The Secrets of Public Media Embracing Change in the Digital Age

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Sep 07, 2011

Article ImageThis past April, 1 month after her highly publicized resignation as CEO of NPR (National Public Radio), Vivian Schiller delivered a warning to her former public radio colleagues, saying, "There is massive change on the horizon." She cautioned that "if you don't aggressively reach out to new audiences on new platforms, someone else will," and she urged public radio to embrace technology by letting go "of the nostalgia for how that content is delivered and how that community is forged. Give the audience what they need and how they need it, and you will be fine." Whether there's any truth behind Schiller's prediction that "new digital-only startups will enter the marketplace in audio" and public radio will find itself "longing for the days when the competition was the radio station that overlapped on your broadcast signal" remains to be seen, but as audiences find new digitally friendly ways to consume content across all public media sectors, her prophecy may soon become reality.


Despite the ominous undertones of Schiller's address, she was quick to praise public radio, saying, "You have earned your success through spectacular programming and a relentless focus on quality." In 2010, NPR saw its audience increase to 27.2 million weekly listeners, up 3% from 2009, according to "The State of News Media Report 2011" by Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ).As Tom Rosenstiel, director of the project, says, "Public radio has seen its audience more than double in that last decade."

In fact, public radio seems to have benefited from the recent economic crisis. Rosenstiel suggests that a market shift that left only 30 current commercial all-news radio stations in the U.S. could ac count for some of that growth. Even as the economy bottomed out, he notes,"At a time when almost every news operation in the United States and in the world is seeing audience decrease because of fragmentation, public radio has moved in the other direction." This, in part, may be due to the fact that audiences "value news coverage more in crises than ever before," says Andrew Phelps, staff writer for the Nieman Journalism Lab, a project founded by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. In addition, since many users listen while in the car, as commute times grow, so has listenership.

These factors only partially explain public radio's success. Fred Jacobs, president of the radio consulting firm Jacobs Media, believes listener devotion has played a substantial role. "Radio has a large cumulative audience. Public radio in particular, when you look at the exclusive listenership, there is an incredible amount of loyalty." Now, though, public radio is facing new challenges. Aside from the fear of federal funding budget cuts, technologies such as mobile apps, social media, and internet streaming could force a change in how public media traditionally delivers its content.


The 2010 "Public Radio Tech Survey" produced by Jacobs Media surveyed 21,099 public radio listeners and found that 91% of respondents use the internet for at least 1 hour per day, 64% use social  media networking sites (up 5% from 2009), and smartphone ownership has increased by 29% in 2010. Furthermore, the survey showed that heavy internet usage has surpassed radio listening (in respondents who use each medium 8 hours a day or more), almost 10% of respondents who stream content now prefer to do so on a mobile device, and 21% of cell phone owners are downloading apps.

Statistics such as these have put pressure on public radio to engage audiences in digitally driven ways. Jacobs explains that "one of the tough challenges for radio, whether it is public or commercial, is that the consumer is moving at a real fast clip and is adopting new technology and gadgets unlike anything that we've ever seen. Broadcasters, just like publishers, are really grappling with trying to figure out which platforms are most important, which content portals are of most value to consumers, and to find ways to deliver that content to them."

While "public media has an unfortunate and not always accurate reputation of moving a little bit more slowly than their counterparts in other media," according to Phelps, not-for-profit organizations from NPR to American Public Media (APM), Public Radio International (PRI), and Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) are changing this perception by rolling out an array of content consumption options to meet audience demand.

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