What’s Public About Public Radio?


After being a bit crabby in that last post, wherein I mildly attacked lazy rock journalists, I’m turning the unflattering spotlight on public radio stations and their programmers’ lack of vision. (You’ll find the catalyst for this mini-diatribe over on the News page.)

Citing the need to remain solvent in an era of dwindling government support, National Public Radio affiliates have been jettisoning music programming in ever-greater numbers since the middle of the 1990s. For many years, most stations followed a programming formula that featured news in the mornings and late afternoons and music in the middle of the day, in the evening and overnight. Beginning at some point in the last decade, those same stations starting noticing that their ratings dipped during the hours where music was featured and that those same hours generated fewer calls during pledge drives. One logical conclusion was that the network’s news, talk and public affairs shows kept listeners tuned in and contributing more than music programming. Or, in program director (PD) parlance, NPR’s flagship programs—e.g., Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Fresh Air, Car Talk and A Prairie Home Companion—engender more listener “loyalty” than music or locally produced news and public affairs programming. With listenership and revenue dwindling in the 1990s, however, many PD’s started seeking other formulae that might bring back and/or grow their audiences.

By many accounts, the person most responsible for suggesting the current direction of many stations is David Giovannoni, the founder and former president of Audience Research Analysis (ARA). David Giovannoni HeadshotI first learned of him and his work in an article by Samuel G. Freedman in the New York Times (Sunday, 11 November 2001, Section 2, pp. 1 and 32—available for TimesSelect subscribers here; for others, here). Freedman observes, among other things, that the phrase “listener-supported” comes out of Giovannoni’s research and that “during the years NPR has applied Mr. Giovannoni’s findings, it has more than doubled listenership and gone from near bankruptcy to financial stability.” How? By getting PD’s to focus on their most dedicated audiences, the ones that make ratings rise in the mornings and afternoons. For most such a focus meant, in Giovannoni’s words, “replacing lower-performance programming with higher-performance programming.” Indeed, if you take the time to scan the tables in publications available on the ARA site, especially this one (pdf), it’s hard to sidestep his figures. In 2002, for example, people listening to news and talk programs generally accounted for about 36% of public radio listener-hours while local classical music and jazz programs garnered 16% and 7%, respectively.

I think it’s really important, though, not to take those audience research numbers at face value. As Tom McCourt, author of Conflicting Communication Interests in America: The Case of National Public Radio (Praeger 1999), observed in a letter to the NYT editor following Freedman’s article, “Audience research is hardly neutral; it is designed to mold audiences as well as reflect them. In its embrace of audience research, public radio, rather than providing a ground for a public culture, isolates its audience into demographically honed segments. The ‘public’ it purports to serve is a public in name only.” In other words, rather than trying to understand the totality of their audiences, public radio PD’s have taken the path of expediency, focusing only on those who matter and matter in a very limited way.

While public radio stations have to be concerned with ratings, the low numbers for music programming may be indicative of something other than a disdain for it on the part of listeners. Here I’ll paraphrase an argument I’ve made before about declining record sales since the late 1990s (a decline that started before the proliferation of so-called file-sharing networks). The question may be less “music or no music?” than “what kind(s) of music?” After all, programs like KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic and stations like Minnesota Public Radio’s (MPR) The Current have been successful by having adventurous music programming. That is, rather than concentrate solely on evergreen classical music, jazz, bluegrass, folk or R&B, KCRW and MPR give their audiences varied and ear-opening selections. They use music both to entertain and educate their audiences, exposing them to things they might not have heard. Indeed, I’ve always enjoyed those programs that subtly combine giving me what I like and what I didn’t realize I’d like. If you think about it, those news and talk programs do the same thing with information.

Call me an idealist, but I’d love to see public radio stations renew their commitment to serving a wide public. In a lot of ways that means not having them replicate what Clear Channel and other radio conglomerates have done: making all of their stations sound the same and giving audiences the same diet of acquired programming wherever they might be in the U.S. Surely, given how barren the commercial landscape for music on the radio is and how spectacularly unsuccessful satellite music providers Sirius and XM have been, there’s a lot of room for public radio to reach the underserved. If stations fail to rise to that challenge, I fear they might have a bigger crisis on their hands when listeners start abandoning them for being like Starbucks—as I hope they will. But I’m not holding my breath…

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