Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The future of public radio isn't its past

A couple of weekends ago, I attended "Radiolab Apocalyptical," a live show presented by Radiolab hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich at the landmark Chicago Theatre. For those of you who aren't familiar with Radiolab, it's a weekly hour-long public radio show that covers science topics in an incredibly engaging way. The Chicago Theatre was packed, but what was really interesting was who it was packed with. The audience was young--most of the people I saw were in their 20's and 30's--not at all what you'd expect from a public radio audience in the U.S. Cast and crew members from NBC's "Chicago Fire" and "Chicago PD" tweeted pictures of themselves backstage at "Apocalyptical."

For much of the last two decades, public radio has been wrestling with a big problem: Its audience, while growing, is getting older. Twenty years ago, I was a member of one station's "big donor" club, and I attended several of its events. Other than the radio station's staff, I was by far the youngest person attending; most of the attendees appeared to be in their 60's or 70's. The public radio audience is, quite literally, dying off. Listeners have historically been older, well-educated and high-income. That's great when you're seeking donations, but not so good when you're trying to attract younger listeners and get them to become members for decades.

Public radio stations have been torn between keeping their older audiences and attracting younger ones. That becomes more difficult when even the hosts of shows that attract older listeners start retiring. Tom and Ray Magliozzi, the hosts of "Car Talk," one of the most popular shows on public radio, retired last year. Instead of cancelling the show or taking a chance on new hosts, WBUR Boston and National Public Radio (NPR) decided to rerun old episodes. Some of the episodes being rerun are 20 years old, and since they cover car repairs, Tom and Ray are talking about cars that many listeners may not have ever heard of. (Geo Metros, anybody?) Just about every public radio station runs Car Talk at least once a week; some run it several times a week.

Another show that's very popular with older audiences is "A Prairie Home Companion." Creator and host Garrison Keillor caused panic at public radio stations when he told the AARP in March 2011 that he planned to retire from the show this year. In December of that year, he changed his mind, and now says that he'll keep doing the show as long as he "love(s) doing it."  "Car Talk" and "A Prairie Home Companion" are two examples of public radio shows that appeal almost entirely to an older audience, but they're far from the only ones.

There are shows on public radio that draw younger audiences; "Radiolab" is one, along with "This American Life," "The Moth Radio Hour," "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" and Roman Mars' "99% Invisible." But, shows for younger listeners are far outweighed, both in number and in scheduling, by those that target older listeners. If public radio stations are serious about attracting younger listeners, the first thing they can do is cancel "Car Talk" and put a show for younger listeners in its place. There's no excuse for giving prime radio time to 20-year-old reruns of a radio show that many listeners found banal when the shows were new.

And, while we're at it, let's get rid of pledge weeks (a misnomer, because most of them now run two weeks.) Pledge weeks give regular listeners to public radio a strong disincentive to contribute, because everyone has to put up with having their favorite shows interrupted whether they pledge or not. With the wide availability of smartphones that can receive streaming audio, public radio stations can offer subscribers apps that would enable them to listen to uninterrupted programs, so long as they maintain their subscriptions. Pledge weeks would continue on the broadcast station, but paid-up members could avoid them by listening through their smartphones. That's what younger listeners are doing already with Pandora, Spotify, iHeartRadio, Slacker and other services. These services typically offer free and paid versions; with the paid version, subscribers have to sign in with a username and password, but they get their music or talk commercial-free.

Public radio already has the shows to attract younger audiences (although it could have a lot more,) and it has the technology to do away with pledge weeks for listeners on smartphones. If public radio stations are serious about getting younger listeners to become members, the ball is in their court.

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