How to reach audiences who think public media isn’t for them

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Public media organizations are trying to engage new audiences like never before. Our mission demands it. Our relevance and survival depend on it.

When VPR and Vermont PBS merged in July, we developed a new mission: to broaden and diversify our audience through stories that bring people together. We define “broader and more diverse” as anyone we’ve failed to reach or who may not think public media is for them.

Understanding these audiences is the first step to begin engaging them. One good way is to meet with people and listen — almost everyone is willing to tell you about their relationship with different media.

Another way is research. With financial support from CPB, we’ve conducted a 1,000-person study of audiences in Vermont and southern Québec.

For this study, we didn’t just focus on our existing audience — we went out of our way to hear from people who rarely or never engage with us.

The methodology was an audience segmentation study. When we divided participants into small groups, we didn’t define them by demographics such as age, income or geography. Rather, we grouped the audience segments by their shared values, beliefs and habits.

When we did this, we discovered some surprises. Many rural conservatives and BIPOC Vermonters share similar opinions of public media (though often for different reasons). We also discovered these potential audiences share a lot in common with our existing ones. They’re looking for levity, joy and companionship.

Anecdotes are not enough

As a result of the VPR and Vermont PBS merger, we applied for and received a Collaborative Operations and Services Grant from CPB. This funding has been invaluable in helping us to become more efficient and effective. The grant also paid for this audience study.

Before we started the research, we needed to address some internal skepticism around doing an audience study at all. “We already know our audiences” is how that’s usually stated inside public media organizations, including ours.

But, as our study revealed, we have a lot to learn about our audience. When it comes to making major content, programming and platform decisions, anecdotes and gut feelings are not enough! Our reporters wouldn’t accept that from a source, so we should hold ourselves to the same standard.

We hired a well-respected media research firm, Egg Strategy, to conduct a comprehensive quantitative and qualitative study. Then a core team consisting of staff, board members and researchers from Egg Strategy met repeatedly to shape our work.

For the quantitative study, we surveyed 1,000 people in our broadcast footprint, mainly Vermont and Montreal. This is a very robust and statistically significant number. We made sure that at least 300 people were in one of our four underserved groups: rural residents; Black, Indigenous and People of Color; under 45 in age; and lower income.

We used rigorous definitions for each group, looking at U.S. and Canadian census data and to national groups representing various populations. Because internet service is unreliable for many rural Vermonters, we also administered the survey both online and by phone.

The questions we asked everyone were about them, the participants, rather than us. “How do you use media in your life? What are your beliefs and values around media? What platforms do you use?”

The total cost was $160,000, and the output was robust. But local public media organizations could achieve good results with a smaller sample for less money. We recommend joining forces with other stations in your region. That’s what the New England News Collaborative did for another recent study of New England audiences.

What we found

The results of our quantitative survey sorted respondents into five distinct audience segments based on their answers. The number of groups could have been larger or smaller. The data from our survey showed five distinct clusters of behavior.

After we finished the quantitative survey, we turned to the qualitative phase and got personal with participants in 19 hourlong individual interviews. We made sure to include harder-to-reach people (all survey participants were compensated for their time) and to include folks who were representative of all five segments. Those interviews helped flesh out the results of the survey, reinforced its findings and gave voice to the behaviors driving the data in the survey.

We chose to focus less on two of the audience segments — one group comprised our current audience, the second was made up of participants who are too distracted to be easily reached by any new media source. These are the three we chose to focus on heavily at this time:

Lighthearted explorers — 27% of participants

The audiences in what we’re calling “Segment A” like being “in the know” and among the first in their social circles to hear about things. They are moderate consumers of news but turn away when it becomes too depressing. They like learning more about the world through entertainment.

Though Segment A are more adventurous in the entertainment realm, they tend to avoid heavier topics. Their tolerance for novelty is lower for news; they often need to limit their intake to avoid feeling overwhelmed.

Sample quote: “It’s almost like a self-protection to not know everything that’s going on.”

Approach to engage: Lighten up! Create content that entertains and informs. Introduce explorers to existing content they’d like.

Love the news, don’t trust you — 20% of participants

Interestingly, this segment is divided into two distinct groups — rural conservatives and mostly younger BIPOC people.

This segment follows the news closely, but they are not fans of public media. They say they don’t see themselves and their beliefs reflected accurately in our coverage. Through our tone and our content, we make them feel unwelcome.

They appreciate a mix of news and opinion — they think this combination is more authentic and trust themselves to know how to sort and judge that mix.

Sample quotes: “News outlets have racial bias. If a white woman goes missing, the whole country will follow it, but there are scores of Black and Indigenous women who go missing and it is not reported.”

“I’d respect you more if you’d own you’re a bunch of liberals and stop gaslighting me.”

Approach to engage: Building trust takes time, and we will need to be patient. Representation matters — we need systems that ensure diversity in our staff, leadership and content. We need to end snark and bias, and be more honest and transparent about how we go about our work. 

We may need to create content that is targeted to these groups while still remaining true to our values.

Lost the thread — 25% of participants 

This group feels well represented in our coverage. They know us and have used us in the past. But the pandemic has upended their routines — by reducing the time they spend commuting in their cars — and accelerated changes in how they consume media. They need to be reminded how they can access us on new platforms and how to incorporate us into their new routines.

Example: A woman we interviewed used to love watching Nova, but stopped when she cut the cord. She was excited to learn she could stream for free on the PBS Video app.

Approach to engage: Understand the new routines of this group and ask them how we can fit into their lives. Remind them of what they value about us. Consistently and heavily market the many ways they can listen, watch and participate.

How we are using this information

Studies like these are only useful if they are understood and used by staff, leadership and board members. We shared the study with each of these groups and then conducted a series of presentations for each group to dive deeper and answer questions.

After the merger we intentionally held off on strategic planning until the results of this study came in. The information helped us conduct a strategic planning process based on a true understanding of the audiences we want to engage.

Scott Finn, left, speaks during a March 31 strategic planning workshop. (Photo: Amy Turosak)

For our strategic planning, we’ve embarked on a process borrowed from board Vice Chair Marguerite Dibble, who works in the gaming industry. Groups of our staff and board met to create personas — imagined profiles of individuals we’d like to reach based on our personal experiences and this research.

One persona is Joanna, a 25-year-old nurse who recently moved to Vermont. She’s struggling to make new friends due to the pandemic. Her work schedule and her commute leave her exhausted and burned out. She loves the outdoors and live music.

Joanna follows the news through social media and sees whatever the algorithms serve up to her. What does Joanna need that we can provide? How can we best reach her?

This process will help us create a strategic plan this summer. It will help us focus on creating new content and services on different platforms.

By grounding our work in this audience study, we are avoiding the turf battles that come from a traditional strategic plan. Every proposal must address how we serve a broader and more diverse audience, and it must be based in part on the audience segmentation data.

What we learned is helping us focus and reshape our strategic focus — and ultimately our daily approach to our work. And we think the study offers lessons for other stations as well — whether you’re in Burlington or Atlanta.

Scott Finn is president and CEO of VPR and Vermont PBS. Marketing Strategist Anna Post managed the audience study. Kari Anderson is director of audience insights and radio programming. If your public media organization is interested in a detailed summary of our study, please email community@vpr.org and ask for Anna Post to share it with you.

4 thoughts on “How to reach audiences who think public media isn’t for them

  1. For rural listeners, or non-listeners, you might want to find interest areas that overlap with urban listeners.
    One of those major overlaps is nature…believe it or not. In fact, if you did some quick and dirty market research using Amazon likes and reviews, you will find that persons who review Rush Limbaugh books giving him a high five, and persons who read, say, Bernie Sanders, both read and comment on nature books…like birding, etc., although the Rush folks also review shotgun shell reloaders and the Bernie folks do not.

    • One of the major findings of the New England audience study was the environment, outdoors, nature etc. were very popular with the 18 to 35 year old participants surveyed.

    • To expound a bit on this: Car Talk’s greatest strength, by far, was that it was highly appealing to people who otherwise wouldn’t listen to public radio. This isn’t surprising: it wasn’t like anything else on public radio!

      Now obviously we cannot simply cook up a “Car Talk 2.0”. Tom & Ray, besides having a fairly unique talent set and rapport with each other, were very much a product of their time. They could, and did, adapt to changing times – but you couldn’t pluck the 1980’s version of them and drop them into the 2020’s and still have the same success. Nor would you want simply “another car show” because Car Talk wasn’t about cars; it was about human relationships and the human condition.

      But we (and by “we” I mean “Why TF isn’t NPR pouring money into this incredibly necessary function of public radio?!?!”) could create another Car Talk-esque show based on the same core parts: two hosts with easy rapport/chemistry, an alleged focus of the show that’s really just a vector for talking about universal human themes, and a lot of self-deprecating humor.

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