Disrupting Public Media: Audience First

The heart of KQED’s Transformation

by Elizabeth Bandy and Scott Burg


Media producers regularly ask themselves some fundamental questions as they craft content, regardless of genre, length or format. Who is our audience? What do they know, what do they need to know, and what are the issues, topics and interests they care most about? (It’s even what we’re asking ourselves as we draft this blog post.) These are also the questions KQED’s producers and editors consider on a daily basis.

With this in mind, as we began our study, we sought to understand why KQED felt it was necessary to make audience first the centerpiece of its transformation into a 21st century digital public media organization. Isn’t this what media organizations, especially public media, inherently have been doing? What’s so innovative or revolutionary about an audience first approach? As it turns out, quite a bit.

Novice journalists learn to answer the above audience questions by considering why, for instance, their grandmother would care about an issue or what their next door neighbor knows about a particular topic. In effect, this tactic gives media professionals a concrete “audience” to imagine, which makes sense in a one-to-many broadcast world where listeners, readers or viewers encompass a vast sea of faceless, nameless individuals.

Today’s complex digital media environment, however, requires more sophisticated ways of knowing and connecting with an audience. The explosion of on-demand choice and, for public media, the potential to reach and engage younger but often times more demanding and fickle audiences, have forever changed the rules of audience engagement.

Digital media make it easier and cheaper to reach more people through a multitude of outlets. They simultaneously make it more difficult to attract listeners, readers and viewers to your content among the overwhelming options and platforms available to them. Public media organizations not only want to attract these diverse, dispersed audiences but also to convert a portion of them into supporters. These factors require new ways of understanding those audiences and developing new relationships and approaches across content production, marketing and distribution.

Audience first signifies KQED’s core strategy for meeting this challenge.


Audiences have become much more sophisticated media consumers: they have choice, and they have power. It is no longer effective to simply broadcast what you find important or useful. You also have to offer something that meets audience needs and captures their attention. To do this, you need to know more about them and about what drives them to select one piece of content over another. Fortunately, digital media technologies provide new, relatively inexpensive tools for both reaching and understanding audiences.

Public media organizations have always had some sense of their audiences, particularly of their members. Until recently, this information has been limited mostly to basic, broad demographics, such as age, income, gender and education level. Thinking of audience in a more sophisticated manner is something new and different for KQED, a fact that may be somewhat surprising given that public media’s funding model relies on engaging and retaining audience member support.

To remain relevant and engage new audiences, KQED needs to reach beyond this increasingly outmoded and limited image of its audience. This shift encompasses much more than simply delivering content to them on digital platforms, however. Digital may be the driver of these changes, but it is not the solution:

Digital is how the audience wants to interact now, but that may change. Understanding them and their needs will not. ~KQED Senior Manager

In contrast to a focus primarily on platform, KQED staff is exploring new ways to identify their audiences and better understand their preferences, trends and behaviors. We’ll delve more into specific methods in our next post (in January), but the core of KQED’s new strategies revolve around:

  • the development of rich audience profiles;
  • close attention to trends;
  • the application of more sophisticated predictive analytics and research methodologies;
  • the upgrade to more efficient customer relationship management (CRM) databases, the hiring of new staff with critical skill sets (e.g., analytics, research, predictive modeling); and
  • the leveraging of multiple social media channels for content distribution and promotion purposes.

These strategies will provide KQED with systems and processes to better capture and organize user data, allowing it to build and attract new audiences, members and subscribers.

To attract these new audiences, KQED needs to both shift perceptions and raise awareness of what public media is and can be, without making too radical a change all at once. As one KQED executive we spoke to remarked,

We need to reach a new audience, we need to change, but we can’t disenfranchise our existing audience.”

KQED is clearly borrowing and adapting strategies used by commercial organizations, and these methods have raised concerns among some of KQED’s producers. Journalists have long operated on a system of objectivity, protection from influence from outside interests, and an intuitive sense of what their audiences need to know. Thus, when first asked to consider audience analytics and marketing strategies for their stories, journalists expressed concern and skepticism.

To address these concerns, greater attention is being paid to aligning marketing and production functions within KQED, respecting journalists’ boundaries while showing them the power of such strategies to expand their audience reach, engagement, and response.

Is there a danger that by adopting this approach, the KQED culture will change too much? Will producers evolve from approaching these strategies with skepticism to chasing metrics? Will giving people what they “want” potentially trump the system’s mission? It’s possible, so we’ve pushed hard to understand what makes the use of these strategies different from those of their for-profit counterparts.

Of course, the most fundamental answer to that question, one on which all the staff we spoke with are clear, is that mission drives KQED’s content development, not the needs of advertisers or even consumers of that content. One senior manager further argued that the methods they are employing now are in service of that mission, as has always been the case with public broadcasting:

If you were to invent KQED in 2015, just like our mothers and fathers, we would use the latest technologies of the time to serve the audience for rich news and public affairs, to be informed, engaged citizens. If you were to launch KQED today you would use the Internet and build new social platforms and apps and service layers and community created content. I would say our headline is KQED continues to evolve to serve these changing needs.

Rather than allowing numbers to drive content decisions, KQED is using these data and tactics to identify which audience segments will be most interested in the content they are producing and to find ways to better curate that content to capture audience attention and drive engagement.

Historically, public broadcasters have staked their claim on delivering programming that appeals to nearly every age group and demographic category in an effort to serve all in their local communities. Faced with finite marketing resources and near infinite potential audiences online, public media organizations have to find ways to sharpen their focus and narrow their goals. KQED is using profiles of those most likely to engage (view, listen, read, take action) with their content to do just that.

As a public media organization in which audiences place a great deal of trust, KQED’s audience first strategy, while innovative, is not without risk. For now, though, it seems that the best way to gain new audiences, maintain relevancy, and fulfill their mission is to identify and reach out to those most likely to be interested in their mission-driven content.