A couple of weeks back, Paul wrote a guest blog about NPR in response to an Eric Rhoads commentary. That blog post set a record for us, and drew comments from a wide range of industry pros. Jim Farley, VP of News & Programming at Bonneville's WTOP – one of the best stations in the nation – wrote a blog comment. We asked him to expand on those thoughts and his post appears below:
Radio ratings are a zero sum game. Normal people listen to only one radio station at a time, so if they are listening to another station, they can’t be listening to yours. In that sense every radio station competes with every OTHER radio station in town, no matter what format.
In looking at the competitive environment in Washington, I looked at the news/talk listeners on WAMU, the main NPR news station in Washington and figured, “A juicy target for getting new WTOP listeners!” I used to think that. I have now modified my view to this: you can get their listeners to share time with your radio station no matter what format. But an NPR station P1 is not going to change.
For the most part, they were serious people who saw themselves as helping a cause, not a particular radio station. And they spoke about “NPR” and not the local station, WAMU.
Later we did focus groups with radio listeners in general, and then a group of just WAMU listeners. What a difference! The WAMU listeners were serious to the point of being somber. When asked why they did not listen to WTOP, some of them seemed downright offended that there were commercials on the radio.
Others complained our anchors speak too fast. There was not one person in that group you’d want to knock down a beer with at a local bar. They also spoke in terms of “NPR” and not WAMU, unless they wanted to distinguish between WAMU and WETA, the classical music public radio station in DC (with whom WTOP partners).
For years, we ran snarky liners during Pledge Week welcoming “our public radio listeners who have come over until the begging stops.” Naturally that drew protests from those listeners and when they called to complain, I took the opportunity to engage them and find out about their listening habits. Even when we made the liners less snarky and more “welcoming” I got the complaint calls, and kept up the dialogue.
So, yes, we can get their listeners to come over during a blizzard or a major traffic problem or a breaking news story. That’s their weakness: they don’t do fast-moving breaking news well at the network or local level. And while they do token traffic reports, they aren’t willing or able to do them with the frequency we do: every 10 minutes 24/7. (Yes, you can find traffic jams in this region at all hours of the day or night).
But a WAMU/NPR P1 is very loyal, seems addicted to people speaking very slooooowly on the radio, with little tolerance for commercials. And while breaking news is not public radio’s strength, they more than make up for that in the minds of their P1’s with great depth, context and often sound-rich content.
NPR is a giant brand that seems to transcend the local WAMU image. Keep in mind that WTOP is on a network of three FM radio stations. We’d have no shot at getting even casual sharing of listeners if we were on the AM Band, because I get the distinct impression that these folks have no reason to ever go to the AM dial.
NPR is a very strong brand. They get government money from their affiliate stations and foundations seem to come out of the woodwork with millions to hire more public radio reporters at the local and network level. And in many markets, commercial radio has abdicated. The local NPR station is the only news source on the radio. Shame on us. There’s more than enough audience available to support news on both public and commercial radio. Respect NPR as a competitor, but don’t abandon the field.
Thanks, Jim, for taking the time. What do YOU think?