Friday, July 28, 2017


This post is an update of an article originally published September 25, 2015.

Folks who work in public media are preparing to gather in Washington, DC for the 2017 Public Radio Program Directors (PRPD) Content Conference August 14th – 17th [link]. 

Today we take a look at the organization’s impact in public radio over the past 30 years.

The PRPD grew out CPB-funded initiatives in the 1980s to increase the size and loyalty of the public radio audience. 

David Giovannoni
Researcher David Giovannoni started the ball rolling with his memorable quote [paraphrasing]:

People in public radio like to say ‘we’ve got a small but loyal audience.’ They partially correct – public radio does have a small audience but they aren’t very loyal.”

CPB sought to elevate the role of programming within the system.  

 In the mid to late 1980s CPB supported a series of regional meetings specifically for Program Directors, called “PD Bees.” That led to creation of PRPD.

In 2012 the Radio Research Consortium (RRC) published listening trends for CPB-supported stations from 1980 to 2012. The weekly cumulative public radio audience grew from roughly 5.3 million in 1980 to almost 31.7 million on 2011 – an increase of over 600 percent. Most of this growth happened since PRPD debuted in 1987.  On the left is a chart showing the growth of public radio’s weekly cumulative listeners during the term four of the five PRPD leaders.

Craig Oliver 1987-1991
Of course the PRPD isn’t the only factor that stimulated this rapid expansion of listeners.  The number of CPB-funded stations also grew rapidly in the 1980s and 1990s. In the 1990s NPR increased its focus out the appeal of its programming under the leadership of Bill Buzenberg, Jay Kernis. American Public Radio (now Public Radio International) emerged as a competitor to NPR, causing the quality of programming to rise.

Steve Olson 1991-1997
Beginning in the 1990s, there was massive consolidation of commercial radio station ownership. Because most of the new mega-group owners were heavily leverage in debt, commercial radio made deep cuts in the budgets for news and other programming.

This caused stagnation and regression in the quantity and quality of commercial radio program.  It also enhanced the uniqueness of public radio programming. As commercial radio stations dropped news programming, they added cheaper host-based talk shows such as Rush Limbaugh. In many markets, the only fact-based news programming was on an NPR affiliated station.

Marcia Alvar 1997-2006
Public radio’s ratings growth parallels major gains in station members and private business support. 

The success and increasing clout of public radio began being recognized as ratings showed more and more people were listening.

Each year PRPD emphasized best practices in programming, new initiatives and an overall emphasis on the quality of its sound.

Arthur Cohen 2006-2014
Some cynics say that public radio has a sacrificed its mission by using ratings and other audience assessment tools.   

They are missing the point.   

In commercial radio, the ratings are used for bulk audience delivery of advertisers.  Listener-supported public radio counts its listeners one-by-one. 

Ratings are one way to know how many people listen, who they are and where they are located.

Jody Evans 2015-present

PRPD has helped public radio programmers expand their audiences at a time when fewer people are using radio. 

PRPD has also promoted ways for stations to re-purpose content for digital and mobile platforms, further increasing public radio’s reach.

Today the challenges facing public radio are more complicated but the fundamentals are the same: Compelling content, listener trust and the appeal of noncommercial public service.

On the right is a 1988 photo of the founders of the PRPD and associates:

Left to right: RRC’s Tom Church, Peter Dominowski, Marcia Alvar, Craig Oliver, Don Otto & Ellen Fraft

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