By Ken Mills
September 1998

“We are living in a material world and I am a material girl.” – Madonna

Like it or not, public radio lives in the material world. The full radio dial material world, that is. Most radio listeners never listen to public radio and many public radio listeners spend more time with commercial radio stations than with public radio stations.

From the listener’s point of view, the radio dial is a menu. The listener can choose the button for 97.5 as easily as the button for 91.5. Public radio lives in the context of the full radio dial. Listeners don’t choose a specific radio station because they “should” listen to it. They choose a specific radio station because they “want” to listen to it.

The key to radio listening, whether on public or commercial stations, is appeal. Listeners go to stations with programming that appeals to them and avoid stations with programming the does not appeal to them. Programming causes an audience and each audience has a distinct footprint.

It’s often been said that public radio has a small but loyal audience. But public radio’s overall core audience, estimated at 32%, is considerably lower than several commercial radio formats such as Urban, estimated at 47%, Country, estimated at 43% and Talk, estimated at 42%.

Though listeners have no difficulty moving from a public radio station to a commercial radio station with the push of a button, industry insiders in both commercial and public radio share very little dialogue. Who was the last commercial radio station programmer to attend the PRPD? How many public radio program directors have attended the annual NAB Radio Conference?

But, commercial and public radio programmers share the same radio dial and also share the need to serve a critical mass of listeners. Since the “price of admission” to listen to any radio station is the same, zero, any station with a decent signal is competing for the listener.

Arbitron recently published a report on the performance of commercial radio formats on its website called America’s Top Stations: A Format Profile. The information found in the Arbitron study is useful when compared to public radio audience data. Core is a powerful concept in both commercial and public radio. According to Arbitron, about one-third of a typical commercial stations diary keepers are core. Core listeners account for more than two-thirds of a typical station’s total listening. The size of the core audience varies from station to station and format to format.

Commercial programmers refer to the core audience as the “P-1” audience. To design the America’s Top Stations study, Arbitron enlisted eight of commercial radio’s leading program consultants. Each consultant was asked to select ten stations they felt were the most successful stations in each of several format types. Only stations from the top 100 markets were used.

Data regarding public radio’s core audience was provided from Audience Research Analysis (ARA), including data from Audience ’98. ARA data comes from markets of all sizes but the majority comes from the largest markets because more diaries originate from large population centers.

Because of the different treatments of the data, comparing commercial radio and public radio station and format performance does have risks. The difficulty in finding exact “apples to apples” comparative data for public radio and commercial radio is illustrative of the lack of dialogue between the two types of broadcasters who share a common radio dial.

It’s also hard to categorize a public radio format. No doubt all-news stations and all-music stations perform differently than public stations with two or more formats. Specific programs such as All Things Considered and Morning Edition typically draw more core listeners than other programming.

But it can be safely assumed that, on the whole, some formats draw larger core audiences than other formats and that some commercial radio formats draw larger core audiences than public radio’s average core audience.

Here are specific areas where public radio stations can learn from commercial radio stations:


1.) Eliminate Dual Formats on One Station

Marcia Alvar, Executive Director of the Public Radio Program Directors Association (PRPD) says it’s easy to see why many commercial formats out perform public radio: “They [commercial stations] have consistency; too often we [public stations] aren’t consistent. Alvar says that the PRPD will continue to urge stations to eliminate “core cavities”—programs and secondary formats that cause listeners to tune away.

Dual format stations are a major limitation to the growth of public radio according to Joan Siefert-Rose, Program Director of WUOM-FM, Ann Arbor. “Commercial stations don’t present split formats for a good reason: It doesn’t work.” Siefert-Rose had an extensive background in commercial radio ranging from News/Talk WJR to album rock before joining WUOM. “Dual formats are holding the whole system back,” says Siefert-Rose. “It’s hard to make a one format choice but stations have to do it unless you are the only game in town.” Since switching to an all news and talk format, WUOM-FM has seen major increases in core audience, loyalty and fundraising, according to Siefert-Rose.

Peter Dominowski of Market Trends Research has been studying public radio’s place within the whole radio dial for more than twenty years. Dominowski worked on format and station comparisons as early as 1985. According to him, not much has changed since then. “Stations that consistently meet the listener’s expectations tend to have larger core audiences, greater time-spent-listening and more exclusive cume. Many public radio stations don’t provide this consistency.”

Roger Johnson, out-going President of the PRPD and former PD at KPLU-FM, Seattle-Tacoma, says public radio’s relatively low core performance is because public radio “…tries to be too many things to too many people. The lack of focus found in public radio program schedules leads to under-performing public radio stations.” While his criticism is not universal to all public radio stations, Johnson believes that too many stations are still giving listeners too many reasons to tune out.

Marc Hand, a project consultant for the Station Resource Group (SRG), an association of many of the leading public radio stations, says programming inconsistencies are very often caused by institutional licensees who insist on having their stations program material which is inconsistent with radio programming fundamentals. Hand says that the performance of many public radio stations, and the system as a whole, is hurt by “chronic institutional instability.” This instability leads to compromises in schedule choices, bad hiring decisions and ultimately decreases the value stations bring to listeners and the station’s licensee.

Alvar points out that commercial stations in general do a much better job than public stations positioning themselves in the minds of listeners. “Commercial stations not only do relentless promotion, they understand the essence of what their station is all about. It is a clearer mindset. Programming and promotion people know who they are trying to reach and how they are going do it.”

“Some people in public radio can’t abandon the notion that public radio can’t be everything to everyone,” say Alvar. “There are many talented program producers who create wonderful audio. Unfortunately, it isn’t suited for the radio medium.” She says that the PRPD is working to establish heightened awareness with producers of alternative ways to reach the listener.

2.) Enhance the Sense of Community by Getting More Involved

Does public radio station involvement with listeners stop at the station door? Some observers think so.

Hand has had extensive experience with both public and commercial radio stations. He owned and operated a commercial radio station in Denver prior to joining the SRG. Hand says that public stations can learn from the way commercial stations stress community involvement. “Urban and Spanish stations are often much more visible in their communities than public radio stations. I’m surprised that public stations don’t take their microphones out of the studio more often and get involved with their listeners and events. It’s important to be a visible presence in the community you are trying to reach.”

The importance of community involvement is echoed by Kingsley Smith, PD at WHYY-FM, Philadelphia and a former commercial station programmer. Smith says: “Urban commercial stations are strongly identified with their local communities and their ties to the community may be deeper than public radio. Because of the tie to the community, Urban stations have more cross-generational appeal to listeners. There is much public stations can learn from Urban stations regarding service to communities.

Is Country an ethnic format, in many ways like Urban? That’s what Charlie Cook, Vice President of Program Formats for Westwood One Radio Network believes. “The partisan share for all formats is consistently led by Urban and Country. My contention is that both are ethnic formats and reflect a lifestyle as much as a musical genre.”

But public radio reflects a lifestyle too. A thread that continually winds through Audience ’98 is public radio’s “sense of community,” a shared group of values, sensibilities and interests. Larry Josephson has called public radio a “secular church.” But some other radio formats seem to be more effective in filling the pews each week.

Charlie Cook observes that even though the Country format has lost some audience in the last two years the core share has not been affected. “The Country audience is most likely to be older (median age 40.8 years) and they certainly have made a determination of what they like and don’t by that point. Even in two Country station markets the stations are so well differentiated that the listener can make a choice and spend their radio time with that choice.”

3.) Program From the Heart as Well as the Head

Joan Siefert-Rose adds another possible difference between commercial radio and public radio: “Public radio leans too much from the head and not enough from the heart.” She points out that some of the most successful public radio programs, like Keillor, Car Talk and Whad Ya’ Know, have an emotional component that is too rare in public radio. “People’s lives are filled with more than Senate Committees and professors.” Siefert-Rose feels that public radio can learn from commercial radio’s successful coverage of family issues, children and values.

Marcia Alvar, who was Producer of The Savvy Traveler before joining the PRPD, sees more heart appearing in public radio recently. “Maybe this is because I was at one of the most creative shops in the system. The process of creating Savvy was intense and focused on appealing the core public radio audience.”

Alvar feels that public radio was born out of passion. She mentions Bill Siemering’s creations such as All Things Considered as an example of that passion. “Bill was one of the creators of public radio. As he approached middle age he went through a lot of changes and reinvented himself. His projects may have changed but his passion is stronger than ever.”
Maybe public radio lives in a material world but its best moments come from the heart.

This article was originally published in “Current” Public Broadcasting’s trade publication, on 9/14/98.