Last week, Inside Radio ran a provocative story speculating about how fewer and fewer radio stations are benefitting from the expanding American appetite for news.
While news consumption is actually increasing among the population, fewer are turning to radio for news and information. There are exceptions – and the IR piece singles out the massively successful WTOP hitting some of the best numbers in its history in the news-hungry D.C. market.
So why this disconnect?
It is a lot more difficult, staff-intensive, and expensive to provide a quality news product. A music station – with a handful of staffers playing 200 songs – is a much less expensive operation to run. But for the long-term success of the medium, doesn’t it make sense for sectors of the radio business to provide a viable news service, especially outside of the Top 15 markets where it has become increasingly difficult to find anything resembling a decent news product?
But then there’s public radio, led by the news and information programming of NPR. Many of these stations are healthy, vibrant, and at the top of their games in 2010. Even with news and talk formats, several are setting the pace in PPM markets, where public radio stations are now reported right alongside their commercial brethren.
What’s the secret? How does all this spoken word programming succeed in a metered environment?
At a time when most talk is highly political, shrill, biased, and simply not factual, public radio continues to stand out for its calm, rational, agenda-agnostic approach. Critics may claim that it’s all government subsidized, but the reality is that these stations have never been more dependent on their listeners for support. And in the worst economic time of our lives, many are reporting strong fund-raising efforts.
I’ve asked this question before: How many commercial stations would survive if the majority of their revenue was dependent on listeners loving their content enough to pay for it?
Putting together compelling, content-rich radio news and information isn’t easy – and it’s not cheap. A number of years ago, we were working for a commercial station that decided they wanted “NPR-like news” for their drive shows. After some investigation, management was amazed at just how much a commitment in time and money is required to echo what many public radio stations do every day.
This weekend, Paul and I will be presenting “60 Great Digital Ideas in 60 Minutes” to a smart group of public radio program directors at the aptly named PRPD conference in Denver. PRPD President Arthur Cohen works hard to put together a meaningful agenda each year for a broadcast entity that still invests heavily in programming and educating its programmers.
We will work very hard to come up with our list of innovative programming ideas that many of these PDs may not know about. That’s because some of the most interesting digital efforts are already being done within the public radio community.
So, what’s the “secret sauce” for public radio and NPR? What does it take to put together a winning news product in 2010? Why are they succeeding in market after market? Consider the following:
- Investment – You cannot mail in news coverage, especially if it is going to stand out in this environment. Local news is challenging, too, but with newspapers getting weaker by the month, smart media players know opportunity when they smell it.
- Research – Some of the most extensive research I’ve seen in radio has come out of the public radio sector. Programs are tightly researched and monitored. So are those underwriting messages (OK, call them commercials). Most public radio operators have a solid sense for why things are the way they are. At NPR, you would probably be amazed to learn what they know about their audience.
- The long haul – They don’t get it right every time, but public radio has one eye well down the road. Like commercial radio, they research the here and now. But there’s a considerable amount of long-term planning taking place, right down to where the audience will come from a decade or more down the line. As we await new U.S. Census numbers, how many commercial broadcasters have spent time contemplating the changing American demographic landscape and how it impacts their product?
- Digital – Some of the most innovative ideas in digital have come out of the public radio space. NPR was doing podcasts long before they were popular (and their success is documented in iTunes). Their iPad app was ready to go on day one. And their online archiving makes it easy for listeners to access content from decades ago, with just a couple of clicks.
- Consistency – They have done their homework, and now they execute their plan. It sounds simple, but how many commercial broadcasting entities can boast the type of staff and talent stability that is common in public radio?
- Learning – You could say there are too many public radio conventions, but I would make the case that knowledge is better communicated in this non-com world. Regular in-person get-togethers are part of the reason why. While many commercial broadcasters discourage or even forbid their managers from attending conferences, public radio broadcasters almost always find a way to be present. And let me tell you, they are well-attended, thoughtful conferences. (How many programmers will be in attendance at The Radio Show?)
- Core values – I intentionally left this for last, but it is perhaps the key distinction between the two sectors. Public radio has long grasped the importance of understanding and serving their constituency. They try very hard not to compromise the tenets that drive their products and showcase their brands. And everyone on the staff – from the top to the bottom – has an understanding of the mission. Building this type of values infrastructure isn’t cheap nor is it done during an off-site. It is the product of painstaking meetings, discussions, and exchanges of ideas.
Back in the days when the only way you could get news when you weren’t at home was via transmitters and towers, radio had a lock on information dissemination.
Today, no one is entitled to rule any media sector, especially digital spheres. Like many other broadcasters, I am encouraged by the improving economic client for radio, as well as RADAR data that reaffirm strong cume ratings for commercial radio.
But we know what’s around the corner for radio. Consumers will gravitate to the best content. Period. No matter the platform, medium, or brand.