How to build the next generation of public radio listeners

Print More

It is rare for everyone in public radio to agree on anything. 

In 2000, I was asked to put together a PRPD session on “The Truths of Public Radio.” That request followed several years of significant research and new thinking about public radio’s public service. To prepare for the session, my task was to reach out to a broad cross section of leading programmers, thinkers and researchers to come up with a list of “truths,” or facts that everyone agreed on.

And how many facts could this group of 19 public radio experts agree on?

Zero.

The closest any statement got to full support was “The laws of radio apply to public radio,” which was endorsed by 70% of the experts. Eighty percent of the proposed “truths” couldn’t even get majority support.

I share this anecdote because the lack of agreement is still true today. Public radio is a very democratized industry with a lot of passionate, smart people who have strong opinions and views about their work. That’s often a strength, but it also means there’s little to no consensus. 

There is one exception. The one thing that has risen from an ideal to a drumbeat to a bona fide raison d’etre in public radio is the drive to acquire younger and more diverse audiences. I wouldn’t be surprised if this goal was a top bullet point on the strategic plans of every public radio station that has a strategic plan. 

Despite the ubiquity of this goal — the one thing that everyone agrees on — when it comes to tactical execution of plans to attract a “younger and more diverse audience,” things get thin. These initiatives always seem to involve actions the station is going to take in the future. Station executives and programmers treat the pursuit of this audience like a puzzle that they must ponder and solve over time. Some suggest that all we need is a theoretical pile of money to market the problem away, or that public radio should throw a lot of spaghetti at a wall to see what sticks. 

Over the next two Frequency Boost columns, I’m going to show that the path to success in attaining younger and diverse audiences is actually simple and clear. The main obstacle isn’t knowing how to attract these listeners, it’s having the fortitude to make the changes necessary to embrace them as they arrive.

In my next column, I’ll look at creating programming for a more diverse audience. In this one, I’m focusing on attracting a younger audience. That’s the easiest one of the two, because public radio has already accomplished this.

Since 2016, millennials and Generation Z, combined, have been the largest generational cohort in the public radio audience.

Go back and read that statement again. It’s true. Currently, 39% of public radio’s audience is Gen Z/millennials and 35% is boomers.

It is worth noting that the audience data in this chart captures only measured broadcast listening. Arguably some of that listening (but not all, by a long stretch) has ported over to on-demand platforms. When talking about the vitality of stations, and therefore the entire public radio economy, it is important to focus on real-time listening in order to understand and better harness its massive reach and potential.

If you ask most people to go find a picture of a public radio listener, most would come back with an image of a gray-haired baby boomer. There’s fair justification for that, as boomers have dominated public radio for more than a generation. Yet as the Silent Generation fades into the sunset and Generation X continues just to occupy space, there’s been a radical change in the public radio audience. A surge of new younger listeners have discovered public radio. They’re tuning in often enough to show up in weekly cumes.

How did this happen? 

Before anyone takes a victory lap, it didn’t happen because of direct actions taken by stations. It happened in the same way that previous generations became public radio listeners: They found it on their own. 

There are two primary ways that young people come into the public radio fold. The method that brings in most of them — attracting about half of new listeners — is, quite simply, the aging process. As young adults become more interested in news and events and seek out news content, they land on public radio as a source. 

The second method, accounting for about a third of new listeners, funnels them in through a side-channel. They discover programs like It’s Been a Minute, This American Life or Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me! either on the radio or as podcasts. These programs serve as a “gateway drug” to public radio’s other offerings.

If you look at new audience strategies of most public radio stations — including marketing activities, scheduling of weekend shows or hosting live events targeted at younger listeners — you will find only anecdotal evidence that any of these tactics resulted in measurable success. The strategy that worked was no strategy — just public radio being inherently interesting and awesome, like always.

That’s the good news, and there’s another side to that coin.

Everyone I’ve told about the growth of younger listeners has expressed some healthy skepticism. “But it doesn’t feel like the audience has changed,” one friend said to me. She was right. 

It doesn’t feel like anything has changed for two reasons:

  • There is a huge disparity in how much time millennial and Gen Z audiences spend with public radio as compared to older generations, including boomers, and that’s because … 
  • Public radio is not programmed for them.

Forget programming for the future. Today, public radio speaks to the largest generational cohort of its past, not its current, audience.

So let’s back up and explore the disparity in listening.

Boomers listen more often and for longer periods of time, generating 67% more listener hours than Generation Z and millennial listeners. Despite being the smaller group — 35% of the audience, as compared to 39% made up of Gen Z/millennials — they still use public radio way more than younger listeners. 

There’s no mystery about why: Boomers like public radio. It serves them so well that they come back regularly and listen for significant periods of time. However, their listening is trending down and unlikely to recover to the peak of 2017. It’s not clear why they’re listening less, though it’s likely due to a combination of changes to their lifestyle, interest and use of radio.

Despite the downward trajectory in overall listening trends, the youngest generations are actually listening more. Look at the upwards trend of Gen Z and millennials, even during the pandemic. It goes against every assumption people make not only about young listeners, but trends for any listeners.

But hold off on the high fives again, because the blue line in that graph reveals another challenge for public radio.

What will it take to increase the listening hours of Gen Z and millennials enough that they surpass boomers?  

It will take real change.

Who’s first? 

Public radio speaks to boomers. It once made sense to focus on them as public radio’s primary audience, but does it today?

As the Bible says (Matthew 6:24 — probably the first time Scripture has been quoted in Current), you cannot serve two masters. One has to be supreme.

Should it be the boomers or millennials/Generation Z?

If you confine yourself to one FM signal (and you don’t have to, we’ll get to that shortly), the future will demand that you make that choice. You either need to pick one lane and stay in it, or get more than one lane. One size no longer fits all.

I cringe when people talk about a target demographic of adults 25–54. That’s actually the target demographic for advertisers, most of whom don’t want to consider or count audience that’s older or younger. While it’s a nice, broad target for media buyers, it is terribly broad for programmers. 

Can you imagine what a 54-year-old woman and a 25-year-old man have in common? Not much. They have different ways of existing in the world. They are at different stages of life, think differently about the future, have different goals and use different vocabularies. They are probably at very different points in their careers, have different financial goals and experience different levels of comfort with what’s happening in the wider world. It would be silly to think that they would share many interests, preferred topics, perspectives and worldviews. 

Therefore, it’s troublesome to assume that they would share many preferences in audio programming. Whatever interests one is likely to be of limited or no interest to the other.

I believe this is why you see such big differences in generational listening to public radio.

Younger listeners begin exploring public radio because they are interested in the things public radio programs talk about, but not the way they talk about them. We’ve heard this repeatedly in focus groups with various non- or light listeners: “It sounds like public radio is talking to someone else, other than me.” That someone else is the stereotypical gray baby boomer.

All things reconsidered

Unless your station opts to stand in place passively and manage decline, there are two solutions to this situation. The first is to make millennial and Gen Z listeners public radio’s primary target audience, shifting the focus away from baby boomers — not exclusive, but primary. Create programs that speak directly to this group within your current audience. Build more listening occasions, and increase the length of time they spend listening by focusing on them. If you give them more reasons to engage and listen on their terms, they will.

Programming public radio for younger listeners is a systemic and significant undertaking for every station and network that’s serious about its future. The act of turning our attention from the diminishing baby boomer audience to the growing Gen Z/millennial listenership embodies the Era of Transformation we’ve discussed before

Please do not confine your understanding of the work to be done to the topics of programs and the voices on air — though those two elements are huge. This shift in perspective requires you to reconsider everything — story perspective, experts and guests, station branding and membership appeals. The list includes everything you need to think about and do to speak to a 34-year-old listener instead of her parents.

The second path for building listening among millennial and Gen Z audiences is to create a second “lane” — in essence, a second broadcast service. I think it is quite possible that a lot of FM radio signals will be available at reasonable prices in the near future. Commercial radio groups, bloated with overleveraged stations, will figure out a means to unload them — and they’ll want to do it fast and cheap. This presents a huge opportunity for public broadcasters to create a second or third service in their market. This isn’t a new idea. In David Giovannoni’s Radio Intelligence essays published here in Current in 1990, he talked about “expansion stations” that could form a “green network” focused on younger listeners and complement the “gray network” serving older listeners. That idea is more than 30 years old, before most millennials were born. 

Regardless of the path you chose, this pivot is necessary for public radio to remain relevant, impactful and sustainable.

Possibility vs. probability 

One criticism I’m expecting in reaction to this column is that the current Gen Z/millennial-led audience listens because of the way public radio sounds now. Changing that might drive some listeners away. 

To that I say — yes, that is certainly true. It’s possible that badly executed changes could make programming less appealing. But when I compare that possibility to the probability that public radio’s decline will continue and accelerate if no change is embraced, I’d take those odds.

I’ve already heard one criticism regarding this notion of reorientation for a different audience. It came from a station manager who said, “Well, young people don’t write checks.” I laughed when I heard this, and replied, “Yes, absolutely, young people do not write checks. Most don’t even have a checkbook.” 

The manager was a bit annoyed by my response, but the underlying truth of it extends beyond paper checks. Young people give differently, and for different reasons, and they expect a different type of relationship than their parents and grandparents did. Most stations aren’t receiving significant donations from younger listeners because (a) they project all day, every day, that they’re speaking to older listeners and (b) they don’t ask them in ways that would create the right kind of relationship.

Previous attempts to garner younger listeners have exclusively focused on how to get them to listen to what public radio does today, rather than orienting public radio’s service towards them. Unless stations and program producers are willing to make the changes necessary to do that, there’s no mystery about what will happen in the future.

But solving the challenge of better serving younger listeners will not be enough on its own. We also need to make changes that will attract and build loyalty with a more diverse audience. While some of the dynamics are different, the need for change is just as clear, and the prescription very similar to what I’ve discussed here. My next column will go into more detail about what it will take. 

I acknowledge that while the solutions for acquiring younger listeners are clear and simple, they are not easy. I wish that were different. Yet, more than any other challenge facing the industry, this one issue will influence whether the next era of public radio is an era of decline or an era of transformation. 

Are you doubling down on your past or are you reaching out to embrace the future? No one can make the decision for you. The steps in front of you are difficult, but not hard, and certainly not a mystery.

Good luck. I’ll be listening.

Eric Nuzum (eric@magnificentnoise.com) 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 2020.

8 thoughts on “How to build the next generation of public radio listeners

  1. “Commercial radio groups, bloated with overleveraged stations, will figure out a means to unload them — and they’ll want to do it fast and cheap.” Oh c’mon Eric, you know better than that. Everyone has been predicting that for nearly 15 years now, and it NEVER HAPPENS.

    I can tell you why: it makes no financial sense whatsoever.

    Imagine you’re an iHeart, or Audacy or Cumulus cluster in a given market. How do you make money? By selling ads, of course! Except, no, that’s not true. You don’t make money ONLY by selling ads. You make money through monopoly power. By saying to ad buyers: “You want your ad on my top-rated WXYZ? You gotta buy ads on ALL my stations in this market, pal.”

    Furthermore, you also say “You want your ad on my top-rated WXYZ? I see you’re buying ads on my competitor across town. Too bad. Unless you stop doing that, I’m not gonna sell airtime to you.”

    Finally, a radio license is a curious thing. It’s not an asset. It cannot be used as collateral. It, strictly-speaking, has zero dollar value. Because it’s assigned to you by the FCC and can be – in theory – taken away from you at any time. Yet for something with zero value, it sure as hell costs a lot of money to buy one. So when you sell that license, you’re suddenly declaring income on something that cannot be depreciated. The tax implications get ugly very fast. Yes, a commercial radio station seller could elect to DONATE a license to a pubradio outlet and reap some nice tax benefits that way, but generally it’s more profitable to just hang on to the license and use it to prop up the earning value of the entire cluster.

    The only licenses that might, MIGHT, be going for fire-sale prices are the ones that sell that cheap for one of two reasons:

    First, the owner has such severe debt issues that they can afford to get rid of a license in a weak cluster (or even a standalone signal in a given market). That was the deal with WAAF (now WKVB) in Worcester/Boston and Entercom/Audacy selling to K-Love/EMF. Also was true for WPVD (now WWRI) in West Warwick RI when Hall sold it to DiPonti for peanuts.

    Second, the license is a near-worthless AM station (most of the time *without* an FM translator/repeater station) that has a directional array nobody listens to, and probably needs a lot of very expensive capital maintenance after decades of deferment. Several of those are selling cheap but that’s of little value to public radio stations. As RIPR/WRNI learned (and lord knows if WXXI ever will), pubradio listeners do not easily seek out AM radio stations for NPR content.

    • Commercial stations are basically debt service machines. They crank out revenue, basically serving debt. There is no margin. Eventually, that will collapse on itself. While people have been saying this for 15 (and probably longer) years, you are now even hearing whispers from the groups themselves that this cycle of debt service is pointless.

      • Well, I ought to make clear that I *wish* that sort of collapse will happen. But it doesn’t change the fact that the tax implications of a “fire sale” are inherently so negative that things would have to get far, far worse than they have in the last 20 years (and that includes the bankruptcies of iHeart & Cumulus) before that route would be acceptable to shareholders.

        I liken it to local newspapers. We in the industry keep bemoaning how Gannett/Gatehouse and Alden/DFM have “gutted” these papers that they own so badly. To paraphrase Tyler Durden in Fight Club: “where they are now, they can’t even imagine what ‘the bottom’ will be like.” It’s awful now, but it can still get a lot, lot worse. And radio is still a good 10 years’ worth of devastating cuts behind where newspapers are today.

        There is still an enormous amount of consolidation and centralization that can be done in these big broadcast ownership groups that would allow them to run on 50% less staff than they have now. Note that I didn’t say they would run WELL. Nor that such moves would deliver anything but an inferior product to the audience. But it could be done.

        I know, I’m just such a little ray of goddamn sunshine, aren’t I? :)

  2. That all said, I agree with you 100% that it’s long past time for public radio to learn something our commercial brethren understood over 20 years ago: you don’t have one AM/FM outlet to reach all possible audiences. It doesn’t work, and hasn’t worked (with but rare and usually unique exception) since the mid 1990’s. If you want a station that appeals to latino women aged 18 to 29, you program a license to appeal to latino women aged 18 to 29. You don’t worry about how that station will ALSO appeal to white men aged 35 to 48, because it won’t. If public radio wants to diversify its audience, it has to diversify its signals. And I mean DIVERSIFY. None of this bizarre pseudo-shared branding across multiple outlets nonsense.

    Frankly, this is long overdue and double so in numerous markets like Boston, NYC, DC, Seattle, San Francisco, LA, Atlanta, Providence, et al, that inexplicably have two competing outlets airing mostly the same lineup every day. That old, tired trope of “but it leads to more listening overall!” hasn’t been true for at least 10 years (or at least I’ve yet to see anyone produce any proof that it’s still true every time I’ve asked in the last 10 years) and NPR is long overdue to start introducing market exclusivity to its programming…but to also create alternative programming streams so that both stations can co-exist in the same market while targeting different audiences.

    • Aaron, DC actually doesn’t belong on that list — WETA airs classical and WAMU news. (And WPFW, jazz, news, talk, Democracy Now, etc.) Some time ago WETA and WAMU used to duplicate much more, then less so over time, and that ended when WETA went all-classical in 2007.

      • That’s true, although one could go into a deeper-dive of the question of whether or not public radio should still be in the business of classical music on FM. Not to denigrate the success or failure of WETA at that role, of course. More about comparing the value/benefit that classical brings vs what a second news/talk stream aimed at a different demographic might bring.

        Also a larger discussion about the good of the individual station vs the good of the network as a whole. Which is somewhat of a moot question because generally speaking the individual stations don’t give a rat’s ass about whether or not NPR “succeeds” (much less speak the same language about what is considered “successful”) and it’s very clear NPR is working very hard to get to a world where the member stations no longer exist as a relevant entity to public broadcasting. (shrugs)

        To bring this back to DC, though: there are lessons to be learned about how the DC pubradio outlets operate vs the Baltimore pubradio outlets. It’s a very similar dynamic to Boston and Providence, too.

  3. Eric,
    Great thoughts, but there are a couple of minor flaws that undermine your otherwise excellent argument.

    While I think we’ll agree on the idea that public radio is incredibly Boomer/Silent-centric, the buzz-worthy premise of your piece suggesting “a surge of new younger listeners have discovered public radio” is a little sketchy.

    The population estimates for each “generation” are as follows:
    Silent (let’s call the Greatest instead) – 21m
    Boomer – 70m
    X – 65m
    Millennial – 72m
    Z – 67m

    Adding Millennials and Zs together, creating a group more than TWICE the size of the other cells, is clearly problematic. You cannot simply add those two generational cells together and say “lookie here at this big number!” Doing so erodes trust in your argument.

    Further, in attempting to lump Ms and Zs together as a cohort, you make a weird, unexplained statement that “Generation X continues just to occupy space.” I’d love some elaboration on that statement because it appears you want to throw that segment under the bus. The truth is that Gen X is much more likely to see Millennials and Zs (their actual children) as cohorts more so than Boomers and Greatest.

    So perhaps a more transparent, impactful, and statistically sound way to present this data would be to actually break the listening out by generations. Doing so, you’d find that Xers, Millennials, and Zs are listening roughly on par with each other.

    Using the listening numbers in your piece above, Boomers deliver a whopping 67m listener hours. Generations X, M, and Z deliver 65m hours – COMBINED!

    Let’s see that again:
    Boomers: 70m population = 67m listener hours
    X, M, Z: 204m population = 65m listener hours

    So perhaps we arrive largely at the same point but by slightly different means: Due to both product and distribution issues, Public Radio is a massive under-perform for those under the age of 55. An astounding missed opportunity.

  4. Paul–What a thoughtful reply. Thank you for taking the time to share this. A few thoughts. Totally fair that I’m combining two generations and I can understand the hesitation to make that call. If anything, it gets attention and reenforces the underlying point. To me, that point still remains the same: separately or combined: there are millions of them in the Cume NOW. They aren’t theoretical. They are here. However, they don’t engage with public radio with the intensity, frequency, and loyalty over older generations. You are right, we arrive at the same point, different means. Onward!!

Leave a Reply to Eric Nuzum Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *