Localism emphasis poses risk

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Of all the complex and potentially fateful decisions faced by public radio program directors as they navigate the emergence of multiplatform distribution, one of the most significant is the drive to “go local” and produce more local programs, especially news and information. This push signals a strategic shift for public radio, with potentially enormous consequences for growth or decline.

Audience 2010, one of a series of landmark research reports on programming trends published in the previous decade, reported that much of the credit for the growth of public radio listenership could be traced to a shift “away from local production toward network production, away from music-based content toward news, information and entertainment.” That shift was extraordinarily successful, representing two decades of impressive audience expansion and financial growth at a time when other parts of the radio industry struggled.

Now, it appears that program decision-makers are changing course. But why would dozens of stations move off the path that worked so well and choose another approach that, viewed through the lens of audience research, would seem to be both more costly and less powerful in attracting listenership?

Local origins, national audience

Public broadcasting in the U.S. was built on a foundation of localism. Stations have always been locally (or regionally) owned and operated, and no station aspired to be simply a repeater of nationally syndicated programming. As the system expanded, station after station positioned itself as “NPR news for [this city or region],” putting as much weight on the second part of that phrase as the first.

These diametric urges to be both NPR and local posed a serious dilemma for station decision-makers, one that was rooted in the very nature of the audience. As public radio’s audience has grown over the past 20 years, high-quality news programming airing during drive time has attracted much of that listening.

Researchers recognized that listeners were “citizens of the world.” They may live in 500 different communities, but they shared important characteristics. The Core Values project, produced by the Public Radio Program Directors Association, the Station Resource Group and Walrus Research from 2000-04, reported that news listeners “see the world as part of an interconnected web of causal relationships, and want us to help them connect the dots by focusing on the ‘why,’ not just the ‘what’ of issues and events.”

The best national programs satisfy “core value” requirements, and most public radio news stations depend heavily on national and international news programs to grow their audiences and build financial support for local operations. In fact, much of public radio’s growth during the mid-1990s to mid-2000s came from expansion of the NPR news franchise. Stations with mixed news/music formats reduced music and put on more news. Stations that already aired a lot of news added more. And most of the stations that took this route gained strength through scheduling more nationally syndicated content.

Risks in ‘going local’

But that tide of enthusiasm for adding national content has been turning. Many of the stations that established themselves as “NPR for [this city or region]” are now looking for a different route to sustainability. They want to be more local.

In a survey conducted for the Public Media Futures Forum in November 2012, 82 percent of the pubradio station managers contacted indicated that they were planning to increase locally produced content. Managers of public radio’s top news and information stations were even more specific and ambitious in their plans: Eighty percent said they were looking to reposition their stations as important sources of local news.

This increasing emphasis on producing local content carries a great deal of risk, for several reasons:

  • Really good local programs can be difficult to produce and cost more than national programs. To deliver the highly satisfying listener experiences provided by the best national shows, stations must invest in creative talent and outstanding production values. Production of a daily local talk show that attracts listenership similar to that of a national talk program can easily cost five to 10 times more per hour than the national show.
  • Local programs rarely carry their own financial weight in schedules combining flagship national programs with local programs. Many stations subsidize local productions with audience-sensitive revenues generated by national shows.
  • The best available evidence suggests that public radio listeners are far more loyal to national programs than local ones. The question of listener loyalty goes right to the heart of the dilemma that stations must resolve as they go local.

Loyalty is a core metric that describes listeners tuning in more often and listening more each week, and it’s key to public radio’s established business model. From the late 1980s through the late ’90s, the listener-loyalty research community, led by David Giovannoni, George Bailey and Tom and Joanne Church, connected the level of listener loyalty to membership and underwriting income. The positive correlation between higher listener loyalty and stronger station finances has been confirmed repeatedly in the field.

The relationship is so strong that virtually all researchers we interviewed agreed on one point: Programs that depress listener loyalty are likely to reduce audience-sensitive revenues. Research also strongly points to measurably lower listener loyalty for locally produced news and information programs.

Listeners drawn to quality

It’s important to understand that this is not a question of a program’s local or national origins. The quality of the content matters. Does local content resonate with the core values that attract public radio listeners? Audience research to date has clearly established that public radio news listeners generally do not value any programming simply because it is local. They listen to public radio for in-depth coverage. They value the wider perspectives typical of the best national news shows. And at least through the middle of the last decade, researchers reported that many local news and information programs were not delivering those key ingredients.

Pubmedia Futures studies resurgence of localism

To examine public broadcasters’ new strategic focus on localism — what’s driving it, how program directors are implementing it, and how station managers plan to make it sustainable — public media analyst Mark Fuerst conducted extensive research this summer. In addition to interviewing 28 c.e.o.s, p.d.s and industry researchers, he conducted an online survey of 16 additional pubcasting executives. This group reviewed a wide range of publicly available public radio audience research, much of it completed prior to the broad proliferation of digital on-demand media platforms.

In early July, nearly two dozen participants in the research project joined a six-hour Public Media Futures Forum hosted by Atlanta-based Georgia Public Broadcasting. Speakers discussed localism in both public radio and TV, as well as a new emphasis by funders to measure the impact of public media service. Because the most vigorous discussion centered on localism in public radio news and information programs, this analysis concentrates on takeaways gleaned from those discussions and from Fuerst’s research. Recorded video of the full session is posted on GPB’s website.

In 2002, a full decade into the audience-informed era of public radio programming, Giovannoni warned about the dangers of weak local programs. His message was unambiguous: “Many of you are investing heavily in local programs and elements,” he said in a keynote address at the 2002 Public Radio Program Directors’ Conference, “but a whole body of research cautions that your listeners may not value these efforts in proportion to their expense.”

Giovannoni bolstered his case by citing the most important national public radio research of the preceding decade, his Audience 98 study. This work supported the notion that locally produced programs must be qualitatively similar to nationally produced shows if listeners are to value them. “There is no advantage in local origination if the presentation is below network standards,” he said. “Clearly, geographic localism alone does not assure audience loyalty. . . . Only one listener in five considers local programming to be more important in his or her life than network programming, and this one person in five is typically listening to your music—not your news.”

To help resolve these issues, PRPD and nine stations carried out A Sense of Place, an in-depth study of the values and effectiveness of local programs that NPR supported through its Local News Initiative. Researcher George Bailey examined the full range of public radio local news vehicles, from newscasts and drop-in features to talk shows and local news magazines. His conclusions were consistent with those Giovannoni discussed in 2002. A Sense of Place found problems with every format that included locally produced news and information programs.

All too often, local shows could not meet the quality and value expectations established by the best national shows. “The NPR listener values depth above all else,” Bailey wrote. “They are looking for factual information, intelligent analysis, and a global perspective, even in a local newscast.”

The next large-scale report, Audience 2010, reconfirmed earlier findings about the power of national news programs to build listener loyalty. But this study also offered an ominous diagnosis of the health of public radio programs overall, citing a “disturbing downturn in loyalty” across the public radio system as a whole. Music programming suffered the first downturn, in 2000. Local news and information showed declining loyalty in 2003, and even network news shows “began sputtering in 2004.”

Audience 2010, the last major study examining listener loyalty to national and local pubradio programming, found worrisome declines across all types; but, nationally syndicated programs were the most effective at maintaining listener loyalty. (Graph courtesy Radio Research Consortium and Walrus Research. Design: Electronic Ink)

Audience 2010, the last major study examining listener loyalty to national and local pubradio programming, found worrisome declines across all types; but, nationally syndicated programs were the most effective at maintaining listener loyalty. (Graph courtesy Radio Research Consortium and Walrus Research. Design: Electronic Ink)

In this disturbing picture, one thing remained relatively steady: Nationally syndicated news and public affairs programming was far more effective at maintaining listener loyalty than local news. The loss of listener loyalty was concentrated at what the authors called “diver” stations, but the systemic decline couldn’t be attributed to any single type of programming.

Looking beyond listener loyalty

Today, programmers recognize that local news and talk programs are expensive, and most of them are armed with 20 years of research indicating that most local programming reduces listener loyalty. If the relationship between loyalty and revenue continues to hold, these stations may be choosing a path that would, it seems, reduce their sustainable revenues and potentially undermine their basic business model.

To understand why stations would take these enormous risks, we need to look beyond listener loyalty.

In recent interviews about the growing emphasis on localism, I found that station-based program directors who favor going local are well aware of the challenges this strategy poses to the historical model. They know that, in most cases, listeners may be less interested in their station’s locally produced programs if those shows fail to meet core values. They also recognize that loyalty to national shows continues to drive most of their audience-sensitive revenues.

But program directors and station managers are also considering other factors.

  • The digital revolution. Producers are directly reaching listeners in new ways. For most of the largest public radio stations and regional networks, it’s no longer enough to grow their audience in the same ways they have since the late ’80s. As listeners access public radio programs through podcasts or online streams, local pubcasters believe that their station’s value as a source for national programs will decline. So arguments about the higher loyalty values of national programming have less weight. Many stations see production of more local content as a strategic shift that will help to compensate for that anticipated decline.
  • Vacuum of local newsgathering. Station leaders view the precipitous decline of local newspapers, especially in medium-sized markets, as a major service opportunity. They hope to fill this gap by providing an important and increasingly scarce community service. They also see opportunities to distinguish themselves from the shallowness and sensationalism of local news reporting on commercial stations.
  • Expanding revenues—probably with a different set of drivers. While Bailey and others warned stations about the consequences of declining listener loyalty, station revenues continued to grow, principally at the 50 largest licensees. Changes in management and fundraising strategies have increased the volume of what the researchers call “listener-insensitive” revenue: major gifts and grants. Significantly, this support for public radio often specifically backs stations’ investments in local journalism and other public service projects.
  • Better results from more abundant resources. The revenue gains that accumulated at many major-market stations and state networks over the previous decade enabled those outlets to expand their newsrooms by recruiting veteran journalists with experience in daily and in-depth news reporting. They believe that they can now produce local programs that meet the standards that core listeners expect.
One constant is core values

What should we make of these contradictory signals? Are stations jumping off a cliff or making a necessary course correction?

No one knows for certain.

Obviously, some environmental and industrial factors have changed enormously since the beginning of large-scale audience research. Program directors receive better training. Staff salaries are higher. Local production values may well have increased. Local talk shows that were “hit or miss” in 2005 may now be more “hit.” What we do know for certain is that average–quarter-hour audience ratings nationwide have declined slightly.

Will that hurt station revenues? Probably not in the short run. Stations have 20- to 30-year relationships with civic life in their communities, and that service record attracts major gifts and grants. Many stations, especially larger ones, have developed more sophisticated and effective fundraising operations that have increased average annual gifts from members, even if the number of members is flat or growing very slowly.

Until someone funds another installment of the Audience series or the next iteration of Sense of Place, discussion of programming strategy will rely heavily on anecdotes and examples, many of which are self-justifying and shared selectively. The impact of those strategies will be felt only long after investments have been committed.

The one constant in this picture is likely to be the core values of the public radio listener. Satisfying those needs has never been a question of local or national. It has always been an issue of program quality, good or bad.

Mark Fuerst’s research for the Public Media Futures Forums is supported by a grant from the Wyncote Foundation; roundtable discussions convened for the project are co-produced with the American University School of Communication. Current, which is partially funded by a separate grant from Wyncote and managed as an independent journalism center within SOC, is an editorial partner in the project.
This analysis was first published in Current, Sept. 9, 2013. It has been revised to acknowledge NPR’s support for the PRPD Sense of Place study, which it backed through its Local News Initiative. An earlier version erroneously reported that CPB funded the research.

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