Sue Schardt and Ken Mills
September 2000

Radio program developers Sue Schardt and Ken Mills assessed public radio’s strengths and weaknesses for a recent study by interviewing dozens of high-ranking commercial radio execs, and surveying cume sharing and other audience trends. The full Listener Choice Radio study is proprietary, but the authors spun off this commentary for Current readers. The authors will make a brief presentation at PRPD session for news/talk stations at the PRPD Conference on Sept. 20, 2000

Public radio broadcasters like to reassure themselves that commercial radio is unlikely to challenge their celebrated in-depth newsmagazines, and indeed we came to the same conclusion in the new Listener Choice Radio research project. But public radio is vulnerable and already feeling commercial competition in some cities from a different format with a more congenial cost/revenue ratio–news-oriented talk radio.

Commercial broadcasters have begun to notice the size and quality of the public radio audience. Most commercial programmers contacted for the study do watch how much of their audience they share with public radio stations. About half of the commercial radio programmers believe public radio stations have an impact on their own stations.

They praise public radio’s in-depth news but show little respect for its talk programming. In their view, talk radio works best when done by magnet personalities with strong points of view. That not what they generally hear on public radio.

Wearing their shoes
When strategizing, it’s important to put yourself in the competitors’ shoes, to see the world as they see it. If you look at the radio scene from a commercial programmer’s desk, you probably see:

Their time spent listening (TSL) will probably continue to decline. New competition from audio streaming on the Internet, as well as satellite radio firms Sirius and XM will cut into commercial radio audiences. Music stations are particularly vulnerable to decreased TSL, making it more attractive to expand into talk programming on FM.

Commercial broadcasters are looking for new ways to reach the 25-54 audience that is already listening to the radio.

Public radio is taking a significant share of the audience, particularly in many of the top media markets. Commercial radio salespeople would enjoy having some of those high-education listeners to put in front of media buyers.

Commercial radio professionals perceive public radio to be vulnerable because of its presumed limited expertise and spending on promotion, as well as its presumed uncertain means of support. Almost to a person, commercial radio broadcasters feel that public radio does a poor job promoting itself. They consider public radio a medium to weak competitor. Even the name “NPR” has only moderate recognition among commercial radio executives.

Stereotypes about public radio are common with commercial broadcasters. Public radio programming is said to be “obsessed with political correctness to point of being sterile” and that “public radio needs to walk a fine line [in programming] because of government funding.”

“Public radio doesn’t do a very good job telling its story,” says Neil Sargent, a public radio listener who is the former VP of affiliate sales for commercial radio’s leading network syndicator, Westwood One. “It should promote its independent stance.”

Trying to compete with public radio’s long-form news is too risky and expensive, but talk programming is relatively cheap and profitable to produce, even with marquee hosts like Rush Limbaugh.

Focus on Boston
Wearing those commercial broadcaster shoes, you can see the appeal of the emerging FM Talk format. Indications are that audiences and profits are growing at some of the two dozen stations now using the format. While many of these stations are targeting men 18-34 and 25-49, the new Boston FM Talk station–96.9 FM (WTKK)–sounds like it’s aiming for public radio listeners.

WTKK, one of five stations in the market owned by Greater Media, is co-opting public radio’s positioning through a series of produced spots touting “listener-supported radio, 96.9 FM,” followed by a montage of listener testimonials. (The station isn’t directly supported by listeners, of course. It’s supported by advertisers.)

The station’s positioning statements are “SmartTalk” and “Live and Local.” Its on-air hosts have high profiles in the community, or boast their journalistic credentials and keep a finger on the pulse of politics and culture. During the recent GOP convention, WTKK offered the alternative to WBUR’s live coverage from NPR, broadcasting CNN’s live feed with local commentary, anddrop-in’s that reminded listeners “if you want to talk about this tomorrow, tune in to Jay Severin starting at 3 p.m.” In the year since it began the FM Talk format, WTKK has put significant resources into marketing and promotion, with a television ad campaign, and a billboard and bus campaign throughout the summer.

How is WTKK doing after a year on the air? Its morning drive ratings are rising steadily over three books. Its morning share is up 14 percent, WBUR’s is up just slightly, and commercial news station WBZ’s is down 16 percent since fall 1999, according to one Boston radio source.

“I’d be foolish to say that WBUR is not on our radar,” says WTKK Program Director Paula O’Connor, a fan of WBUR’s Christopher Lydon. “If we could hold a candle to them, I’d be honored.” She contends that the format is not specifically designed to go after WBUR. “Being first on the FM band with this format, we had to consider what people in Boston know in the way of talk. That’s Howard Stern and WBUR. I believe that we can take the high road . . . fall nicely in between.”

Another FM talk station–a pioneer of the format, WKXW in Trenton, N.J.–features all-local news and local hosts, no syndicated programming, no tapes, no repeat programming. It reportedly grosses $13 million a year and has, according to one commercial radio consultant, never lost money.

The revenue return from an FM Talk format may well allow commercial radio operators to find new magnet personalities, perhaps at the expense of public radio’s audience.

Strategies for public radio
Public radio stations may not only face increased competition from commercial radio FM Talk, but also have to compete with “friendly fire” from Internet radio and the anticipated five Sirius Radio public radio channels. Jim Farley, PD at all-news station WTOP in Washington, D.C., keeps a close eye on what public radio is doing in his market. “There is no doubt that NPR’sm[Sirius] channel will hurt local NPR stations,” says Farley. “If you are running the NPR station in Erie, where you’ve got a limited audience already, the NPR satellite channel may really hurt you.”

How should public radio respond?

Beyond practicing good radio technique and grounding your decisions in public radio’s mission, we suggest:

  • Think local: Whether programming originates from your shop or from the networks, make certain that listeners can expect consistent quality throughout the day, and know which station is giving it to them. Emphasize local basics such as personalities, news, public affairs, public service, weather, traffic and even time.
  • Think core and new sampling: Learn from the mistakes of commercial radio programmers. While serving the core audience, look for ways to serve your fringe and new listeners. Encourage new listeners to sample your station. Sampling is where your new core listeners will come from.
  • Think new programming: Experiment with new programming in dayparts when few people are listening. Collaborate with other stations or independent producers in your region or with whom you have an affinity. Don’t wait for national distributors to do this for you. If you are primarily a news station, emphasize experiments with news-oriented talk programming before a commercial competitor does this in your market.
  • Think promotion: Be proud of your live, local service and tell your story every day. If all of the commercial radio stations in your market are owned by outside corporations, claim the “home town” position. Target a portion of your promotion budget to increase new sampling.