Now Cough

Monday, September 18, 2006

Weak Signal

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was rightly pilloried for the lame explanation for going to war in Iraq with not enough troops and not the right equipment:

You go to war with the Army you have.

The same sort of explanation can be applied to the much lower stakes world of public radio: the sound of it is in the hands of the producers and creators we have.

Depending how you look at the latest audience numbers, the trend is either flat or falling. In any case, radio is not a growth medium and neither is public radio.

Yet this last weekend in Philadelphia a few hundred station program directors -- people who decide what gets on the air on public radio stations -- clapped and seemed to approve of a variety of programming ideas that go in one direction, when all the demographic research goes the other.

Take Sound Opinions produced at the gutsy Chicago Public Radio and distributed by American Public Media. This is an ok show, passionate and smart. But it follows the rest of a public radio pattern: hosted and produced by a white staff and largely focused on things of interest only to that audience. As a podcast, it certainly has a devoted listenership. But of all the programs to launch this year, is this where money and attention should go?

Core listeners to public radio are declining. Boomers still have fact as all listeners get older there is some age-appeal to public radio. But as so much data show, listeners are listening in places other than radio. And that is a trend across all racial groups.

Jacobs Media cites many lessons learned in its consulting practice, but this one stands out:

Listen to the audience

As Mark Ramsey wrote recently, people want choice:

While very few folks have tuned out radio altogether, time for more choices must come from somewhere. And it's going to come first from the industry that consumes most of it: Radio.
The NYT [includes] a very telling graphic which will come as no surprise to you.
And it's worth noting that the age groups with the biggest declines are NOT the groups with the most satellite radios. But they ARE the groups with the most iPods and the most Internet savvy.
Think about that when you next hear the industry obsess on satellite radio. Then ask yourself who this obsession is for: The industry, the consumers - or the "Street."

...and maybe that's why a show like Second Opinions does better as a podcast, because as a mass appeal broadcast it'll have a struggle.

As Spanish becomes increasingly the dominant language in LA and the iPod and all portable listening grows, what will be radio's appeal?

  • Local

  • Variety and risk--lots of it

  • Stars

  • Uniqueness. Not repurposing, not the same voices and songs and patterns

  • Audience creation

  • Originality

  • It was hard to hear any of this in Philadelphia.

    Photo by Unhindered by Talent


    • This post reminds me of a story recently told by a law-school friend, Larry (not his real name).

      Larry had been approached by Pat (another faculty member) to sit in on his "groundbreaking" lecture on real estate law and to offer feedback. Pat was and is a Marxist. He wove some interesting Marxist counterpoints into an otherwise standard lecture. After the lecture Pat bounded over to Larry to see what he thought. Larry liked the challenges he made to the students, but, said - "I thought you said this was groundbreaking? Groundbreaking is starting the class on Day 1 and saying - "I'm a Marxist, find out why my theories are in opposition to what you're supposed to learn in this class, then come see me and we'll discuss" - end of class. Now that's a groundbreaking start.

      John, Jake and PRX are making a groundbreaking start but with the possible exception of Chicago PR, WNYC and KUT (and others that I haven't discovered yet), we're still a medium who thinks we hire one or two people on our staff to be the one or two people who brings our otherwise-still-the-same operation into the 21st century by putting our canned stuff on the web and linked everywhere and/or all our fans will want to see what worthless musings we have on our blogs.

      We know that content is key, but, everyone young and creative already is creating for YouTube, their own blogs, etc.? What's a poor media outlet to do? My thought is that it starts by us using our still-valued public trust to identify and then bring together the creative types in our community and give them another space to work in. Convene a creative community. Bloggers can notoriously be isolated individuals. You don't bring them on-staff necessarily, you look at the PIJ movement as a starter and go from there. Maybe those creatives are better left to work by themselves, maybe they would thrive and create a new This American Life in conjunction with others.

      Not sure I pose any answers here but thank John, Jake and others who are pushing the envelope beyond our current paradigm.

      By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:34 PM  

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