Study sees growth if NPR loosens up, sounds less elite

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Public radio needs to sound more like "a party where everyone's included," Smith says. (Photo: Stephen Voss, © NPR 2007.)

Public radio needs to sound more like “a party where everyone’s included,” Smith says. (Photo: Stephen Voss, © NPR 2007.)

A new study for NPR identifies a much bigger potential news audience that would listen to public radio if the field works to break down perceptions that its programs are elitist and stuffy.

Producers would have to make shows that are more lively and conversational and promoters would have to take greater care when describing public radio as “intelligent” and “serious,” according to the Los Angeles-based firm SmithGeiger [“Summary of Key Takeaways”].

The researchers found that barriers to entry for public radio listenership are rooted in what they called “accessibility” — listeners’ perceptions of the NPR brand, their ability to relate to the content, and the extent to which they find time to catch NPR news through their radios or web browsers

When encountering public radio, news consumers from various demographic groups share a common problem: They feel excluded. “It is really important that people hear themselves in the programming,” said Margaret Low Smith, v.p. of programming. “We’re talking about a private party, versus a party where everyone’s included and planning the same party,” she said.

Quoted in a presentation on the study is a young adult Latino user of new media: “NPR, I feel, is mostly for educated adults from middle class and up. That is my impression.”

Some objections to the traits of NPR News are sure to prompt pushback from listeners and producers who value complexity and ambiguity, and don’t mind lots of words. Wordiness is a problem for one white woman who spoke to researchers about NPR: “I think it can be clever and quirky, and smart and insightful. But I don’t choose to listen to it because it’s too much talking for me.”

Comparison of audience perceptions of NPRSmith believes there are ways to welcome more people to the audience without sacrificing quality. “It’s not about being not as smart or not as deep,” she said. It’s about telling stories with an ear that detects exclusion. NPR hosts do that now, she said, by quickly interrupting interviews with an identifying phrase when someone drops a name that would be unfamiliar to many people.

To be consistent in catching off-putting insider assumptions, “it’s critical that people at the editorial table reflect a range of economic positions in life, a range of political views and a range of color,” Smith added.

Would-be listener clusters

The study — shaped in part by Station Resource Group’s Grow the Audience project — sought to define the best prospects for expanding public radio’s news audiences. “Inherently, news and information is NPR’s sweet spot, and understanding how that was unfolding in the world of news and information was primary goal of this study,” Smith said. NPR intends to share the study’s conclusions with stations and other public radio stakeholders.

Pubradio execs outside of NPR also are looking for would-be listeners beyond the low-hanging fruit of the “core” audience that listens to pubradio more often than any other stations. Public Radio International’s Mike Arnold discusses the non-core potential in a commentary.

SmithGeiger projects that public radio’s audience could more than double from its current size if the field succeeds in attracting news consumers and talk-radio listeners who fit in three distinct audience segments.

The segments — labeled “Dutiful Aggregators,” “Team Captains” and “Voracious Voyagers” — are defined by their news and media habits, values and lifestyles. Since these segments include a diverse ethnic mix of potential listeners, public radio has a good shot at attracting more minorities and younger adults, according to Lori Kaplan, director of NPR’s Audience Insight and Research Group.

“There’s an opportunity for audience growth and to increase the diversity of the audience if we pay attention to the needs and drivers of all these groups,” Kaplan said. She will present the findings from the study at the Public Radio Programming Conference, Sept. 23-26 in Denver.

Sizeable minorities of these groups already listen occasionally to public radio news — and might listen more often. But 70 percent of this prospective audience is unfamiliar or only vaguely familiar with NPR. “That was a pretty incredible finding for us,” Kaplan said. “These are news consumers who are not turning to NPR.”

Researchers from SmithGeiger delivered the report to NPR execs two weeks ago, so the network has not yet devised an action plan in response. The study, initiated last November with consultations within NPR and among various stakeholders, included an online survey with 3,710 respondents, moderated message board forums for seven target groups, and in-home ethnographic interviews in four cities. To participate in the study, respondents had to consume print or electronic news at least weekly or be casual or core NPR listeners, among other criteria.

This is the first time in 10 years that NPR has taken a detailed look at segments of its audience, Smith said. The last one was limited to just two markets that were then thought to be largely representative of the public radio system. It barely mentioned media usage on the Internet.

“It was a completely different media landscape then,” Smith said. “The world has been transformed, and the ways that people consume media.”

The 2010 study aims to help define some of the biggest unknowns about the public radio audience

  • how to get current listeners to spend more time with public radio,
  • who are the best prospects to become future pubradio listeners, and
  • how to build loyalty among people listening on digital platforms.

Perhaps the trickiest challenge of all will be devising ways to target these new listeners without alienating the core audience of predominantly white, highly educated baby boomers.

“Across the public radio landscape there’s an appetite to innovate, but you have to consider who your target is,” Lowe said. SmithGeiger’s researchers found three very promising audience targets, but they don’t share the same news habits and needs, as described in a summary of study findings:

Dutiful Aggregators live the PBS tag line, “Be More.” They feel an obligation to not only keep up with the news but also understand all sides of it. They consume news from a broad array of sources during a week and often feel swamped by the firehose of information.

These Aggregators are the most avid public radio listeners among the three groups — 39 percent tune in at least once a week — but they don’t evangelize for NPR, and they donate less frequently than Team Captains and Voracious Voyagers.

Within the national sample of survey participants, this segment comprises 19 percent of respondents.

Percentage breakdown of segment: 56 male, 45 ages 18-34, 40 non-white, 11 Asian/Southeast Asian/Pacific Islander; 29 self-identify as liberal, 35 as conservative.

Team Captains are optimistic, business-oriented and likely to stake out strong, self-assured opinions. They see themselves as leaders and place a high value on being informed, but they tend to keep up with news by consuming headlines rather than in-depth reports.

Captains are “fairly positive” about NPR — 30 percent listen to public radio each week. Although captains say they intend to listen, they are less likely to do so than Dutiful Aggregators. Instead, they turn to TV and web portals for news.

Within the national sample of survey participants, this segment comprises 21 percent of respondents.

Percentage breakdown of segment: 58 male, 45 age 45-64, 37 non-white, 21 Black/African-American, 21 self-identify as liberal, 41 as conservative.

Voracious Voyagers skew the youngest of all three segments. They view the world through a liberal, scientific filter. The sense of passion they bring to interests and hobbies extends to public radio. They embrace technology, explore culture and more than half of them turn to the Web for news.

Voyagers are public radio’s biggest evangelists, but roughly 60 percent of them aren’t listening to NPR once a week or more. They’re equally interested in visiting NPR online as in listening on-air, and they want to participate and tell their friends. The downside to their enthusiasm is that they are controlling and want to frame what others know about public radio.

Within the national sample of survey participants, this segment comprises 21 percent of respondents.

Percentage breakdown of segment: 54 male, 50 age 18-34, 75 white, 16 Hispanic/Latino, 57 self-identify as liberal, 13 as conservative.

Two additional segments identified by the research are less promising prospects for joining the public radio audience. “Strugglers” tend to be pessimistic and financially constrained; only 13 percent of them listen to public radio each week. “Traditionalists” are optimistic and engaged in civic life, but they aren’t very adept with technology and they most often turn to television for news.

No action plan yet

Since each group is defined in part by their media consumption habits, researchers look to their shared traits and attitudes to discover how to best bring them to public radio.

This is where public radio’s accessibility challenge comes into play.

In addition to the large awareness gap within the segments — the 70 percent of potential listeners who are at best vaguely familiar with public radio — significant portions of both core and prospective listeners who do know about public radio have negative perceptions of the NPR brand. According to the study summary, nearly a third of core listeners and prospects from all three segments perceive NPR as taking itself too seriously (30 percent of core listeners and prospects and 24 percent of core); more than a quarter of core and prospective listeners describe it as elitist, and 18 percent call it “too pretentious.”

Hurdles for NPR audience growthThe tone and seriousness of public radio programming also presents challenges: 35 percent of those familiar with public radio (including 29 percent of the core) say NPR “needs more energy”; 30 percent describe it as “too monotone,” and 28 percent say it’s “boring.”

These negative perceptions are even more prevalent among people who don’t listen to NPR (chart above).

Physical accessibility of public radio is also a challenge. A quarter of public radio core listeners and nearly a third of those familiar with NPR told researchers that they find it difficult to fit NPR into their day. Large portions of news consumers in the study expressed nearly equal intentions to visit (57 percent) or to listen on the radio (61 percent). Many have not yet fulfilled these intentions, but their interest indicates that there’s a great appetite for multiplatform access to public radio, according to the summary.

The study’s findings on brand perceptions and the accessibility of NPR’s content aren’t surprises, according to Smith. The same issues came up in the NPR’s last segmentation study, she said, but no one took on the job of planning how to address the problem. “It wasn’t owned,” she said.

Now NPR seeks to diversify its audience base not only as a means to expand listenership but to also fulfill its editorial responsibility to reflect all of America, she said. “Our programming will be richer and better and more interesting to more people.”

SmithGeiger does recommend specific tactics to address these barriers for listeners — by taking greater care in discussing positive attributes of the NPR brand such as “intelligent” and “thoughtful” without sounding snobbish, and opting for a lighter, humorous tone when appropriate.

For content accessibility, the summary proposes that NPR go for a more open, dynamic and conversational tone in news delivery. “There is an appetite for things that sound conversational, and for people sounding like real people,” Kaplan said. “It also has to do with understanding what people like to know about and what matters to them.”

The study also calls for greater emphasis on breaking news and frequently updated headlines, describing up-to-the minute news as a “cost of entry to news reporting.”

All three audience segments place a high priority on breaking news, Kaplan said. “We need to consider what that means and how to do breaking news in a way that is appealing and consistent with our brand.”

Any move to add more breaking news can’t undercut the in-depth coverage and editorial rigor that distinguish NPR in the media landscape, Smith said. The “need-it-nowness” of information-age culture demands more immediacy in news coverage, she said, and NPR has to find a way to serve audiences who want the latest news now. “It is not about becoming CNN. We have information about what the appetite is for breaking news, but we don’t have the answer yet for how to respond to it.”



Adjusting to people meters: Radio sees “a new normal” with lower ratings, September 2009.

In developing The Takeaway, the morning show originating from WNYC, producers looked outside the public radio core for a bigger audience target — heavy news consumers who want to know about breaking events. “You don’t grow the audience by getting everyone to listen to Garrison Keillor,” said John Hockenberry, co-host of The Takeaway, in a 2009 Current feature. “You do it by creating a program that, in the course of the day, people will want to be part of.”

Audience diversity and journalistic expansion are the top two among seven broad recommendations of the Grow the Audience report for public radio to achieve “deeper value and wider use” in the next decade, January 2010.


NPR Audience Opportunity Study, Summary of Key Takeaways, Summer 2010, by SmithGeiger.

PowerPoint presentation of study findings for station execs, Sept. 14, 2010.

Station Resource Group’s Grow the Audience report.



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