Monday, June 26, 2017


Note: This article has been rewritten.

You may have seen the news item last week that public radio’s biggest problem is “low awareness.” Coleman Insights donated their time and ideas and collaborated with PRPD to learn more about the general public’s perception and awareness of public radio versus their perception of commercial radio. To me, this research seems like a noble effort that is of questionable value.

The most striking finding from the survey is that listener awareness of public radio stations is much, much lower than listener awareness of commercial radio stations. When Coleman asked respondents to name (un-aided) all of the local radio stations they were aware of. Only 24% of the respondents mentioned a public radio station, 99% of the respondents mentioned a commercial station.

Coleman then coded the responses into groups. The chart on the left is a summary of the top-or-mind awareness by survey respondents.

Coleman concludes that low awareness by the general public (quoting from the report0 “holds public radio back from building the images it needs to support a strong brand.” Then the Coleman report advises public radio broadcasters:

“We recommend implementing focused campaigns, directed towards people who do not regularly listen to Public Radio stations.”

In other words, the Coleman report suggests public radio needs an ad campaign and other promotion to increase awareness by members of the general public. This is a questionable solution.


1. The Coleman report emphasizes the importance of establishing "mass market brands." 

But does public radio seek to be a mass market brand? Isn’t public radio about niche marketing and building relationships with listeners on multiple plat forms based on the value of the content to win their support?

2. I question Coleman’s advice that public radio should seek greater awareness with ”…people who do not regularly listen to Public Radio stations.”

David Giovannoni
Many years of research (and common sense) have shown that the best way for public radio to increase listening is by turning occasional listeners into core listeners.

David Giovannoni wrote extensively about this topic.  In 1991 he wrote in Radio Intelligence 1988 – 1990:

[Isn’t the priority] to increase the frequency with which occasional listeners tune in — in other words, to hasten their next occasion, not to make non-listeners “aware” of public radio.

Hastening the next occasion is a programming strategy that stands head and shoulders above any other. Off-air promotion is but a very small part of it. Public broadcasters can hasten the next occasion through consistent, reliable presentation of alluring programming. [It is] the appeal of the moment…what listeners want now.

Giovannoni backs up his points with data about how listeners found out about public radio and why they decide to listen to one station or another. (See charts on the right.)

3. What is so bad about 24% awareness by the general public?

“Public radio” is hard to define because it isn’t a precise, defined term. “Public radio” might mean something different to me than it does to you. Perhaps it is better to classify stations as “commercial” and “noncommercial.” This provides a clearer definition.

However, most of the general public is not so discerning. They listen to what they like.  Most of the inside radio distinctions we in the industry are meaningless to the general public.

This is my point: Public radio has been focused on “fishing where the fish are” and this is the right way to proceed. This approach has brought growing market penetration for many public radio stations, particularly for NPR News stations in the past few years.

Coleman and PRPD should be commended for providing this research. But, there is not value in its findings, conclusions and recommendations.


  1. Ken, I wish you would have talked with us and learned more about how the research was conducted before you mischaracterized our work and slammed us in a public forum. For example, the Unaided Awareness measures we took were not based on—as you allege—asking people if they had heard of an “eclectic music public radio station.” We asked respondents to tell us all of the stations they were aware of on an unaided basis and coded their responses back to different format designations that we did not share with the respondents.

    Unfortunately, by criticizing our study, you’re sending the wrong message to public broadcasters about something many of them sorely need, which is external marketing. We have found in studies conducted for individual public stations that there is considerable untapped demand for what they offer, but that they can’t realize those opportunities because too few listeners think of them as a listening option.

  2. Ken, you wrote [Isn’t the priority] to increase the frequency with which occasional listeners tune in — in other words, to hasten their next occasion, not to make non-listeners “aware” of public radio.] And I will say that it depends. If you have a decent Weekly Cume (market penetration), then yes, your goal is to increase the TSL of the occasional listeners and turn them into P1s (hopefully). But, if your station is losing or has lost Cume, or has a small Cume to begin with, then your goal is to increase the overall number of listeners to your station - and THEN try to increase how much they spend with your station. And all of this will be dependent on what format your station is. A public radio Jazz station may have a small(er) Cume than a public radio News-Talk station - so it may want to focus on increasing TSL (and thus AQH). A News-Talk station, in a news environment like we have today, may want to take advantage of the environment to draw new listeners to public radio - and then try to convert them. That's why we always look at both metrics in radio - Cume and AQH. I've been away from Radio for a number of years now (including Public Radio) so Warren can speak to this better than I can.