In the movie City Slickers, Curly (played by the late Jack Palance) gives Mitch (played by Billy Crystal) sage advice about what he needs to do to succeed in life:
“Do one thing and do it well!”
This sums up a key philosophy of public radio programming: Do one format and do it well!
As KNKX, Seattle/Tacoma searches for a new Music Director for its Jazz and Blues program stream [link], it brings up the question whether a dual format of NPR News and music is worth it.
Most of the public radio system has already decided. Fact: KNKX [link] is one of only two PPM-market stations that have NPR News and music on the same frequency. KCRW in LA is the other station.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s almost every public radio station had a dual format. Some even had three or four formats. Such news stalwarts as WNYC-FM, WEBZ and KCFR all featured a mix news and music.
When public radio began growing up in the 1990s, programmers found that Curly’s advice was true. Most stations focused their programming on all news, talk and other spoken word shows. KQED is considered to be the first station to switch to 24/7 news/talk. The most recent was WABE, Atlanta, who was pushed into dropping its Classical portion of their dual format because of new full-time news competition.
There is no doubt that focusing on one format works. Also there is no doubt that KNKX is not “broken.” The station has done very, very well since parting ways with Pacific Lutheran University. KPLU became KNKX in 2016 and public radio folks applauded.
KNKX is successful by any measure. According to the most recent audited financial report on the stations website, KNKX brought in $3.5 million in revenue during the period from 1/1/17 to 5/31/17 – five months. Members provided around $1.4 million (40%), underwriting brought in $1 million (29%) and CPB added another $504,000 (15%). These are signs of a very, very healthy noncommercial business.
By all accounts, KNKX's local news coverage is excellent. Their Jazz and Blues programming is world-renowned. KNKX’s 24-hour jazz stream, Jazz24, reaches thousands of people around the globe.
If anyone can make this dual format work it is GM Joey Cohn, a veteran programmer with deep knowledge of both Jazz and news.
System pro’s such as Director of Content Matt Martinez, Digital guru Justin Steyer and News Director Erin Hennessey and others show that KNKX has the houses to win.
But, what about KNKX’s Nielsen Audio PPM ratings trends?
On May 24th [link] Spark News featured four-year ratings trends for 20 full-time NPR News/Talk stations. Almost every station showed dramatic increases in AQH share and estimated weekly listeners. So,we ran the numbers for two outliers in the study, KNKX and KCRW.
On the left is the four-year trend line for KPLU/KNKX. The station had its largest number of weekly listeners in April 2014. The number of weekly listeners was down 2% by April 2018.
The four-year trend is very different for cross-town NPR News/Talk station KUOW.
Like many full-time news/talk stations, KUOW’s estimated number of weekly listeners continues to grow from the record high levels around the 2016 election.
Of course there are a lot of prevailing factors. KPLU was “sold” to KUOW. Then the folks at then-KPLU started their own nonprofit organization and quickly raised $8 million. They got the license and the station became KNKX.
Though things turned out well, that time of uncertainty was gut-wrenching and likely had an impact on the station’s sound.
For comparison, we looked at the other major dual format station, KCRW. As the chart on the left shows, KCRW’s four-year trend with NPR News and Triple A music is similar to KNKX. KCRW’s largest number of estimated weekly listeners was actually before the 2016 elections.
KCRW also competes with a full-time NPR News/Talk powerhouse, KPCC. KPCC’s four-year trend is very similar to KUOW’s. Like KUOW, KPCC’s audience has continued to grow after the election.
These are very different ratings performances by two dual format stations in similar circumstances. It is difficult to know if the ratings at KNKX and KCRW are being driven by news programming or music programming or both. Spark News will be in contact with Joey Cohn and we will let you know what we learn. To be continued…