If public radio needs new audiences, which would they be?

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Here’s a take on the topic of a panel held Oct. 1, 2004, at the Public Radio Program Directors Conference in San Antonio: “Scanning the Horizon: New Audiences for Public Radio.” The author is public radio consultant John Sutton, described by PRPD as one of the “visionaries and agitators” interviewed by planners of the panel discussion.

How will public radio get the new audiences it needs? You hear the question more and more when our colleagues get together.

But we should answer other questions beforehand: Do we really need new audiences? And, if so, why are we assuming immediately that those new audiences should be different in age and ethnicity? Why do we talk demographics first?

When we wish for “new audiences,” what do we really mean? Some public radio professionals want new listeners for our current services; others envision new services. The driving forces are the beliefs that they’re getting as much listening as we’ll ever get from the current audience, that our audience is aging and soon to die off, and that it should better reflect the demographic composition of the country.

None of these premises holds up under scrutiny. The current audience is far from tapped out. As for our current demographics, the most popular theory for changing them is that they are getting too old. According to NPR’s Profile 2004, the median age of the audience is 46. In the 1997 report, the median age was 42. The audience is aging less than 1 percent a year. Not unlike the U.S. population.

Like the U.S. population, the largest number of public radio listeners comes from the Baby Boom generation. We also have a substantial and growing audience of young adults. Profile 2004 also shows that the 25-to-34-year-old audience is 35 percent larger than the 65-plus audience. That translates to nearly 3.8 million people ages 25-34 tuning into an NPR station. In comparison, 2.8 million listeners age 65-plus tune in.

Now, here’s the real kicker: Compared to the U.S. population, public radio attracts a below-average proportion of listeners 65 and older. Contrary to the notion of gray heads nodding to Mozart, seniors are underrepresented in our national audience by 21 percent! At the same time, the 25-34 population is underrepresented by only 7 percent in public radio’s audience. We also know from the Audience 98 study that public radio is adding younger listeners to the audience at a faster rate than it did during the 1970s and 1980s.

The aging of the audience is not a significant issue on the national level. It may be a local issue, particularly at stations that broadcast classical music full-time and those with managers going through a midlife crisis. But we don’t need a national effort to chase younger listeners.

The question of ethnic diversity is a bit more complex. Public radio won’t succeed in diversifying its audience by offering up a few hours a week of targeted programming on its existing stations. Nor will we change the demographics of our current programming by dropping in a few reports, features or music reviews targeted at different audiences. That did not work 20 years ago, and it’s not working now. It is not a big enough effort.

To diversify its national audience, public radio needs resources and public policies that put more public radio channels on the air and stock them with adequately funded programming designed for minorities who don’t listen to public radio today.

Fixated on demographics

This brings us back to the question, Why are we assuming the new audience should be demographically different? There are several reasons. First, the Public Broadcasting Act has diversity mandates. It is important to address the mandates. (It’s also important to acknowledge that these mandates do not require that all stations try to be all things to all listeners.)

The second reason for looking first at demographics is that they are often the only detailed data on our audience that we see. So we give them considerable weight, even though they were designed explicitly for selling radio advertising, not describing public service opportunities. Then we use the demographics of who is not listening to public radio, to shape our discussion about new audiences.

But broadcasters can’t significantly change audience demographics without significantly changing their programming. As David Giovannoni wrote in Audience 88, “Programming causes audience.” The concept is so basic it’s easy to forget. When we determine the programming that will serve our mission, we also determine that many segments of the population—not just people of certain ages and ethnic origins—won’t be a big part of our audience.

It’s not just black or Hispanic listeners or teenagers who are currently underrepresented in our audience, it’s also Achievers, Makers, Strivers, Experiencers, Believers and Survivors. These are big slices of the U.S. population as delineated in VALS (Values and Lifestyles) psychographics research. These population segments are not defined by demographics but by values and beliefs people.

Public radio is available to all of them and most choose to not listen. The argument that “if only they were aware of us, they would listen” doesn’t cut it here. It is naïve to assume that everyone who stumbles across a public radio station becomes a regular listener. Rather, for every listener we have today, many others tried us and moved on because our programming does not speak to them.

We know from Audience 98 that most of public radio’s audience comes from two population segments, called Innovators and Thinkers. (SRI, the research vendor, recently changed the names of these segments from Actualizers and Fulfilleds, but they represent the same types of people). Innovators and Thinkers, median ages 43 and 48 respectively, share quite a few traits, especially high levels of formal education. That is a natural consequence of public radio’s origins in the nation’s colleges and universities. VALS describes them as creative, concerned about community, knowledge-seeking, committed to social causes, and having a strong interest in arts and culture. Put another way, the core values of Innovators and Thinkers align quite well with the core values of public radio today.

These two segments of the population include 64 percent of our weekly cume, according to Audience 98, though they represent less than 20 percent of the population. They give four out of every five dollars we raise in listener support. Public radio speaks to them.

Eighty percent of the adult population falls into the remaining six VALS segments. Here’s a look at how VALS describes two of those segments:

  • Achievers, median age 36, have “goal-oriented lifestyles and a deep commitment to career and family. Their social lives reflect this focus and are structured around family, their place of worship and work. Achievers live conventional lives, are politically conservative, and respect authority and the status quo.” Public radio today does not speak to them.
  • Makers, median age 30, are “practical people who have constructive skills and value self-sufficiency. They live within a traditional context of family, practical work and physical recreation and have little interest in what lies outside that context. Makers are suspicious of new ideas and large institutions such as big business. They are respectful of government authority and organized labor but resentful of government intrusion on individual rights.”

Values: where listeners live

Before we start spending significant amounts of money creating new services for new audiences, we have to come to terms with the fact that our programming today does not speak to the needs and values of most of the people who aren’t listening. If there is any lesson to be learned from the success of conservative talk radio and the Fox News channel, it’s that people have a thirst for content that speaks to their values, not just their age/sex demographics.
What if public radio discussed “new audience” with our eyes on the values and beliefs of nonlisteners rather than their demographics? What if there were new versions of public radio for some of the other VALS groups? Don’t they deserve radio that regards them as something more than targets for advertising?

A large part of public radio’s mission is to create a more informed citizenry, for instance. It’s not too hard to imagine a news and information service for Achievers and Makers. It could offer reporting in public radio’s noncommercial spirit, political discussions without shouting or name-calling, and features that address the audience’s need to get ahead in the world.

Trying to answer the new-audience question through values and beliefs is more consistent with public radio’s history and mission than using demographics. It’s about programming that starts with ideas and ends up with audiences. It will be a more difficult approach because the values of these nonlisteners do not line up neatly with the core values that we have extrapolated from our present audiences and programming. Our existing editorial and program production infrastructure might not be up to the job. It may very well be that the best people to create programming for public radio’s new audiences are not the ones working in public radio today.

Given that we already have a significant and sustainable programming service that still needs our full attention to realize additional growth potential, perhaps the best way for public radio to reach new audiences is for someone else to take a crack at it.

John Sutton, based in Annapolis, Md., provides research, fundraising, and management consulting services to public radio stations and organizations. He is a former director of audience research at NPR.

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