NPR Outsmarts Commercial Radio

My old friend and radio executive Bill Figenshu wrote to me over the weekend with some thoughts on the recent New York Times article about why National Public Radio is thriving and PBS television is hurting.

Fig says, "..they (NPR) have grown, have none of the negative commercial radio issues, and did it without taking the 8th caller, TV or any marketing budget, slamming PPM, HD, or "less is more." In many cases, the public radio signals are not exactly "blowtorches." They did it
with good programming, a long view of content, and a robust on line

From my vantage point with the next generation, Fig has hit the nail on the head. Long before consolidators got their minds messed up with visions of Wall Street sugar daddies dancing in their heads, radio was blowing it.

Bluntly put, radio -- once proud, innovative and well-liked -- got into imitating itself. Today, it has become a caricature.

The same old unbelievable liners, positioners and brand names.

Back when radio ran contests, it's amazing that stations could rarely come up with a new one -- or a good one, or one that was actually fun to listen to.

Long before even the first Gen Y baby was born, listeners were telling radio researchers that the music was too repetitious -- not enough variety -- too many commercials. What was radio's answer while it was still the only act in town? Slogans like "More music, fewer commercials, the best variety" -- while continuing to play the same 30 or fewer hits over and over again. In other words, commercial radio didn't listen and tried to act like it did.

Radio has spent tons of money fighting a figment of their imagination -- satellite radio.

Wasted resources that could have gone elsewhere to that turkey called HD radio.

Even fought its one and only credible ratings company, Arbitron, on the value of the Portable People Meter even after the same complainers actually signed long-term contracts for their stations to use People Meter ratings.

NPR on the other hand is boring.

Not to its listeners, but compared to the bombast of terrestrial radio executives hooting and howling about a form of radio that listeners have been complaining about for at least 20 years.

Even thought it is far from perfect, NPR listens.

While terrestrial radio geniuses couldn't wait to cut out newscasts, NPR stations kept doing them. No bells, no whistles, no laser sound effects -- actually, just news.

NPR is green. That increasingly matters if radio people are truly listening.

NPR affiliates are truly local. Public affairs is a proud program element not news of an office scandal.

While terrestrial radio was insulting their intelligence, smarter listeners discovered the talent of NPR and their local affiliated stations to be just what they wanted. At least they liked being talked to with respect and intelligently -- something many commercial stations still haven't learned to this day.

While public stations were not included in radio ratings for years, their stations were cleaning the clocks of the morning zoos and outrageous shock jocks in terrestrial radio. I guess by not seeing the local public station ratings in the "book" radio people convinced themselves that they didn't exist.

And if they did, they were for the elite.

I have shared this with you before but it deserves reiterating, the next generation doesn't consider NPR and local public stations radio. That would be an insult as far as some of them are concerned.

And even while the next generation moves to iPods, Internet, cell phone content and social networking they seem to find a way back to the analog radio dial to get something they cannot get elsewhere -- NPR and affiliated programming.

The lessons are painful which may explain why terrestrial apologists prefer to belittle and attack their non-commercial brothers and sisters.

1. Listening to listeners pays dividends when you actually do something to respond.

2. Listeners don't want an imitation of radio 20 or 30 years ago, they want today's radio.

3. Listeners like news -- presented intelligently and reliably. News can also be local. Local is good. Radio is best when it is local.

4. Listeners like more variety in their music. Today's young people have very eclectic tastes. Commercial stations never did get this and probably never will.

5. Listeners like to at least "feel" that their personalities are picking the music. They outed "Jack" for playing what he wants because "Jack" was playing what his owner's wanted. Affiliated NPR stations like KCRW in Los Angeles actually -- God forbid -- let their jocks pick their own music and this is not lost on the next generation.

6. Listeners want a web presence that allows for discovery, delayed listening and enhancing the station's experience. NPR stations are way ahead on this.

There are some things even NPR can't do -- like save HD radio. There is no reason for more channels when there are too many radio channels now. Add in what you'll be able to get through Internet and cell phone delivery and try to say with a straight face that consumers need more radio stations.

No, they need better radio stations.

Ones that listen to their listeners and stay in the present not the past.

Like it or not NPR has quietly proven that even analog radio can't deter their listeners from loving them.

So while consolidators continue to look for ways to fire talent, reduce resources and water down local radio, they would be wise to see what NPR has done to put themselves in a great position with the next generation.

And it must really piss them off to know that NPR did it without spending a lot of money. However, the money they spend is on content.

Commercial radio can do it.

But they have to start listening to people other than investment bankers.

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