Spin vs. Strategy

Last week the public radio community gathered in Pittsburgh for its annual meeting to discuss programming and content.

The conference featured a traditional mix of sales pitches from sponsoring organizations, provocateurs from inside and outside the industry, and sessions that ranged from really interesting to sort of interesting.

Here’s what a few attendees had to say about the conference courtesy of the folks from Current.

For me, there were two big headlines (other than being able to witness in person the St. Louis Cardinals capturing their 100th win and the National League Central Division championship) from the three days of meetings.

A constant refrain that only frank and direct opinions could come from someone who has left the “public media family.”

“The reason I’m so excited is I get to talk to you as me today,” he said. At previous conferences, Nuzum had attended “to sell something or promote something or advocate for something or convince you to do something,” he said.

Those were among former NPR programming executive Eric Nuzum’s very strong comments to the group on the first day of the Conference.

So why is that?

Are we so enamoured with ourselves or lack the trust of one another that you have to leave the industry before you can honestly share your thoughts as a professional with your industry colleagues?

I know this isn’t exactly true. Many across public radio have had the courage to speak up and say things that need to be said.

But I’m worried that we’re not saying it enough.

Which leads me to my other big headline.

Public Radio is in serious trouble during drive-time with younger listeners.

The News/Talk station session on the second day of the conference drove this point home with a clarity that I’ve not seen before at a national meeting of public radio leaders.

We’ve known for some time that listening to Morning Edition and All Things Considered has been in decline. That’s why the SPARK Project to turn this decline around that NPR President Jarl Mohn has lead has been so well received by stations.

Unfortunately, the immediate impact from the spring push for Morning Edition had somewhat mixed results across the network of NPR stations.

What attendees heard in Pittsburgh though were some serious trends regarding the listening in morning and afternoon drive by listeners below the age of 45.

In the Fall of 2014, it has been reported that NPR stations are losing more news magazine listeners in the 35–44 age group than in any other age demographic (cume is down 15% from Fall 2010 — Fall 2014).
Perhaps even more concerning, in the last year alone, the AQH of people 25–34 is down 19% for Morning Edition. At the same time, the number of listeners in the 65+ group is growing. This is at least partly a function of our nation’s changing demographics: The nation’s median age is growing as the largest generation — Baby Boomers — ages. However, it is an alarming trend for the future of our audience and for corporate sponsorship.

We’re seeing similar trends at St. Louis Public Radio.


At this same session, I suggested that we need to dig deep into how we can serve younger audiences and not drive away the baby boom audience that is our current lifeblood. My, off-the-cuff, comment was that stations, national producers and CPB invest in a major research project on millennials to understand how the public radio news product can best reach and serve them in our increasingly fragmented media environment.

We did learn a little about the media use of millennials from Larry Rosen’s session “Meet The Millennials” that shared information from Edison’s “Share of Ear” study. And what we learned is that millennials want control of their audio content:

  1. They prefer music over spoken word
  2. They prefer digital audio over broadcast
  3. They prefer on-demand over streaming

So where does that leave public radio’s news and information services?

That’s the million dollar question on which our future really depends.

If the three points above are true, we first need to learn more about the news consumption habits of millennials, particularly those who generally share the curiosity and values that have been the sweet spot for public radio’s audience over its history, knowing, of course, that those born after 1980 are very different from the baby boom generation that built public radio.

If we can figure that out, perhaps it will lead us to some specific strategies to serve their needs: be it audio, text, social, graphics, data, etc.

We need to be smart. We need to be bold. We need to work together.

Circling back to Eric’s comments as reported by Current:

“When you start looking at things through that lens, change becomes less of a threat and more of an opportunity,” Nuzum said. “Because what we do is not changing at all. The platform we use changes, the audience can change as well, but the basic rules stay the same.”

By smart: let’s learn more about this audience that is our future.

By bold: we need to be willing to take chances and celebrate success and learn from our mistakes.

And by working together, we need to stop pointing the guns at one another and work as a community with a shared vision of success and a true public service mission.

Most of all, this requires Leadership and Action.

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