How the Audience 98 study still applies in public radio’s digital era

Print More

Mike Janssen, using DALL-E 3

February 2024 marks the 25th anniversary of “Audience 98: Public Service, Public Support.” For those of you who don’t know, it was a national, CPB-funded research project that provided a blueprint for increasing public radio’s audience and long-term financial self-sufficiency.

Audience 98 was the last of three major studies that pioneered the use of rigorous statistical techniques to connect Arbitron diary data with qualitative survey results provided by Arbitron diary-keepers. Those studies, conducted over 13 years by leading public radio researcher David Giovannoni, contributed greatly to public radio’s understanding of how listeners’ values, attitudes and perceptions connected to their measured listening behavior. The application of their findings helped lay the foundation for public radio’s decades-long run of growing audience, membership and underwriting revenue.

This is the first in a series of articles about lessons learned from the Audience 98 study and its predecessors. These lessons still apply as public radio seeks to grow existing and new audiences and remain financially viable.

Don’t let the age or media context of Audience 98 lull you into thinking its findings are no longer relevant. Audience 98 was designed to provide insights into the relationship among programming, audiences and finances that stand the test of time. It helps us understand what happens when a consumer pushes a public media button, answering questions such as: Who listens? Who doesn’t? What is the listener’s path to financial support? What value do they place on the programming they use?

In the case of Audience 98, that button was attached to a radio. But the technology isn’t the point. The choice is the point. Public media is still trying to be the best button for consumers on the mobile phone, the computer, the smart speaker and, yes, the radio. We still aim to win that next consumer choice and to understand the who and why behind it.

The needs and motivations behind those consumer choices haven’t changed. People still want to learn, to discover, and to be elevated by the news, conversation, entertainment, music and companionship they get from public media. They’re just pushing a combination of virtual and physical buttons now.

Let’s dig into three enduring findings from Audience 98.

Finding One: Programming causes audience

It is such an obvious statement one might wonder why it needs to be said. Programming causes audience. There’s actually a lot to unwrap there.

In addition to drawing listeners, Audience 98 showed why our programming causes most people to not be in our audience. That’s because listeners choose programming that resonates with their values, interests and beliefs. The listeners we don’t have are absent because of the content we package and deliver. Our programming doesn’t speak to them.

Audience 98 demonstrated this through its use of VALS2 psychographic segmentation. You’re probably familiar with the concept of psychographics, which describes different populations by what they think, believe and feel rather than by their physical demographic characteristics.

The big, but not surprising, finding was that nearly 67% of public radio listeners came from psychographic segments representing just about 20% of the population. As for the other 80% of the population? Our programming wasn’t speaking to them much at all.

The takeaway for today is that the values imbued in our content determine who listens to us and who avoids us. Audience 98 showed the programming we create is narrow in its appeal. It is not designed to reach all psychographic or demographic groups equally. This isn’t unique to public radio, by the way. It applies to all media.

Practically, it means we must stay true to our programmatic values if we want to keep the audiences we have. And if we want to attract new and different audiences, then we must deliver services that speak to different psychographic segments of the population.

Finding Two: Different programs deliver different value to stations

Our next finding has a high wonk factor and is rooted in the business principle that consumers place greater value on some products and services more than others.

Audience 98 helped define for stations the financial value of the programming they aired. Specifically, the Audience 98 team worked out how to attribute listener-sensitive income, membership and underwriting, to various public radio programs and formats. This was the last step in the development of Programming Economics, a concept that looks at the costs and financial return of generating one hour of listening. That allows for comparing any one program against another, even if they are different formats or lengths. Like I said, it is wonky.

For the first time, stations could see which programs were most highly valued by members, which programs were generating net revenue and which were not. That’s important because, while not all content should be expected to generate positive cash flow, some programs must generate excess revenue for the overall service to thrive.

Understanding the cost and expected returns of programming turns out to be very useful in budget and revenue planning. The framework laid out by Audience 98 not only helped stations invest their national programming dollars more wisely, it also provided a pragmatic way to think about investments in local programming. It provided a model for finding the right spending balance. At this time of financial difficulty, public radio would benefit from an updated version of Programming Economics, one that includes podcasts and other digital endeavors.

Finding Three: Programming causes giving

Fundraising doesn’t cause giving. While it is the catalyst for generating a contribution, the real revenue-generating work is done by the programming provided by the station. There are no givers without it. The pledge drive appeals and techniques, email and direct mail letters, telemarketing and even door-to-door canvassing are just mechanisms to unlock the value created by our services.

Audience 98 demonstrated this through “The Stairway to Given,” its representation of the path listeners travel to become givers. The first step in becoming a giver is to listen. The next two steps, Reliance and Personal Importance, are the most important in the process.

Reliance considers how a listener uses the station. The higher the Reliance, the more likely a listener is to give. The key measurement of Reliance is Loyalty, which as used by Audience 98 is the percentage of a listener’s total radio usage that is won by the station. We can calculate that because we get not only listening data for our stations, we also get data showing how our listeners use the competition. The higher the percentage of a listener’s total radio listening we earn, the more loyal that listener is to the station.

This Loyalty metric is unique to public radio and currently incalculable in the digital realm because we don’t have data on how our audiences use the competition. However, we can create a proxy. Audience 98 showed that the key to building Loyalty is increasing the number of weekly tune-ins to the station. Getting people to listen multiple times per day, multiple days per week, on weekdays and weekends builds Loyalty and Reliance on the service. That translates into fundraising potential. After all, how one chooses to spend their time is a statement about what’s important to them.

Where Reliance is quantitative, Personal Importance is qualitative. Simply put, the more a listener agrees that they would miss the service if it were to go away, the more likely they will give. This is not a new finding. It is a validation of a finding from prior studies spanning more than a decade. Using rigorous statistical analysis, Audience 98 showed Personal Importance — enlightened self-interest — to be a stronger influence on giving than altruism. While giving for the greater good sounds good in a fundraising message, it takes strong Reliance and a deep sense of Personal Importance for a listener to climb The Stairway to Given.

Let’s fast forward to now.

The Stairway to Given is a predecessor to the Audience Funnel, which is perhaps the most common term for the concept today. What we can apply from Audience 98 in the coming years is the specificity with which it delineates the stages of that path to giving. We can measure Personal Importance. And while we don’t have a metric as strong as Loyalty for digital properties or multiplatform users, we can use the proxy of Occasions. Establishing and measuring these two metrics in today’s media marketplace will go a long way to informing strategies and tactics that move consumers through the funnel, and the investments needed to support them.

Past performance can indicate future result

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Audience 98 is this: Growing audiences and strengthening the industry’s economy begins with a common understanding of the intersection of public media programming, audiences and finances. We don’t have that for today’s multiplatform users. We don’t have that for today’s ambitions of serving new and different audiences. The sharing and application of such information in the past positioned public radio for tremendous growth, nationally and locally. A similar, comprehensive playbook is needed just as much today.  


Sutton (Photo: Joyce Skowyra/NEPM)

The Audience 98 project was led by researcher David Giovannoni, one of the industry’s top thinkers on programming, audiences and revenues. Giovannoni ran NPR’s audience research department before forming Audience Research Analysis, which also provided stations and program providers with Arbitron/Nielsen data analysis through AudiGraphics. In 1994 he won the industry’s highest honor, CPB’s Edward R. Murrow award, along with fellow researcher Tom Church. You can read Giovannoni’s acceptance speech here.

The Audience 98 core team included former NPR Marketing Director Leslie Peters and researcher Jay Youngclaus. The project also featured the thinking of dozens of public radio programming, fundraising and marketing practitioners who helped set its agenda and presented some of its results. Their contributions throughout the design, analysis and dissemination of Audience 98 were central to its lasting value.

John Sutton is Interim Chief Content Officer for New England Public Media. His 35-year career in public media has focused on the intersection of programming, audience and finances. Past roles include Director of Audience Research at NPR and VP of Audiences and Revenue at Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting, where he also served as General Manager of WESA. Prior to that, he ran his own consultancy for 20 years, serving dozens of public radio stations and organizations.

2 thoughts on “How the Audience 98 study still applies in public radio’s digital era

  1. This is a great article, John. I’d long had a vague sense that Audience’98, while groundbreaking for its time, was badly out of date. You provided some nice, hard data why there’s still very good lessons to be learned from even a 25 year old document.

    Regarding Finding One, the vibe I’ve gotten from various, admittedly anecdotal, discussions over the years is that a lot of people view the idea that public radio programming only appeals to 20% of the population is “a bad thing”. That pubradio “should” be creating programming that appeals to 100% of the population. I’m curious if you happen to know if A: my observation of this vibe is actually correct, and know B: why on earth people would think that? Has not the lesson of all media (both mass- and social-media) for the last 20 years been that audiences want to be super-served. That they do not care about what others in their demographic…regardless of how one defines a demographic…feel about the media they’re consuming? They only care about what it means to them, right? Is this not a major reason why the iHeart’s and Cumulus’s of the world…for all their flaws and stupidity…embraced the model of owning a lot of broadcast properties; so that each property could super-serve a specific audience?

    The counterargument would presumably be that pubradio targeted a specific audience (mostly white, mostly college-educated, mostly upper-middle-class, and mostly Baby Boomer-aged) for many years and had the luxury of that audience being both numerically huge and economically wealthy and predisposed to sharing that wealth with causes they believed in. With that audience literally dying of old age, a new audience to target must be identified and served…but it will require alternative programming vectors to do so, lest you abandon the old audience outright. One could argue that’s what podcasts are doing, and there’s merit to that argument. But I think it’s too disorganized to realistically compete against much more aggressive media outlets at a scale that’s lucrative enough for the entire pubradio system to benefit.

    Realistically I’d opine it means more pubradio stations owning & operating more FM outlets targeting a different audience. But there’s no programming nor operational infrastructure in place (like there is for pubradio news) to put out a cohesive product on a national scale that’s targeted at that new audience. I’m not sure there is a real solution for this “chicken and egg” problem between NPR national and the member stations. Short of making an omelet with a side of fried chicken.

Leave a Reply

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