Your station’s weekends are over-programmed. Fixing this can free up a massive amount of resources, as well as grow your audience.
Over-programming isn’t a recent development. It has been going on for decades.
When I was a young producer at WOSU in Columbus, Ohio, I talked the station manager into letting me go to my first Public Radio Program Directors Association conference. I was so excited to be around those who were leading the industry I was trying to become a part of.
The first morning of the first day at that conference, I attended a session called “It’s Time to Fix the Weekends.”
This was 1994.
At that time, station weekend schedules were a patchwork of different formats, styles and audience appeal. Some stations even aired programs in different languages throughout a weekend.
In the 26 years since that conference session, the audience served by public radio has more than doubled on the whole. But the weekend programming practices of stations have only marginally improved. Any increases in weekend audience have been passive. Consistent scheduling practices have emerged on Saturday mornings, the weekend daypart with the highest potential audience. But the rest of the weekends haven’t changed all that much.
Who do you serve?
One problem is the number of different programs that stations air over a weekend. I reviewed the program schedules for the top 100 news and information stations based on audience size. The average number of unduplicated shows aired over Saturdays and Sundays is 25.
Do all those programs help build audience? Station listeners — including even core listeners who love your station and are its heaviest users — usually listen for a total of one or two hours every weekend. By scheduling so many programs, most stations are offering a multiple of 10 times the amount of programming that most listeners will ever hear.
If this programming so drastically overshoots that audience’s ability to consume it, why is it in your schedule?
This leads to a bigger question: Who are weekends programmed for? They certainly aren’t programmed for listeners.
Programs that deserve airtime
As an industry, public radio invests far too much into weekend programs that do not deserve their places in station schedules. Most of these programs do not generate enough public service to justify that investment.
Across the entire schedule — weekdays and weekends — there are more than 400 distributed programs available for acquisition by stations. But just 20 acquired programs attract 80% of all listening to stations. That means the other 380 programs account for only the remaining 20% of all listening to national programs.
Granted, because this list of 400-plus programs includes weekend and weekday syndicated programs, most of those top 20 shows are weekday programs. They include NPR’s newsmagazines and other widely carried midday programs. Only four of the 20 are weekend shows: Weekend Edition Saturday, Weekend Edition Sunday, Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, and This American Life.
The 200 programs on the bottom of that list account for just 0.4% of all listening to acquired programs. That bears repeating: 200 programs combined account for less than half of one percent of listening.
The bottom 200 programs are almost entirely weekend programs.
If they generate so little listening and just create glut, my question isn’t “Why do these programs exist?” Instead, I want to know why your station is airing them.
Without fail, every station ranked within the top 100 list airs at least one of those underperforming programs. Every. Single. One.
To expand our “top programs” list to include more than four weekend shows, I broadened the definition of “success” on weekends. The list expanded to 16 weekend shows. It includes the four shows I mentioned earlier — Weekend Edition Saturday, Weekend Edition Sunday, Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, and This American Life — as well as Radiolab, Weekend All Things Considered (Saturday), TED Radio Hour, On the Media, Moth Radio Hour, Weekend All Things Considered (Sunday), Ask Me Another, The New Yorker Radio Hour, Reveal, Snap Judgment, Hidden Brain and It’s Been a Minute.
The shows on this list are the only public radio syndicated weekend programs that, individually, achieve a minimum of one-quarter of one percent of national listening. Not a terribly high bar.
‘Hide it on the weekend’ is a cop-out
A number of station programmers will defend their choices to schedule so many shows, saying that they want to offer variety and give a place for lesser-known producers and niche programming.
This is disingenuous at best. Look at the weekend evenings or early morning hours on most public radio stations. You’ll find the shows that a programmer felt obligated to air yet wasn’t committed enough to schedule when any meaningful percentage of listeners might actually hear them.
If a programmer isn’t willing to put something on in prime time, then the show shouldn’t be on the station at all. It is a waste of everyone’s time: the station’s, the producer’s and the listener’s.
The “hide it on the weekend” approach to programming goes against the fundamentals of radio. Radio is finite. There are a finite number of stations with a finite number of programming hours. Stations do best when they air programming that generates the most significant public service for the most significant audience.
There is a place for niche programs. It is called podcasting.
And before you dismiss that statement as a blow-off, remember that niche programs thrive in podcasting. If you choose not to air them, that doesn’t mean they’ll go silent. In fact, it will probably amplify them.
By focusing more attention on a platform like podcasting, where they can succeed, producers of these programs can grow their audience. They’ll generate more revenue, get more support from listeners and have more impact. Producers have more creative options and more control over their destinies. Compared to a timeslot of 11 p.m. on Sunday, podcasting is the right way for them to find and serve an audience, not broadcast radio.
The problem with program glut
Public radio producers and distributors create a lot of programs, but instead of learning what works and focusing on the shows that generate the most public service and listening, the list of syndicated programs just keeps expanding.
Over the past 20 years, the number of syndicated programs has grown by 83. That’s a net increase, as many shows have gone away during that time, too.
You might ask, “What’s the harm? A lot of the programs don’t attract enough listeners to provide significant public service. If I’m not airing most of them, what’s the problem?”
Here’s your answer: It’s a stunning waste of resources. Let’s not think about the programming dollars at your station, or the operational resources you use to manage and promote all this ineffective programming. Let’s instead focus on the investments made in creating all of them.
Sometime around 2010, while I was working in program development at NPR, I was asked by executives in the NPR C-suite why there was so little money available for program development in public radio.
To explain, I wrote a white paper that was shared only inside of NPR. It made a similar case to what I’m laying out in this column: The public radio system wastes much of its resources on programs that don’t deliver. Here’s an excerpt:
If you assume that each of these programs has a budget of $150,000 (knowing that some cost far more and many far less), the low/no audience programs eat up almost $50 million dollars a year in system resources. That’s more than the budgets of Morning Edition, Talk of the Nation, both days of Weekend Edition, and Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me — combined. It’s not an exaggeration to say that if all these programs went away and their resources corralled, our system could create a new entity with NPR-like resources, without spending an additional penny above what we invest in programming today.
In hindsight, I was probably overly generous in estimating that the average budget for these shows is $150,000. It’s probably half that, if not less. However, even at half, that’s still $25 million in wasted resources that could be better used on other things.
The solution rests with local stations
Have you ever heard a variation on the joke where a man walks into the doctor’s office and says, “Doc, it hurts when I raise my arm in the air.” The doctor replies, “Well, stop raising your arm in the air.”
The solution to over-programming sounds a lot like that joke: Stop doing the thing that causes the pain.
If your station airs 25 different programs over the weekend, stop. This is not a problem with a national solution. The answer lies with local stations. In other words — with you. All you need to do is select a few programs that generate the most listening and air each one multiple times.
This isn’t a new idea. In fact, it is decades old, going back to when stations did what was then considered radical. They scheduled a repeat of A Prairie Home Companion on Sundays and quickly learned that the second broadcast attracted more audience than the Saturday night original.
For a contemporary example, take Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me! Many stations air it twice a weekend. Considering how well WWDTM performs pretty much anywhere in the schedule, why isn’t it airing six times a weekend?
And before you say I’m crazy, some stations now air WWDTM four times a weekend. KPCC in Pasadena, Calif., is one of them. Several more air it three times. Why isn’t there a second feed of classic/evergreen WWDTM episodes offered every weekend? If I were you, I would be pushing for that today.
While cable television isn’t often a source of inspiration, its programmers have deployed this strategy effectively for years: Pick your hottest shows and repeat them often on your linear schedule. Whenever viewers tune in, they get your very best stuff.
Start with the building blocks
If you want more of a game plan for how to do this, I recommend that station programmers keep the weekend newsmagazines as the building blocks of the new schedule. Then make a list of four best-performing non–news magazine programs. Repeat them throughout the weekend and promote the hell out of them.
Go from 25 weekend shows to eight (four newsmags and four others). You’ll end up with 68% fewer programs and almost certainly more listening. You’ll spend less of your budget on program acquisition and less of your time on operational maneuvering. With that savings, you can invest in your station’s future or an innovation fund to support risk-taking programming ventures.
The shows you select may be different from those aired by other stations based on your audience, but choosing them shouldn’t require a lot of effort. (AudiGraphics, for example, has a number of ways to help inform a list for your station.)
This scheduling strategy sets off a virtuous cycle for public radio as a whole. If more stations air their weekend shows more often, their ratings will increase. More underwriting dollars and other resources will become available to them. This enables producers to invest in making the shows better and better (and could possibly lower program fees for stations).
Make your station’s list today — as in right now. We’ll wait.
If you can’t see a way to focus on a short list of programs, then try coming at this from the opposite direction.
Look at your weekend schedule. Which one or two programs can you let go of this month? Replace them with repeats of programs that have already proven they can deliver listeners for your station. You are already paying for these programs. Any hour that features your best stuff will make your weekends better. It will drive up AQH and additional tune-ins because listeners find programs they like when they tune in.
Remember, to the vast majority of your audience, you are not taking away programs. They never heard many of your weekend programs in the first place. Rather, you are making the best of your programming more accessible by airing each show at times when they can hear it.
Same as it ever was
I got the inspiration to focus on this issue a few months ago, when I read a post about weekend programming in the Facebook PRPD group. The comments and reactions were the exact same arguments, theories and approaches that I heard in that 1994 conference session. To me, it was like reading a 27-year-old transcript. The only things that had changed were the venue and show names.
Given public radio’s challenges in 2021, job one for everyone is to stop arguing over the same tired actions and expecting different results. Successful programming on weekends is not as difficult to achieve as almost every programmer makes it out to be.
Besides inspiring you to make big or small changes to your station’s weekend schedule, I expect this column will generate three other types of reactions. Two of these are understandable, and one is not.
Producers and distributors will be upset that their programs didn’t make the list of 16. They will make the case that their programs matter and should be included. Of course their programs matter.
But if a program doesn’t generate sufficient audience to merit placement on an FM radio station, the producers should pursue other audio-distribution strategies. Their program will reach more people, and they will be happier with the end result. The other option for producers would be to change their program so that it can attract a more significant audience and climb into the list of top-performing shows.
Others may claim that efforts like this lead to a homogenization of public radio. Weekend scheduling will become a popularity contest in which everything sounds the same or features similar voices.
Neither of these criticisms is valid. The list of the 16 top weekend programs speaks for itself. Additionally, seven of the 16 shows are hosted by women, and nine of the 16 (a majority) are hosted by people of color. Weekend programming has often led the way with new audience, new voices and new ideas. This list demonstrates that.
The reaction that isn’t understandable —or acceptable — is doing nothing.
Almost as bad is the course of action that’s been repeated for decades — arbitrarily rearranging weekend programs and crossing fingers for a different result. Minimal or no action just delays the inevitable and kicks the can of meaningful change down the road for another year … or decade. Can your station afford to wait that long?
As I mentioned in the introduction to this series, this solution isn’t the answer to your existential questions about the future, but it helps you build muscle. It shows that meaningful, audience-focused, forward-leaning change is possible, achieves results and is the opening salvo for future changes that will have bigger impact.
Have fun making your list. I’ll be listening.
Eric Nuzum (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the co-founder of Magnificent Noise, a podcast production and consulting company. He also provides strategic advice to public radio programs and stations and writes about radio and digital audio in his newsletter The Audio Insurgent. His latest book, Make Noise: A Creator’s Guide to Podcasting and Great Audio Storytelling, was published in December 2019.