s also important for the system to get a better grasp of what kind of content truly works from a listener perspective. Public radio may not have any new hits because we have lost our ear for general-interest content.

Public radio’s three weekend hits have a general-audience appeal that many in the new slate of national programs don’t have. For example, could you imagine the TED Radio Hour — a show that features speeches from an elite conference targeted to people in the technology, entertainment and design fieldsbeing public radio’s new Car Talk? Not likely. It attracts a specialized audience. It isn’t designed or intended for blockbuster appeal.

Many of public radio’s new weekend shows also have narrowly tailored their appeal, or they try to ape other high-profile programs that don’t have the positive power of blockbuster shows. As a public media system that values quality and craft, we can be drawn to content once described by former NPR host Ray Suarez as “Fabergé eggs.” This mission-based programming has a place on public radio, but our ability to pay for it depends on strong anchor programs that attract audiences and build loyalty. We need more hits.

3. Networks need to stop taking broadcast for granted.

It can be easy to fear that public radio is doomed by the rise of podcasting and the siphoning effect it has had on talented producers and other leaders in our system. It can be dispiriting to see colleagues leave public radio behind.

But there’s another way of looking at this: Part of the reason public radio’s talents are being sought in the commercial sector is because public radio is incredibly good at developing audio content and podcast audiences. And many of our hottest properties take advantage of podcast and broadcast platforms.

One less-discussed secret behind the podcasting revolution is that old-fashioned public radio stations help fuel the success of many of the biggest podcasts. Researcher Mark Ramsey recently pointed out that Serial’s podcast success was largely driven by its promotion during station broadcasts of This American Life. Ramsey says, “[This American Life] didn’t just put [Serial] on the radio, they put it on public radio. And they didn’t just put it anywhere on public radio. They featured it as an episode of one of America’s most popular radio shows [and podcasts] . . . and they thus ‘stole’ a prime show and a prime slot on hundreds of America’s finest public radio stations.” A similar approach was taken with NPR’s limited series Invisibilia, which got exposure on top news magazines, public radio stations and even This American Life before it topped the iTunes list.

While the one-two punch of broadcast and podcast distribution can be a recipe for success, many networks see podcasting as a separate enterprise. Public Radio International, American Public Media and Public Radio Exchange all have podcasting networks, but not much of this content will be offered to radio stations.

Invisibilia is a good example of a broadcast/podcast, but it is hard to tell whether NPR understood the value of the one-two punch of radio and podcasting. After Invisibilia shot to the top of the iTunes list, Eric Nuzum, the NPR programmer who led its development, declared 2015 “The Year of the Podcast.” It might have been more accurate for him to declare it “The Year of the Broad-Pod-Cast,” because radio and digital distribution worked together to launch the show. If network programmers realize and channel the power they have to create new multiplatform successes, a new weekend hit could emerge.

Network programming would also benefit if programmers and producers spent more time thinking about how to extend the value of their successful programs. In an era in which popular television franchises like The Daily Show and The Late Show continue to live on after their iconic hosts go away, public radio should think about the possibility of retaining the top programs.

For example, Car Talk remains a hit years after its producers stopped recording programs. Click and Clack are talking to doctors who drive 1988 Mazdas, and people keep listening. Is it possible this show could go back into production with a similar formula and new talent? Based on its lasting success, this idea seems to be at least worth exploring.

It seems to be working with the Late Show since David Letterman’s departure. Months before Stephen Colbert takes over the broadcast show, his Late Show podcast ranked first on iTunes on the day of its release. While developing new ideas is important, a “bring back Car Talk” campaign might be one step in preserving one of public radio’s flagships.

Networks also can do a better job engaging the organizations that could incubate our next big hits: stations. Many new national weekend offerings have been created in-house by the networks or in partnership with other established organizations, rather than coming from stations. This is ironic since public radio stations are producing more original content than ever.

If given a chance and support, the next public radio blockbuster could come from a station. That’s how hit-making worked in the past. Car Talk, Fresh Air and A Prairie Home Companion all started at stations. It is even possible that the appeal of these station-based programs has been due in part to the fact that they were created outside the traditional media capitals. If networks engage stations in creating the next hit, there may be a higher likelihood of success and a better chance that public radio’s new hit is more reflective of the nation.

Tackling an issue like this won’t be easy, but public radio can no longer afford to ignore the state of its anchor programs. The first step is for stations, networks and system leaders to recognize that our commitment to addressing this problem will shape the success of our overall enterprises.

In the retail world, mall managers who lose anchors and don’t replace them wind up tearing down the building and selling the land to Walmart. If we don’t tend to our anchors, stations’ weekend schedules will start to feel like half-empty shopping malls with a ragtag collection of specialty stores with no customers.

Our listeners expect more from us than that.

Michael Arnold is the Associate Director and Director of Content at Wisconsin Public Radio. Before Wisconsin, he worked in content development at Public Radio International and was a programmer at New Hampshire Public Radio; WUNC in Chapel Hill, N.C.; WWNO in New Orleans; and Northwest Public Radio. He’s a member of the Public Radio Program Directors board of directors.

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  • Melody Joy Kramer

    Why not create a show on the weekend that showcases already-existing small scale podcasts from all over the country? (I imagine PBS could do something similar with educational content on YouTube.) The idea would be to use a show to spotlight all sorts of shows that people otherwise wouldn’t be able to find, reach niche audiences, and experiment without needing to pump a ton of money into content production? I imagine if a network approached a small-scale, not-yet-on-a-network podcast and offered to showcase an episode, or a bit of an episode, people would jump at the chance. Use the radio to lift up podcasts and vice-versa. See one as a way to cultivate the other. Think of it as a farm team. Get lots of voices, give hosting duties to younger employees from all over the country. Cultivate!

    • Aaron Read

      Isn’t that PRX Remix Select in a nutshell?

  • Melody Joy Kramer

    This week, we’re going to feature four podcasts from around the country. We’re also going to teach you how to use a microphone and to ask questions. Please submit your podcast for next week’s show. etc. etc. etc.

  • Melody Joy Kramer

    1. Teaching tool
    2. Not from one specific location – what’s the connective tissue? High quality.
    3. A bit of this, a bit of that.

  • Whitney Jones

    I like Melody’s idea. I’ve often wondered over the past year or so why nobody’s done it yet. It’s a show I would listen to. As a the producer of a not-on-a-network podcast, certainly it would be appealing to be able to put our stories out in prime weekend listening spots all around the country. However, I don’t think it would ever be a hit anywhere near the scale of a WWDTM or Car Talk (though I’d be thrilled if this prediction comes back to haunt me 5 years from now).

    As for the article itself…The mall metaphor is an odd one. Saying we need a new “Sears” to anchor Public Radio ignores a pretty brutal history of decline for that particular retailer over the past two and a half decades. More than an empty mall, a lot of the article reads to me like major music labels wishing, “Oh, if we could just find another ‘Thriller’ things would be great.” What if, like the music industry with blockbuster albums, we’re simply just past the days of “Huge Weekend Hits”? What then? It may be an uncomfortable thought, but somehow still less unsettling to me than the thought of a re-animated zombie Car Talk.

  • Michael Arnold

    I picked the mall analogy because brick-and-mortar retail faces many similar issues as media right now. In most communities, malls continue to exist despite the disruption of online retailing. It’s easy to predict brick-and-mortar retail’s demise, but the ones that innovate continue to thrive.

    Sears was probably a horrible choice, though. Good point. Although that store still anchors many malls, it might have been stronger to have picked a better chain.

    Regarding the record industry analogy, I’d agree we were in a “post-hit” era if we didn’t have any hits left.

    Along with the news magazines (which still do well despite the changes in media and some overall decline), public radio still has three blockbusters (Car Talk, Wait Wait, and A Prairie Home Companion). They continue to be public radio’s “Thrillers.” Part of the reason we are able to still have “Thrillers” in public radio is because we still have a large audience of 27 million people on radio.

    It seems like it would be a shame to give up on developing new vital programs when we still have 27 million people listening…. particularly if we can launch projects that also reach new audiences through podcasting and digital media.

    • Aaron Read

      FWIW, I love having my wife as a touchstone on this topic because she hates talking on the radio in general, but is forced to listen to NPR in the car all the time because of me. :)

      I would argue she’s in a prime demo for NPR to appeal to: white, female, mid-40’s, has a Masters degree, prefers urban/suburban life over rural, and makes a decent income at an office-based job.

      She despises Car Talk and always has. Thought it was stupid and juvenile. APHC was also “too precious and not funny.” So put those in your pipe and smoke ’em. (shrugs)

      She generally likes Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me because it’s funny AND because it’s interactive. That’s something that strikes me as oft-overlooked is that the show is like Jeopardy; it’s very easy to play along at home. I think we need more of this…Ask Me Another is good but it’s lacking the polish and the perfect balance of appealing to the live audience in front of you while being good at allowing “playing along at home”. But to be fair, AMA is still pretty new. It took years before WWDTM found its groove.

      She’s hit or miss on This American Life and RadioLab. If she likes the topic, she likes the way the show’s style of presenting it. If she doesn’t like the topic, she hates how smug and swarmy it feels. Also, one thing she has trouble with is how there’s a constant stream of information that you simply MUST pay attention to throughout the hour lest you get left behind and miss something important; there’s no room for discussion during the show, not even a breather, really.

      One more thing: I’ve worked for a station that aired Whad’ya Know, and I think it’s a prime example of regional appeal. That “midwestern humor” does great in many parts of the midwest, but man it goes down like a lead balloon on the coasts. This does not mean WYK is a bad show, just that if we’re going to have regional-appeal shows we need to have a lot of them to cover all the regions…with all the accompanying budgetary issues that entails.

  • Rez™

    Oklahoma’s KOSU is doing just that – by re-broadcasting an all-local online radio station over it’s strong multiple towers from 7pm to 6am every day. Innovative shows, passionate DJs and hosts, and an all-important focus on local musicians and local bands and local events. (www.kosu.org / http://www.thespyfm.com)

  • Aaron Read

    Just come out and admit it, Michael: you want Jon Stewart to host a weekend comedy show on NPR. :)

  • Jeff Horwich

    You make some great and underappreciated points, Michael–taking me right back to the reasons I had to leave public radio. First is the power of “old media” promotion. The odds of mass-successful content simply blasting into public consciousness are extremely slim. When powerful institutions or shows put their stamp on something–well, then you’ve got a shot-in-hell. But if a station acts reluctant–piloting out “experimental” stuff sporadically, in off-hours, or in podcasts to see if anyone will go for it… well, good luck to the hapless producers faced with climbing that hill.

    And public radio has a real challenge–both philosophically and in execution–with going mainstream. My own experience may be somewhat dated, but from your column it sounds like some things don’t change much: when we set out with a vision to meld public radio values with speaking to listeners in a much less public radio-y way, we ran right into the old-guard notion that what we were doing was undignified; that it was more important to be gentle on the ears of the most core listeners than to create a bond with new ones. The only time we got praise or even acknowledgment from the big-man-in-charge was when we did the most on-the-nose, public radio-y thing we could think of, and took our live show to a homeless shelter. Great episode–but it was an exception that proved the rule.

    The “execution” challenge comes when public radio does commit to a mainstream project, but can’t seem to find an authentic sound. Shows (like some you mention) either never can shed a certain smugness and sense of public-radio-propriety… or they swing wildly the other way, pandering to celebrity culture and the sense that “mainstream” means just playing for laughs at all times. But public radio can’t go where the real comedy hits go–they can’t match the uncensored language, lack of balance, and free use of sexual innuendo that are so crucial to making The Daily Show or WTF w/ Marc Maron so comfortable in their own skin. Like Car Talk and APHC–shows that arose in a different era without heavy-handed programming oversight–a real hit has to be able to simply be itself. Aside from the safe comedy of news quiz shows (a format with no need of new entrants) if programmers are leaning heavily on humor to find that next hit, that remains an ill fit in public radio-land.

    • Aaron Read

      WTF with Marc Maron did have a brief run for public radio via the PRX. This was back in summer of 2011. I agree that nothing on broadcast radio can be as delightfully “real” and “edgy” as stuff on podcasts or even cable TV, but I thought the stuff Maron did put into those six or eight shows was pretty darn good.

  • Aaron Read

    With a giant H/T to Seth Albaum, NPR should’ve hired Brian Williams to run the “Bluff the Listener” segment on WWDTM….”You have to determine which of these stories actually happened…”