This is an edited compilation of an exchange between Adam Davidson and John Sutton, sparked by Davidson’s appearance on our weekly podcast, The Pub, in which he discussed public radio’s future amid the growing market for on-demand content. Davidson co-founded NPR’s Planet Money and will soon launch a new podcast for Gimlet Media. Sutton, an audience researcher and consultant, is co-founder of Sutton & Lee and Emodus Research.
John Sutton: It is always worth hearing what Adam Davidson has to say, but this was a pretty superficial and occasionally uninformed discussion about public radio economics. It’s not a meaningful public radio economics conversation unless you’re talking about how money is raised and how it changes hands within the industry. That’s a worthwhile topic, btw. Also, I have to challenge Adam’s assertions that public radio fails to engage listeners at a high level and that its past success was due to a lack of competition. There’s plenty of current and past research suggesting otherwise.
. . .
I enjoyed hearing Adam’s take on the need for people who create content. There were some good insights there. It was a somewhat informed conversation about changes in today’s consumer marketplace and marginally informed about some of the issues facing NPR and stations. As noted in my first comment, you really can’t have a conversation about the public radio economy without talking about how money is raised and how it changes hands within the industry.
However, Adam’s understanding of public radio’s past success is way off. To suggest that past success was due to being the default option in the wasteland of commercial radio is uniniformed.
Public radio’s decades-long audience and revenue growth was the product of embracing its place and potential in the radio marketplace. Yes, the deteriorating quality of commercial radio helped, but NPR and stations grew by learning how to win in that marketplace. Public radio grew by design. The most significant design feature was to become more engaging more often within individual programs and, at stations, across the broadcast schedule.
Like today, different designs were tested, measured, refined, and retested to ensure they were engaging and, to use today’s term, “sticky.” On a macro level, stations tested the designs of their program schedules measuring engagement with AudiGraphics metrics such as Loyalty among Core and Fringe listeners. On a micro level, public radio producers such as Jim Russell at Marketplace used primitive X-ray machines called dial testers to examine how listeners responded to different types of story intros.
It’s not wrong for Adam to suggest that better engaging listeners is an important part of public radio’s future. But it is uninformed to suggest that improving listener engagement is somehow a different approach than in the past. We’ve been there. We’ve done that. We need to keep doing it. And one does not have to look hard to find solutions to most of today’s engagement challenges in the lessons learned over the past three decades.
Adam Davidson: Hi John, it’s been a long time. 20 years, I think, since we last worked together.
I think you might have constructed a straw man argument that I never made. Yes, public radio has faced some competition over the years. Yes, there have been amazing innovations and efforts to engage audiences. Yes, we have tried to learn more about what our audience wants.
BUT, we are in a fundamentally different time. Our competition was extremely muted in the past. There was a huge barrier to entry to try to compete with thoughtful, long-form radio. So huge, in fact, almost nobody ever tried to enter. Marketplace squeezed itself on to drive time. This American Life, Prairie Home Companion, and a handful of other non-NPR shows were able to reach decent national audiences. But a new popular product once or twice a decade is not the hallmark of a highly competitive marketplace. And our tools of learning what our audience liked were so coarse. As I remember discussing with you in the mid-’90s, for most markets data about anything other than drive time was based on such small sample sizes as to be meaningless. And we were never able to study what people WOULD want if they could have far more than 24 hours of audio a day to choose from.
The barriers to entry are minimal. Every undergrad has the tools to get their content up. And while we would love more data, we do have a lot. We know how many people are downloading each individual episode (though it would be great to know how many are actually listening and how long they listen for, and how they share the podcasts with friends).
Now we have this realization that when people are given a wide range of choices —hundreds of thousands of potential audio shows — they choose much longer stories, much more highly produced stories. They choose a kind of product we were not offering much of. We were offering a little bit of it, on the edges. But not a lot of it.
I have spent 2/3rds of my career (roughly) creating 3–5 minute stories and 1/3rd creating longer ones. The longer ones are a different beast altogether. They take a different approach to storytelling, requiring more rigorous planning and thinking about structure. They require an editing system that encourages deep dives.
I know NPR and used to know Marketplace intimately. They’re amazing machines, built for speed, and structured around 3–5 minute quick-turnaround stories. It’s amazing how good some of those stories are. Still, the audience doesn’t choose them when they actively choose what to listen to. NPR used to have dozens of podcasts that were curated collections of stories that had aired on ME [Morning Edition] and ATC [All Things Considered]. NOBODY chose to listen to them.
So, yes, Jim and Jay [Kernis, former NPR producer and programming v.p.] and others have had ideas over the years about snappier intros and ways of using music beds and tightening or loosening clocks. But that is not the same as what we face now. We face a marketplace that is actively consuming a product we don’t make. It’s very similar, but it’s also very different.
You can say this is more of the same. I can argue it’s fundamentally different, a bigger challenge than NPR has ever faced (except, I guess, the inevitable recollection of the awful year of 1983). But I would definitely counsel any young person hungry for a long career in audio to focus on long-form, elegantly produced storytelling. I would encourage management at NPR to adjust the way it takes in story ideas, communicates between the shows and desks, and generally sets the incentives that lead to more not-especially-engaging short pieces than I believe possible.
I’ve been through most of the changes you mention above. This one feels much bigger to me. Much harder. But also much more rewarding.
Sutton: Thanks for your thoughtful response. You’re on to something good with long form and podcasting. I think it’s great.
This podcast was billed as you lending your public radio and economics journalism expertise to a discussion about building the public radio economy of the future. I think it misses that mark by quite a bit. Given that your name lends extra weight to any discussion, I have to say again that you’re off by a wide margin on how the public radio consumer marketplace works. It’s important that the industry gets this right.
I don’t think I’m building a straw man here. The above article uses a quote of yours pulled from the interview (56:07). The quote is also in the podcast billboard: “I don’t see any future for NPR that doesn’t involve being better at engaging listeners powerfully in a way that they actively choose NPR rather than default turn on the radio and that’s the one station that isn’t awful.”
It’s a pretty powerful statement to suggest that, even today, listeners don’t actively choose NPR, especially given public radio’s audience and donor growth trajectories over three decades.
I will come back to this in a moment, but l want to separate the discussions here, because there are at least two happening simultaneously. One is about the consumer marketplace, and one is about the program production marketplace.
You make a compelling argument that the program production marketplace is changing. You say your guidance to up-and-coming content creators is that NPR might not be the best place to learn and grow anymore. Interesting point. In the interview you talked about the need for people who can create content, even if they are relatively inexperienced. Another interesting point.
I talked with several people about this yesterday, and they believe that talent acquisition, development, and compensation is one of the biggest issues facing the industry. That will make for a great topic in a future episode of The Pub (The Tiny Pool of Talent), but it is a separate topic from public radio’s position in the consumer marketplace or the public radio economy.
Let’s talk some consumer marketplace facts from Arbitron/Nielsen data. Commercial radio stations have always been, and still are, strong competitors for our listeners. Fringe listeners give their public radio station about 15 percent of their measured weekly radio listening. The other 85% of their listening is mostly to commercial radio. Core listeners give public radio about 70% of their measured radio listening. They also actively choose commercial radio and listen to news, talk, sports, and music. Sometimes Core and Fringe listeners are pulled away from public radio by better programming on commercial radio. Sometimes public radio pushes them away with weaker programming.
All of this can be seen in monthly and quarterly reports from Nielsen and AudiGraphics. The majority of our listeners do not find all commerical radio awful. Commercial stations present meaningful competition.*
Moving on to scale. NPR reports that its member stations had 34.2 million weekly listeners in Fall 2014. In AudiGraphics for PPM markets we see that listeners average 7 to 8 tune-ins per week. On the conservative side, that’s 240 million tune-ins per week or just shy of 12.5 billion tune-ins per year. That’s 12.5 billion tune-ins actually exposed to public radio content. Think of it as 12.5 billion downloads that actually reach the ears and often, the brain. It dwarfs podcasting.
That brings us to this from your response: “Now we have this realization that when people are given a wide range of choices — hundreds of thousands of potential audio shows — they choose much longer stories.”
Again, a very strong, definitive statement here about listener preferences and what it means for the future of public radio. It appears that digital technology — the ability to choose your start time, to pause, and rewind — has made long-form content a financially viable segment of the “smart audio content” marketplace.
More important, we don’t know its impact on that marketplace. Maybe it will hurt just enough to cause financial disruption. Maybe it will grow the market rather than cannibalizing NPR and public radio stations.
What is highly unlikely is that “choosing much longer stories” will become the dominant listening behavior.
We know this because that’s not how people use radio in their lives. They use it to enhance the value of the time spent they doing other things. No one is going to shave 10 minutes longer in the morning because they are listening to a podcast. And driveway moments are notable because they are rare.
Our value proposition is not news or music or long form or short form. It is making people’s mundane moments more valuable by fitting enriching audio into their lives. Variety is also an important component of that value proposition. The people we serve want to *hear* about more than just one thing. There’s nothing in public radio’s newfound success with long form podcasts to suggest it will change the fundamental ways in which people use audio.
Finally, if there’s any straw man in this this discussion, it is this from your response, Adam.
“As I remember discussing with you in the mid-’90s, for most markets data about anything other than drive time was based on such small sample sizes as to be meaningless.”
I never said that. What I would have said is that analyzing the middays, evenings and weekend for many stations is often meaningless because the stations attract too few listeners to have reliable data on their station in those dayparts.
Please note the nuance. Arbitron’s sample sizes weren’t the problem, especially when looking at two to three consecutive surveys. There were enough diaries in the market to look at any daypart. The issue was that [a] station’s programming was not attracting a sufficient number of diaries to analyze the audience of a program.
Dear Reader: If you haven’t had enough already, here’s something fun from 9 years ago.
*And there’s long been competition from personal media such as cellphones, CDs, cassettes, and 8-track tapes. We just can’t measure it.
Davidson: Thanks for the thoughtful reply.
I think you’re right that the key here is to focus on:
1. Content producers.
I don’t think we can create programming that engages the audience with passion unless we create conditions for content producers to do their work with passion.
There is no way to have this conversation without saying what I think most people recognize: Most of what comes out of the radio on NPR and other pubradio shows are not amazing and engaging. The content is, sometimes, great. But isn’t more often than not.
Whatever market dynamics existed in the past, they are different now. The audience can choose to listen to great content 100% of the time. That changes everything. While I agree that public radio, now, is an accompaniment to other activity, I would strongly argue that the best, most successful and most profitable programs in the future will be very much foreground shows that people listen to in a more engaged way.
Look at CPMs. NPR typically gets something around $2 (meaning they get $2 to put a sponsorship announcement in front of 1,000 people). That’s not so bad in a universe where web content gets pennies or fractions-of-a-penny CPMs. But many of the top podcasts are getting CPMs of $50 or $100 or, even, $130. That means you can have a much smaller audience and make a lot more money and support a lot more production.
Those prices will, surely, fall as more top-quality podcasts enter the market. But I think they will always trade at a high premium over the broadcast content. By definition, broadcast has to reach a broad audience, and that means it can rarely be any one group’s most passionate, engaged content. It’s just hard to create shows that have to reach 70-year-olds in Alabama and 25-year-olds in San Francisco and have both groups love it.
The economics of production at $50 CPMs is totally different from that at $2 CPMs. $50 CPMs means you can spend a lot of time crafting stories. It means you can hire the very best people in the world to help you. It means you can travel wherever you want and take risks and fail and throw out the bad stuff and spend more time creating great stuff. $2 CPMs, as we have seen over the last few years, is a company that needs to have mass layoffs, is in near-constant turmoil, and is shedding its best talent. Now, even if the podcast CPMs fall, audience sizes for podcasting will continue to grow. The market is still in its infancy.
I will, respectfully, say that comparing someone turning on a radio and someone actively downloading a podcast is way, way off base and misses the entire point. First off, your numbers are not your friends. Apple says there have been more than 1 billion podcast subscriptions through iTunes. Assuming most podcasts have more than 12 episodes and many people listen on platforms other than iTunes, the podcasting universe is, indeed, much bigger than even your overly generous comparison. And podcasting is growing and radio listening is shrinking.
But the key thing is that someone listening to the radio is not as engaged, they haven’t made the same kind of decision, they don’t have the same kind of interaction with the hosts, etc. So, I just don’t know how helpful your stats about radio listening are. I think you are way over-analogizing them to the digital space.
I gave you annual radio-listening occasions per year for public radio stations. You gave me Apple podcast subscriptions for a global marketplace over what period? A year? All-time? That would be something like a decade.
We can’t keep having this conversation without having a legitimate
comparison. So let’s get it down to annual or weekly consumption, which then
lends itself to a deeper discussion about economics. Is there even a best guess
on the number of podcasts listened to each week?
Beyond that, what percentage of a podcast is heard all the way through once someone starts listening? This is an important metric, given the argument that consumers will trade short-form content for long-form.
Finally, the notion that podcast listeners are more engaged than radio listeners simply because they had to sign up. Is that based on research? If so, where can we find it?
Davidson: Of course, as you know, there’s insufficient data on podcast behavior. But, IMHO, what we’re facing now is not a tweak that can be determined by data. We are facing a shift from one kind of industry to another one. We will, eventually, need better data, and I’m sure we’ll get it. But right now what we need is vision. Data — certainly data about radio listening — just doesn’t help much. I know your business and life work is data about radio listening, and I do think that will be helpful to station managers and programmers for years to come. But I just don’t think it’s helpful for digital producers. I would guess that you wouldn’t find many people producing podcasts who agree with you that each episode of radio listening is the equivalent of a podcast download. It’s just a different kind of activity, different kind of relationship. I can’t prove that to you with data. I don’t know what the data would be. But I know it ain’t so.
Here’s the data I think we have:
– People behave very differently when they choose audio programs one-by-one than they do when they listen to radio. I look at the persistently high-ranking podcasts in iTunes. It’s a lousy metric, of course, and only a measure of churn. But we can see trends, and the trend we see is, when people choose to download audio they choose highly produced, long form programming. They decisively do not choose the bread-and-butter of NPR and its member stations — the 3-5 minute “feature” or 2-way.
This isn’t a close call. There is huge appetite for highly produced, long form content. There is zero appetite for the short, quick stories that make up ME and ATC.
– Producers of great content are flocking to programming that reaches a smaller audience but an audience that they feel is more passionate. I don’t have hard numbers, but I do know that every audio content producer I have talked to feel this. I get infinitely more feedback, in quality, intensity, and quantity, when I am on a podcast like Planet Money even though it has a fraction of the audience of Morning or ATC. It’s not even close. In ten years of appearing on Marketplace, Morning Edition and ATC, I would guess I received a grand total of 5 listener letters or emails or social comments — pro or con. I get more than that every time I’m on a podcast. This passion and response is thrilling and palpable (even if you don’t, yet, have hard numbers that confirm it), and it is a huge part of the draw from over-the-air to digital. Also, this passion is monetizable. The CPMs are several orders of magnitude larger. Advertisers like Audible, Harry’s, Squarespace, MailChimp, etc., say they are seeing far greater response to digital ads than to radio sponsorship.
– I don’t need any additional data. I doubt many other content producers do. It’s pretty clear-cut. Digital is a wildly more rewarding space (in every sense of the word), right now, than radio for content producers.
Everything I said on the podcast was about content producers and audiences. As I said, I think the institutions — NPR, member stations, etc. — will have to adapt to a world in which content producers and the most passionate audiences go elsewhere. If the institutions don’t adapt, they will go away.
Of course, radio stations and NPR’s radio offerings could compete more aggressively by being more consistently awesome and engaging. I think you’ve argued that point many times. There could and should be something awesome, sparkling, thrilling every half hour of every national show. There isn’t. I see that as, primarily, an organizational structure problem. NPR and many member stations have creaky old structures built for a very different age that are risk-averse and focused more on feeding the beast than on producing fabulous radio. Of course, tons of great stuff does get on the air. But there could be a lot more. I have become a broken record within NPR, laying out how I think the current system stifles creativity and freshness and rewards standardization and risk-aversion. It’s not anybody’s fault. It’s a system that nobody designed, it just evolved over the decades. (I’d guess at least 70% of people involved with putting radio stories on the air at NPR — reporters, editors, producers, executives — would agree with me. One friend calls it the Blandanator, this machinery that takes good ideas and makes them boring.)
This has long been an important issue, but it was less urgent because even the most frustrated had no alternative. Now they do. I used to work in the NPR NY bureau with Mike Pesca, Robert Krulwich, Alex Blumberg, Chana Joffe-Walt, Zoe Chace, Caitlin Kenney, Luke Burbank. Some of the greatest radio talent of our age.
I’m not sure, exactly, what your argument against me is. You do seem mad at me for some reason. And you seem to think that the only way the things I’m writing or saying could be true or “informed” is if I have statistically valid data. I’d suggest that I don’t think you’ve address the core point I’m making. Great content is created by great content producers. I don’t think you’ll lure any of the people I mentioned above by showing them some data point that proves that radio listeners are every bit as engaged as podcast listeners. Or by arguing that I am uninformed.
If you’re making a smaller point — that we shouldn’t fill up every minute on the air with hourlong highly-produced radio — I would agree with that. I think that on the air, there is a place for the 3–5 minute piece. (But, still, those pieces should be a lot better than they are much of the time.)
I’m making a different point. The data we have (however crude it is) tells us that the future belongs to a kind of widget we’re not making much of. We should start making that new kind of widget, more of the time, if we want to stay relevant.
“There is huge appetite for highly produced, long form content. There is zero appetite for the short, quick stories that make up ME and ATC.”
Zero appetite? Would that make it past you as an editor to air in a Planet Money segment without fact-checking it or challenging it?
ATC has been serving millions of people each day for decades. It still serves millions of listeners each day, and it continues to be one of the core programs in a service that generates more than $500 million annually in listener contributions and business support.
Zero appetite? While you might have a low opinion of the work being done by your former colleagues at NPR, millions of listeners disagree. They are highly engaged. They engage by still choosing to listen to the radio, even though podcasts have been available for nearly a decade. They engage by locking their radio presets on their NPR station and making NPR News their top streaming choice when listening on their station’s mobile app. They engage by donating. They engage by writing Congress in support of federal funding for public broadcasting. They engage by signing up for station e-newsletters. They send compelling comments and letters (even during pledge drives!) about the value of their service in their lives. They come to station events and volunteer their time. Thy participate in online communities and social media.
We have decades of surveys results, including some quite recent studies, showing that listeners, especially core listeners and donors, place the highest personal value on the NPR News magazines.
We have independent, qualitative research that shows NPR News listeners have higher levels of emotional connection to NPR than New York Times readers have to the New York Times, a subscription-based service.
I could go on with further examples of listener engagement, emotional connection, and brand loyalty scores, but I think the point has been made.
To say that there is Zero Appetite for the content being offered through the NPR newsmagazines and that current listeners aren’t engaged, one has to be either uninformed (my original point) or in denial. Either way, underestimating the value and importance of NPR to its current listeners can only hurt efforts to serve those listeners with new digital audio products.
On the flip side, I happen to agree that there is a viable market for long form podcasts, and I’m sure there will be several profitable ventures. But they won’t take over the world and they won’t kill NPR or radio, though they may do some damage.
Long form podcasting also has the potential to expand the market for smart radio — to create even more listening. It’s really interesting to me that no one ever talks about new products and services as potentially growing the entire market, yet we know that much of public radio’s growth came from expanding the number of stations that carry NPR News. Greater accessibility helped more listeners find NPR and other quality content. Continously improving the programming kept them coming back.
It’s not a zero-sum game. If you want to talk vision, then the place to start is how we keep growing what we have (yes, growth is still possible in radio) while adding listening with new products. That would be another good topic for The Pub or even the PRPC conference [Public Radio Program Directors conference].
Adam, thank you for the spirited debate. I yield the closing comments to you.
Davidson: Hi John,
I agree it’s time to end this conversation. In fact, I am only writing for that tiny handful of folks who have made it this far.
It’s not much of a conversation, if I’m honest. I will say, with frankness, that it’s frustrating the way you take a word or two from what I’ve written, ignore the context, construct a false argument that you claim I made and then disprove that false argument and conclude that I am poorly informed or in denial. I have a general rule against responding to ad hominem and straw-man attacks. That being said, this stuff is important, and it’s a helpful way for me to clarify my own ideas, to myself, if to nobody else. So, I have been responding. But I won’t respond any more.
Obviously, I don’t think there is zero appetite for the radio broadcasts. It was clear, I thought, that I meant there is zero appetite in the digital download space. NPR produced dozens of podcasts based around 3–5 minute pieces, and they got so little audience they were killed and nobody noticed.
Obviously, I don’t think that everything NPR produces is lousy. I think there’s magical work aired every day. But I don’t think it’s as good as it could and should be, and I think that with the sudden appearance of real competition for the first time, the average quality level just isn’t good enough. BTW, this is not some singular, grumpy ex-employee’s opinion. This is the standard view at NPR.
You never once addressed the actual issues I was focused on: the content producers and the revealed preferences of digital consumers. It’s hard not to see you as the man with a hammer seeing the world as nails. You have spent decades working with radio data and keep repeating that only radio data is valid. But this isn’t a data-based moment. This is a moment like Steve Jobs with the iPhone or Henry Ford with the Model T: it’s a moment of discontinuity. We are moving from one sort of relationship with an audience to an entirely different one. As a result, extrapolating based on past data is somewhere between harmful and useless. (I keep hearing that apocryphal Henry Ford quote about the people wanting faster horses in my mind.)
I might be guilty of the same. I have spent my life producing content about economics and see the world through the eyes of content producers and economists. But I do think my biases are more useful in this context than yours. There is a lot of literature in economics about this sort of thing, a sudden shock in which a protected monopolistic or oligopolistic entity confronts competition. It usually doesn’t end well for the monopolist. I’m sure that in 1972, people would have said they are perfectly happy with their Bell telephone and couldn’t imagine anything different, though maybe they wished it was cheaper to call their cousin in Cleveland.
But the most important perspective, I think, that I bring is as a longtime content producer. We’ve got so many options we never had before. The big hole in the argument you lay out is: Who is going to keep doing all this radio that people feel engaged with? And where will the audience be when there is so much more engaging content in other places?
I am confident that NPR can and, I hope, will live up to this challenge. But it will require a lot of structural change to make its productions passion- and engagement-centered. They have to up their game, by a lot, and soon. They have to be a place that draws the top talent, not trains it and then sends it elsewhere. That means they have to offer more freedom, more creative support, more money, more of an engaging, exciting, forward-looking workplace. Ask around at NPR and tell me if those are words lots of people would use to describe the place over the past few years. (As I’ve said a million times: I’m not pointing the finger at Jarl or current management. This is a long-standing problem that they have inherited.)
I actually think my view is quite optimistic. I feel very confident that we are only at the very beginning of a golden age of narrative audio. It’s going to be an amazing decade for anybody who knows how to gather and cut tape and put it into some kind of compelling shape. There will be more amazing content produced, much larger audiences, way more money, and way more experimentation. I can’t wait. It’s thrilling. I just hope NPR and the member stations realize the opportunity and join in the fun.
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