In his latest “Three Things” newsletter, public media consultant and former station leader Tim Eby drew attention to what he called a “major market meltdown.” Five NPR news stations — KQED, WBEZ, WNYC, KPCC and KCRW — have seen a “dramatic drop” in audience from the first half of 2021 to the first half of this year, Eby wrote, according to his analysis of Nielsen data.
The article drew several responses when posted in the Public Radio Program Directors Facebook group. None mentioned programming. Instead, commenters highlighted concerns such as news fatigue; paying too much attention to streaming; the need for improving hosting, announcing, break construction and on-air promotion; the urgency of paying more attention to daily cume, not just weekly; and the erosion of “microformatics.”
I wonder, however, whether part of the problem might be programming — not necessarily the programs themselves but how they’re presented.
For example, one of the stations in Eby’s analysis airs six different programs in the 7-hour block between Morning Edition and All Things Considered. The station is asking its listeners to endure six program changes in seven hours. Of course, not everyone listens for seven straight hours. But someone listening for only three hours still gets three different programs.
On Saturdays, that same station airs 15 programs from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. That’s 15 different programs in 16 hours.
Let’s say that this type of block programming is contributing to the decline Eby cites. Or even if it isn’t, consider the following idea anyway.
I’ve been urging music stations to adopt a programming strategy I call Thematically Integrated Programming (TIP). The idea is to create multihour programming blocks with themes running through them. It gives listeners something to sink their ears into and challenges the announcer/producers to make sure their commentary links it all together. I tried this idea out in 2003 when I created the daily show Exploring Music with Bill McGlaughlin, now in its 20th season. The concept behind the program was to connect each week’s five daily programs with a single theme.
John Clare, classical music director at Cincinnati Public Radio’s WGUC, tried TIP beginning in March 2022 when he started at the station. By December, its ratings tripled.
It worked for a classical station. But can it work for news stations? I’m confident it would. For those stations willing to experiment, here’s a way to do it without too much risk. Try it once. If it seems to resonate with your listeners, try it again.
Pick a weekday for the experiment — just one day with no commitment beyond that one day. Cancel for one day only the programs between Morning Edition and ATC. That’s six or seven hours for most stations.
Pick a single issue to feature during that block, an issue you feel the majority of your listeners would find interesting. There are so many to choose from: climate change, AI, our fractured politics, and more. Of course, you’ll want to consider local issues that are of vital importance to your listeners.
From a pool of four hosts, use two anchors throughout the day. After breaking the all-day theme into shorter thematic blocks, include these elements:
- Short, pre-produced features throughout the day
- Experts in studio and on the phone from around the world
- Listener calls
- Ask listeners to record questions and comments in advance of the TIP day, edit them and use the best
- Listener comments from social media
- Whatever other elements you can cook up
That evening, offer a live town-hall forum to which you invite listeners and broadcast live. Needless to say, promote it during the day.
I predict that by the time ATC rolls around, any station trying this experiment will have a significantly larger audience than would otherwise be the case. And I predict that the town hall will be standing room only.
Too staff-intensive? At one major market news station, I counted 94 people with titles like producer, reporter and editor. That didn’t count announcers.
I hope someone tries this approach just once. If one station does, I’m sure other stations would be interested in finding out how it worked. This approach alone might not reverse the declines Eby noted. But can it hurt to try?
Steve Robinson was the first GM of the Nebraska Public Radio Network (1990–2000) and GM of WFMT and the WFMT Radio Network (2000–16). He recently completed a 13-hour documentary, No Regrets: The Music and Spirit of Billie Holiday, and is currently working on a five-part series, Valentin Silvestrov: A Composer’s Journey.