Can public radio learn to talk to its Gen-X future?

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Public radio’s Gen-X listeners don’t fit their generational stereotype; they’re closer to its older audience than to their peers, said a report from public radio’s Audience 98 research project. Pubradio programmer J. Mikel Ellcessor comments and then trades letters to the editor with the Audience 98 researchers.

Dan Yankelovich and Pete Townshend: are they the conceptual bookends of generational cohort analysis?

In the mid-1960s, Dan Yankelovich explained the “generation gap” and introduced the world-at-large to generational cohorts. These “cultural variations in time” articulate the enduring importance of key life-stage experiences, and the social context within which they occur. The combination irrevocably influences the entire generation’s values and preferences. As a set of concepts to use with other audience analysis models, generational cohorts are a powerful tool for public broadcasters in dealing with three groups in their audience: the Matures, the Baby Boomers and Generation X.

Townshend’s epigrammatic song, “My Generation,” endures as a high-water mark in generation wars. The Who’s guitarist and songwriter was pitching rocks over the wall that separates his Mature parents from his Baby Boomer peers. Now, more than 30 years later, we still have a generation gap and the Boomers are still slinging. This time the target is Generation X.

Public radio’s leaders are primarily Boomers, members of the 78 million person cohort born between 1946 and 1964. For the most part, the service is created by and managed for the interest and edification of Baby Boomers. Leaders have begun talking about how to deal with the Generation X audience wave that is currently crashing into some stations. Audience 98 demonstrated that, among the population segment that is inclined toward public radio, it “serves Gen-X listeners a little better than it served Boomers at the same age.”

This presents a conundrum for public radio. Generation X has been roundly vilified by Boomers. How well equipped is the leadership of public radio to welcome this population and speak to them in a way that reflects their unique set of values?

There are costly pitfalls to be avoided as public radio somewhat skittishly enters the first substantial interactions with its Generation X audience. The stakes will rise dramatically in the next few years as the generation ages into the audience, and potential conflicts await.

Public radio’s Gen-Xers may have many psychographic similarities with the Boomers who use the service, but marketing to the younger prospects–and getting them to part with membership dollars–won’t work if it’s merely the same Boomer dance in the same blue suede shoes. If you want to reap the payoff, you had better learn some new steps.

The fullest realization of support from Generation X depends on public radio’s ability to accommodate differences in the ways that the two groups approach relationships, particularly their levels of trust in information, government and large institutions, and the emerging cross-generational desire for media use to be an interactive experience.

A conversation with J. Walker Smith, a managing partner at Yankelovich Partners and co-author of Rocking the Ages: The Yankelovich Report on Generational Marketing, quickly spells out the source of Townshend’s angst. In a relaxed, lucid manner, Smith unveils a wealth of unconventional thinking about Baby Boomers and their successors, Generation X.

Smith’s understanding of the differences between the generations is founded in his work as the manager of the Yankelovich Monitor. The Monitor is a rolling perceptual study of American’s beliefs, aspirations and values. The Monitor, Smith explains, “was started in 1971 and has been fielded continuously since then. However, what Monitor grew out of was a lot of ad hoc values research we had done since the 1960s.” This depth of data allows the firm to compare the values of generations at the same points in their lives. The Monitor, and the analysis that has emerged from its study, is an outstanding springboard for public broadcasters.

We know from ratings that public radio has a sizeable audience of Gen-Xers (now between the ages of 22 and 34), and they’re using the service for significant stretches of time each week. Generation X is already delivering new audience and additional revenue while replenishing station staffs. The key to fully benefiting from this reality is understanding the group’s distinct values and cracking its communication codes, while public radio leaders set aside their own perceptual obstacles.

As Smith explains, Boomers were raised by parents who believed that addressing problems with a mix of economic power and moral righteousness was the way they could take control over the future. “Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty was a perfect example of that,” Smith says. “It was a sort of righteous attitude that poverty had to be solved in war, kind of like we conquered fascism. The way in which we were going to defeat it was by throwing our wealth at it.”

“Baby Boomers,” Smith continues, “certainly believed that there was plenty to be done to fix things. We have the women’s rights, environmental, civil rights and consumer protection movements. We had to jump into those things because there were lots of things that needed to be corrected, but we still believed that the world was going to turn out to be a better place.”

Two decades later, “Gen-Xers grew up in a period of time in which they had very different expectations about life. They didn’t have these righteous expectations about where the future was headed, because they were growing up in the late ’80s and early ’90s. They grew up in a time in which the divorce rate continued to escalate and family structures came under attack. They watched Baby Boomers pitch moral battles over things like abortion and the budget deficit. They came away with this sense that that kind of self-righteous approach to problems was not going to solve any of the problems. As a matter of fact, they looked around them and they said, ‘You know what? It didn’t solve anything.’ What they learned was that every time we tried to do something really good it had mixed consequences. They were learning that there were trade-offs in everything, that you had to be a little bit savvier and that you had big challenges you had to overcome as you were launching yourself into the workplace and into the marketplace. This gave that generation a whole different set of values.”

In the end, Gen-Xers hold “values that don’t look anything like the kind of values that Baby Boomers had the same age,” says Smith. “It’s sort of the difference between growing up in the ’60s, if you think about the ’60’s, and growing up in the ’80s. They were very different decades and, as a result, teenagers of those two eras learned very different lessons about life.”

Boomers brought this rift to the public discourse in the early ’90s, Smith points out, when they attached the name “Generation X” to the country’s youth. The term was taken from Douglas Coupland’s 1991 novel, an unromantic depiction of ambivalent young professionals that stood in stark contrast to the go-go ’80s zeitgeist fiction of Jay McInerney and Tama Janowitz.

Attaching the name to a major slice of society, a misuse of his phrase that Coupland has roundly criticized, wasn’t meant as a compliment. It was a hostile projection of the disappointment and anxiety that Boomers felt as they realized the social and economic rules they cherished might not deliver the expected payoff. “This country went through a really negative period in the early 1990s.”, according to Smith. “It was really coming to terms with the disappointment of expectations that Baby Boomers felt by the time they got to the end of the 1980s.”

“Life was supposed to be about all the intangibles, not the tangibles. All the tangibles were supposed to be taken for granted–I’m going to drive a nice car and live in a big house. When you get to the end of the ’80s, it really is a generation which is feeling like the things they really valued they’re missing out on. And it was a feeling of victimization. People felt victimized by events. Baby Boomers had to come to terms with this difference between the way they thought life would turn out and the way life actually did turn out,” says Smith.

“The Baby Boomers’ parents never had to come to terms with some gap between their expectations and the realities in which they found themselves, but Baby Boomers did and it was a very ugly period. We’ve come to terms with it, and we’ve come out of it, but it was during this period of time that Baby Boomers latched onto this term Generation X because it seemed to encapsulate the ugly feeling and the bleak prospects for the future that Baby Boomers were feeling themselves.”

As much as they couldn’t stand those slacker/grunge types, there’s nothing like a rebounding economy and the emergence of Generation X as a rich potential consumer base to persuade Boomers to bury the axe, or at least make nice. The world of commerce became a slapstick laboratory in the ’90s, as marketers tried to pitch to the most media-savvy generation in history.

The most dangerous mistakes to be made when marketing to Generation X–stereotyping and pandering–are seen on TV every day, especially on MTV. Audience 98’s reports on Generation X brought this idea to the public radio dialogue.

This is a huge challenge for Boomer radio managers who got their chops pitching to an audience that had substantially different values regarding relationships. Tom Wolfe dubbed the children of the ’60s the “Me Generation” of the ’70s. “Baby Boomers were into breaking all the rules,” Smith reminds us. “It went from the extremes of living on communes to just sort of the more traditional family structures where, if you think of the movie The Ice Storm, you might have a key part. It was all about experimental lifestyles and feeling like, if it didn’t work out, you’d just go to the next experiment, you’d try something different. In fact, trying something different was what it was all about. It was about expanding your horizons and your consciousness of things.”

“X-ers,” Smith contrasts, “are setting up households with the desire not to experiment. The clearest thing we see in our research is that they don’t see this as something to be tried and if it doesn’t work out–do something different. In fact, this is a generation that is far more likely than Boomers were–at the same life stage transition–to favor a return to more traditional standards across all aspects of their lifestyle. Whether you’re talking about relationships or family or homemaking or work, they’re looking to pull back a little bit from the brink that Baby Boomers took us to.”

The two generations have a very different relationship with information–a basic substance of the public radio enterprise. Boomers have traditionally prized information above all else. They learned the power of information gathering through Watergate and the Pentagon Papers.

For Generation X, Smith warns, “information doesn’t get over the trust problem.” This generation learned at an early age that “(I) can get all the information I want, and I’ll still not be able to trust you because I know that information can be manipulated. That’s one of the lessons we’ve learned in the ’80s and ’90s. You can’t take it seriously, it’s being spun. It’s being selectively presented. Information doesn’t get me any closer to the truth. As a matter of fact, if I try to sort through all of the information, I just get so overwhelmed and confused I can’t make sense of it anyway. So what’s most important to me is a relationship.”

Recognizing that these differences exist, Smith points out an emerging opportunity that spans generations. Making full use of this opportunity rests on public radio’s ability to communicate its value and maintain its brand image.

After a long tradition of subservience to the advertising community, Americans have initiated what Smith calls “a fundamental change” in their relationship with brands and goes on to say that Americans “don’t want to be talked down to anymore.”

“People want brands in the marketplace that make them less dependent upon brands. They don’t want brands to define their taste or tell them where to shop. They want brands that give them the tools and resources to do anything they want. You’re beginning to see a shift to talking to consumers in terms of how we’re going to empower you as opposed to them telling you how to consume.”

The most powerful examples of this consumer liberation theology range from Microsoft’s “Where do you want to go today?”, to a range of ads for adult-scaled Tonka trucks with four-wheel drive that show you going wherever you want. Sprite ads put it this way: “Thirst is everything, image is nothing.” While the targets of these campaigns overlap and span generations, the messages are strikingly similar.

The impact of this trend on public radio is the need for improved, industry-wide communication of the public radio brand and its ability to “empower” the listener through innovative entertainment and information you can trust. The results being produced through immensely valuable improvements in fundraising will eventually plateau. Public radio’s ability to compete, for audience and support, will be significantly impacted by its presentation of powerful messages that speak to these issues.

If public radio develops the emerging Generation X audience and retains its current Boomer base, the opportunity for increased financial support from both groups is “stronger than ever before,” in Smith’s opinion, although “that’s true for very different reasons amongst these generations.”

Boomers, he says, “are getting to an age where you’re going to see a revival of the causes of their youth. Once you strip away the middle-aged responsibilities and obligations, then you’ll get back to the core of what Baby Boomers are all about. Those values are things like ecology, enlightenment, community and equality. Those are the big four for the Baby Boomers and they’ve always been a big four. You’re going to see Baby Boomers devote more resources to those kinds of things.”

Gen-Xers watched as large institutions walked away from infrastructure maintenance in the ’80s. The lack of faith in government and big business and the embracing of a rabid DIY ethic–the value set that has created the greatest number of under-30 millionaires in history–will affect public giving. “When you look at Generation X-ers, who never bought into that moralistic view of life’s choices, what’s really important is this sense of entrepreneurism,” Smith concludes. “In the eyes of this generation, self-reliance is the only way things are going to be able to succeed in the future. That means, of course, you’re going to have to find other sources of funding than big institutions, big government, big companies and moral authority from some place other than a group consensus.”

Fundraising appeals that target this “self-reliance” generational value could be highly effective with Generation X listeners and could help to widen the base of support from this segment of the audience.

Smith makes a persuasive case for the value of interactivity to both generations. “People nowadays want to control things themselves,” he says. “This is especially true of media, information and entertainment. People want to be in control of it. They want to create their own information environments. I think one of the big challenges for the traditional media in this country is the way to respond to this desire.”

“There are two kinds of examples of this that we often point to. One of them is music. It started with producers and now we have all types of music that are nothing but sampling and mixing and matching. People can do it themselves. You can go on the Internet, and you can create any kind of CD want to listen to.

“The same thing is true with broadcast television. Broadcast television is quite aware that people want to be more interactively involved with the programming that they offer. So you get things like NBC referring people to MSNBC or CNBC, saying there’s more detail later. It’s NBC referring people to their web site. It’s Dateline doing Internet polls, which are an extension of this phenomenon of the 900-number polls that started a few years ago. Those polls were started about the same time we started to see this change go on in the consumer information environment.”

The bar was recently raised to a staggering height in the intensely interwoven and highly interactive coverage surrounding John Glenn’s return to space. MSNBC and NBC provided vast amounts of airtime and a rich, impressively fluid Internet option for participants. This is a response to the emerging desire of Americans to be empowered. Increasingly, consumers are using inter-related media choices instead of settling for a one-size-fits-all product.

“I think that’s a huge challenge for public radio, because public radio really has built its image and built its success around creating a fairly structured environment into which people have self-selected themselves on the basis of some affinity of interest with information programs or specialized entertainment offerings. I think that’s the biggest challenge.

“For example, public radio has a very high-culture image. Fair or unfair, that’s how it’s thought of and that’s not off-putting to people so much as it’s a fairly rigid structure. People are looking for ways they can break that down and put a new edge on it, which is sort of the second point.”

“It’s not that people are uninterested, say, in classical music, because musical diversity and musical sampling is more prevalent than ever. It’s a huge opportunity for classical music to get involved with this diversity of musical styles and this crossover of musical styles that’s aggressively being pursued by people nowadays. It certainly says that it needs to be updated, it needs to have an edge to it, and not an edge that offends the traditional audience of public radio, but an edge that makes it more interesting for everyone.”

The author of the commentary above, J. Mikel Ellcessor, later became a top programmer at WNYC-AM/FM in New York. At the time of publication he was director of the Center for Marketing of public radio’s Development Exchange Inc. (DEI).

Readers write

Our Gen-X listeners: not a breed apart

The authors of the Audience 98 article on Generation X (Current, Aug. 24, 1998), Jay Youngclaus and Ingrid Lakey replied to Ellcessor in Current, Dec. 7, 1998:

While we agree that public radio should communicate with younger listeners, as J. Mikel Ellcessor recently argued in “Can public radio learn to talk to its Gen-X future?” [above], we disagree on how it should do so.

In fact, strong evidence from Audience 98 suggests that public radio is communicating just fine with its millions of younger listeners right now.

Looking at people via broad generational stereotypes ignores that those who listen to public radio are unlike other Americans. Audience 98 clearly shows that public radio’s programming appeals to the educated person who holds a certain set of social and cultural values, regardless of that person’s age.

Generation-Xers who listen to public radio are unlike other Gen-Xers. They are more highly educated and possess more mature values. In every way that counts, they look and act more like all public radio listeners than they do other Americans in their age group.

Public radio’s power lies in its well-focused appeal. To target a group by age would undermine that focus and risk alienating non-Gen-Xers, who outnumber Gen-Xers in public radio’s audience by eight to one.

“Whatever” and “as if” are not the mantra of all Gen-Xers. Some do consider all things and search for that spot on the radio dial that offers a breath of fresh air. These Gen-Xers listen to public radio because the way that it talks already appeals to them. That’s the fact–first and foremost–that public radio professionals need to keep in mind.

Jay Youngclaus and Ingrid Lakey

Ellcessor replies: Yes, but the differences are worth noting

I appreciate Youngclaus and Lakey’s contribution and their response to my article, but I believe they missed a critical point. I did not advocate an “either/or” approach to audience segmentation and marketing, but rather an “and/also” approach.

My article clearly points out that generational marketing is “a set of concepts to blend with other audience analysis models.” Is it possible that public radio may gain additional power by integrating multiple, widely-respected segmentation models?

We know that the public radio audience is now primarily comprised of two generational cohorts, Baby Boomers and Matures. Excellent research has delineated the similarities across these generational cohorts. This allows public radio to relate to a conceptually unified audience.

I agree that public radio’s Gen-X users operate from the same attitudinal baseline as Boomer and Mature listeners. VALS segmentation is one way to delineate that baseline. But even within the unusually homogenous public radio audience, will anyone argue, however, that Baby Boomers do not manifest significant attitudinal differences from their Mature parents?

In a recent Pubradio [Internet discussion group] posting, Audience 98’s Leslie Peters noted: “We are all more than our VALS characteristics. As the VALS folks take pains to say, not every one of us shares every value, belief or interest that describes our VALS segment. We bring our own experiences, circumstances and biases to life.”

A generation’s shared “experiences and circumstances” contribute to the shaping of those “biases.” The 1960s fissure between generations continues to run through society. A new seam has appeared between the Boomers and Gen-X. To argue that these differences do not exist, or are not important as potential opportunities, is to limit one of public radio’s access to growth.

In my article, I was examining opportunities that could stimulate further growth for public radio–looking for unfulfilled needs of new listeners or ways to enhance service to existing listeners.

I didn’t propose changes in public radio’s programming appeal. In the article, [demographic expert] J. Walker Smith warns that any response to generational challenges must not “offend the traditional audience of public radio.” Smith articulated opportunities that cross generations. I presented one recommendation specific to Gen-X: appealing to the generation’s well-documented emphasis on “self-reliance.” Public radio already uses that appeal as government funding declines.

Youngclaus and Lakey conclude with a comment about “whatever” and “as if”–a pair of red herrings. This is an inappropriate response to an article that went to great lengths to explain why Gen-X stereotypes are inaccurate, unfounded and unproductive.

Contrary to stereotypes, as Smith stated, “this is a generation that is far more likely than Boomers were at the same age and same life transition to favor a return to more traditional standards across all aspects of their lifestyle.” Generation-X is more ready for commitment than Baby Boomers were at the same age. Commitment is a foundation of community. Public radio prides itself on its sense of community. I see this as good news and an opportunity.

J. Mikel Ellcessor, Pittsburgh


In 2007, NPR announces plans for a daily newsmag for ages 25-44.


Audience 98 looks at the Gen X audience. More studies are archived on the website of Audience Research Analysis.

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