Why public radio’s efforts to reach new audiences aren’t moving the needle

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Note: This is the last in a four-part series reflecting on Audience 98, one of several major research projects that helped fuel public radio’s decades-long run of audience and revenue growth. This piece considers the industry’s equally long struggle to reconcile its success with the racial composition of its audience. It builds on this article I wrote for Current in 2004.  

The principle of appeal allows us to serve well any kind of listener we choose, as long as the programming we air consistently reflects the interests, values and beliefs of that listener. — Audience 98

Public radio’s audience story is nothing short of remarkable, with hundreds of stations and program providers serving tens of millions of listeners each week. Public radio listeners spend billions of hours each year listening to its programming. This significant public service is the product of a shared commitment among thousands of people attracted to the business by a vision to use noncommercial radio to make the world a better place to live.

Central to this success is how so many organizations and individuals pulled in the same direction to turn hundreds of loosely connected radio stations into a powerful content creation and distribution network. There were investments in industry infrastructure and professional development, significant investments in programming, and conference sessions, all accompanied by robust debates.

And there was audience research. More specifically, public radio developed a culture of using research to systematically evaluate, implement and improve the programming and fundraising that supported its mission.  

Audience 98 was one of the key research projects that helped public radio grow into the treasured public service that it is today. On this 25th anniversary of the study, we explore how lessons from Audience 98 and the research culture of the time still apply as public radio seeks to reach younger and more racially diverse audiences in the digital era.

Back to the basics: Programming causes audience

“Programming causes audience” is not just a good turn of phrase. Audience 98 and its predecessors put actual science behind it. Time and again, rigorous statistical analysis demonstrates that the audiences public radio has are caused by its programming.

This principle is not unique to public radio. It is an immutable law of all media. The size, demographic appeal and loyalty of audiences are all caused, in the statistical sense of the word, by what we choose to present and how we choose to present it, along with where and when we choose to present it. Likewise, the audiences we don’t have are absent because of the content we offer. They avoid us because our programs don’t appeal to them. 

The immutable law of appeal

All content has a psychographic appeal.

As Audience 98 puts it, “Every minute of programming offers an attraction for a certain type of person. This attraction — the quality that brings listeners to it — is called appeal.” Public radio’s primary appeal can be traced back to the industry’s roots in higher education and the creation of NPR.

Bill Siemering wrote in his exceptional 1970 statement of purpose for NPR that “National Public Radio will not regard its audience as a ‘market’ or in terms of its disposable income, but as curious, complex individuals who are looking for some understanding, meaning and joy in the human experience.” That line of thinking was way ahead of its time. It defined NPR’s appeal, and therefore its intended audience, in terms of psychographics instead of traditional demographics such as age, sex, race or income.

Jump ahead more than a quarter-century to the Audience 98 study. It looked at audience through the lens of the VALS2 psychographic system and affirmed that public radio’s strongest audience segment was “Actualizers” — highly educated, curious individuals driven by personal growth.  

To be clear, Siemering did not intend for NPR’s programming to exclude specific demographic groups. Curiosity, he believed, cut across demographic lines. That might be true. What we’ve learned from examining the public radio audience is that curiosity, as expressed and satisfied by public radio programming, does not cut across demographic lines proportionately.

As Audience 98 stated, “Public radio’s primary appeal most strongly attracts Americans with college or advanced degrees. They are younger and older, women and men of many racial and ethnic backgrounds, present in numbers that reflect the level of college education in their respective demographic groups.” In other words, if a demographic is underserved by public radio, it is because it is underrepresented in the psychographic segments we pursue through our programming.

This finding highlights another immutable law of media: The psychographic appeal of content will never line up with the overall demographics of a market, let alone the entire country. That makes it impossible for a single program or a single station to have an audience that reflects the demographics of its market. We know from audience data that trying to achieve demographic balance this way does not work. We also know from research that such efforts can cause a program or station to lose audience.

Past efforts to diversify the audience

It’s not that public radio hasn’t tried to diversify its audiences. In 1997, NPR published a major research study identifying opportunities to better serve African Americans. Audience 98 outlined a set of principles for both attracting new listeners to our current services and for developing new services for completely new audiences. The CPB-funded Grow the Audience project in 2009 called for tripling audiences of color by 2020. In 2020, NPR CEO John Lansing made audience diversity the organization’s number-one goal.

Along the way, CPB funded many programs intended to reach new and diverse audiences. NPR and other program providers created many new radio and digital offerings and made substantial changes to existing programs intending the same. Yet none of these efforts moved the audience measurement needle, in most cases because they didn’t sufficiently address the primary cause of audience — the appeal of the programming. The industry just keeps running content through the same psychographic filters and keeps getting the same audiences.

This is not unique to the platform of radio. We are nearly a quarter-century into the consumer digital age and coming up on the 20th anniversary of podcasts. This technology was supposed to help open the doors of public media to new and diverse audiences, and a generation in, we’re still trying to figure it out.

Significantly different results require a significantly different effort

Perhaps the most valuable takeaway from Audience 98 is that it reflects a research continuum and major audience growth efforts that span well over a decade. Pretty much the entire industry committed to developing better programming, measuring and learning from the results, and putting that knowledge into action to grow a sustainable service.

That has not been the case for better serving minority audiences, even in the digital era. It hasn’t even been close. Public radio has spent decades trying to reach minority audiences as an add-on to the services it already offers. We know from audience data that a few one-hour programs here and there or a new podcast or two won’t move the needle. Neither will sprinkling different content throughout the NPR newsmagazines. The effort must be much bigger. It requires entirely new content services.

Applying past lessons to growing new, digital audiences

What should work is identifying a new audience to serve using a combination of psychographic and demographic segmentation, then developing entirely new content services designed for that potential audience. This is a critical point. It is not enough to create content about and by people in the intended audience. New services and brands must be created specifically for the intended audience. The appeal of the content must be clearly different than what we currently offer. The people needed to do this work are probably not even in our industry today.

That being the case, what is public radio’s role in this endeavor? We can provide infrastructure, and we’ve climbed through the business learning curve. Here are additional thoughts informed by Audience 98 and other research on developing an entirely new service.

  • To diversify public radio’s overall audience, we must grow minority audience faster than the current audience. That’s basic math, and it should inform resource allocation. That likely means there will be significant opportunity costs incurred by our existing service.
  • Make the appropriate investment of time. Public radio’s audience and revenue growth came over decades. Anything less than five years isn’t enough time to develop a sustainable service for new and diverse audiences. Ten years is probably more realistic, and that assumes our industry can move at the speed of the media marketplace.
  • Make the appropriate financial investments. We can use the principle of programming economics to measure what we are currently spending to attract a podcast or newsletter subscriber or to create an hour of digital public service. Whatever we are now spending to acquire and serve an existing user, we need to spend a lot more to attract and retain new users. This is a basic business principle — one public radio has failed to embrace in the past.
  • Creating content with a different appeal requires different core values. Bring in content creators with core values that complement, but do not overlap, with our current core values. Let these creators find and speak to audiences who do not find our current offerings appealing.
  • Use the Audience 88/98 research model to build brands with content offerings that share affinity. That is, the psychographic and demographic appeals are the same across many content offerings. Building a loyal audience to a brand provides more public service and financial sustainability than building audiences for individual offerings.
  • Think both national and local when it comes to content offerings.
  • Adopt realistic, measurable, public goals. Public radio benefited greatly from its audience doubling project in the mid-1980s. Though the goal of 1,000,000 AQH listeners was met a little late, the focus on a real, attainable number fostered a sense of possibility and drove specific, collaborative strategies and tactics that set up public radio for long-term growth.

Yes, this is a lot. And the effort will require handing the content reins over to creators who can develop a valuable public service for audiences outside of our current psychographic segments. It also will require the full support of CPB, national content creators and other national organizations such as the Public Media Content Collective. It will need the help of stations with the means to create content. It will require reallocating existing resources, finding new resources, and most importantly, committing publicly to attainable, measurable goals. That’s the model that created the audience public radio has. It’s time to apply the full model to earning the new audiences we want.  

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.

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