NPR Has PPM Dilemma
Now that Arbitron’s new ratings methodology is providing consistent and crunchable year-to-year data on radio listening, public radio programmers and producers are getting a clearer picture of listening trends — and it’s not a cheerful one.
Cume and average–quarter-hour audience for NPR News stations has been falling for a year, according to NPR data. AQH began falling in 2008, after stations in the top 48 markets began the switch from diary to Portable People Meter ratings. Weekly cumes remained relatively consistent through spring 2011, then began a sharp decline. The slides have been driven in part by a fall-off in drivetime listening.
Strategies to reverse the drop-offs were a focus of discussion during the Public Radio Program Directors conference in Las Vegas Sept. 11–14.
“Flat seems to be the new up,” said J.J. Yore, g.m. of Marketplace, referring to public radio’s scaled-down ambitions. The comment drew laughter from a gathering of news/talk programmers.
The session was convened by Jeff Hansen, p.d. of KUOW in Seattle, who argued that public radio needs to renew the systemwide discussion about how to draw more listeners on the platform that has traditionally defined it.
Arbitron’s gradual switch from paper diaries to Portable People Meters, which concluded in 2010, threw off measurements on a national basis and made it difficult for local programmers to analyze their ratings until they had year-to-year PPM data. The numbers are in, and programmers are just beginning to ponder what to do about them.
“I’m not hearing any ideas within the system about how to grow the radio audience,” Hansen told Current after the conference. “In fact, it almost seems like we’re not interested in growing the audience.”
At the conference, Hansen argued that public radio stations can make the most headway by fixing a condition that has long persisted, even in times of audience growth: the relative drop in listening between Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Since newsmagazines perform better than anything else on weekdays, the solution may be to fill middays with similar programs, Hansen said. That would constitute a shift from the current strategy of using mostly one-hour talk and interview shows, which are less expensive to produce than newsmagazines.