Public radio as we know it has plenty of room for growth

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Contrary to a myth popular in public radio, our audience is not going to die off anytime soon. The audience today is significant in size and influence and continues to grow even though Americans in general are listening to less radio than in the past. The primary audience indicators — loyalty, share and weekly cume audience — suggest there is room for even more growth.

Fall 2003 AudiGraphics data show that 40 percent of all stations with an average quarter-hour audience of 2,000 or more have an average listener loyalty of less than 33.3 percent. That means that typical public radio listeners spend less than one-third of their radio listening time with their favorite public radio station. Most of the “lost” listening is going to commercial radio. The problem is even more pronounced in the 25 largest markets, where 60 percent of public radio stations fail to meet this benchmark.

On the encouraging side, a substantial number of stations do much better. A quarter of stations with comparably large audiences achieve an average loyalty of 40 percent or more. Most important, these stations come in all flavors of format, licensee type, market size and competitive situation — suggesting that any station has a shot at achieving the higher loyalty level and thereby increasing its audience size by a third.

Of course, not all stations have an equal shot. David Giovannoni’s firm, Audience Research Analysis, finds that stations’ internal benchmarks determine their growth potential. But even with more conservative assessment, public radio could increase its average quarter-hour audience (AQH) by as much as 13 percent, just by recapturing listening that our current listeners give to the competition.

Even metrics used primarily for commercial radio, such as AQH share, show growth potential. In the 10 largest markets, some public radio stations are achieving audience shares of 4 or higher. Others achieve audience shares of 2 or less. That’s a wide gap. It suggests that stations have significant growth potential even when differences among markets are factored into the equation. A similar performance gap exists in markets 11-25, with some stations achieving shares of 5 and higher and other stations barely capturing a 2 share. There still is significant opportunity among the existing audiences.

Make listeners while the sun shines

We have the greatest opportunities during weekdays between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m.— 27 percent of the broadcast week, when an even greater portion of our audience uses radio. During these times, public radio is still not as good as it could be.

Getting better at what we already do sounds like an oversimplistic prescription for success. Yet it should be our first priority. We now have competition that includes liberal talk radio and satellite radio.

Individually these competitors might not present a huge threat, but collectively they can cause damage. Letting our focus drift from who we serve best is a sure way to help these competitors along.

But what can we do? After all, how much better can we expect the local music host to be after 15 years on the air? What control does a local program director really have over the quality of a network talk program? The first step is to stop accepting below-average performance from midday programs. Middays are too important for public radio to not be at its best.

So here’s a challenge for stations and network program providers — perhaps a goal the public radio system could adopt: Grow station AQH, weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. by at least 10 percent per year for the next three years. For music stations that already do well in middays but not other dayparts, the goal for growth can be applied in morning or evening drive times.

It’s a big goal but an important one. It will require tough decisions, like changing formats or local program hosts or network programs. It will require program directors to be more diligent about executing good broadcast fundamentals. It will require pressing producers to deliver better-than-average programs. It will require networks to focus on the individual stations that create national audiences rather than on the national audience itself.

Whenever we talk about focusing primarily on the current audience, somebody always asks, “Where are the new listeners going to come from?” The answer is, quite a few of them are already there.

Stations will find some of them in their monthly cumes, which are sometimes up to 50 percent larger than their weekly cumes. The additional ultra-fringe listeners tune in often enough to be counted in the monthly number but not often enough to be caught every week. (They also explain in part why a weekly cume can be bigger one week than another.)

These less-frequent listeners are the potential “new” listeners. Get them to listen once a week and the weekly cume will go up. Get them to listen several times per week and the AQH audience will go up. Then these new listeners are also potential new givers. It can happen just by getting better at what we already do today.

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