Submitted by: Andrew Vrakas
Middle Tennessee State University
Submitted to: The Media Management & Economics Division of the
Association for Education in Journalism and Mass
ENSURING THE ECONOMIC VIABILITY OF PUBLIC RADIO:
A CASE STUDY OF WPLN-FM
In light of recent and future reductions in federal funding for
public radio, affiliate stations must be prepared to ensure their own economic
fate. To accomplish this goal, a station must attract a significant audience
that is willing to contribute financial support and also attract corporate
underwriters who wish to reach that audience. Thorough and accurate analysis of
market and audience research and an emphasis on meeting audience needs are the
cornerstones of successful programming. Effective marketing also plays an
important role. Using a case study approach, the paper considers the relative
strengths of various types of programming, the importance of targeting a
specific primary audience, and the merits of a "pure" versus a "mixed" or
"mosaic" programming format. Recommendations for the public radio station in
question include increasing news and information programming, focusing efforts
toward a specific market niche, streamlining the programming schedule, and
improving marketing efforts.
Send correspondence to:
Andrew Vrakas 905 Audubon Road, Nashville, TN 37204
Phone: (615) 292-9035 E-Mail: [log in to unmask]
Professor John Bodle Middle Tennessee State University Dept. of
Journalism, P.O.Box 64, Murfreesboro, TN 37132 Phone: (615) 898-5871
Ensuring the Economic Viability of Public Radio:
A Case Study of WPLN-FM
A paper submitted to the
Media Management and Economics Division
Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication
1996 Mid-year Meeting
Las Cruces, New Mexico
Send correspondence to:
Andrew Vrakas 905 Audubon Road, Nashville, TN 37204
Phone: (615) 292-9035 E-Mail: [log in to unmask]
Ensuring the Economic Viability of Public Radio:
A Case Study of WPLN-FM
Statement of Purpose
As federal funding of public radio declines (Gingrich, 1994; Current,
20 March, 1995), individual stations must give increasing attention to their
ability to generate adequate financial support from listeners and underwriters.1
This ability is, of course, directly related to the size of the audience a given
station can cultivate. Judith and David Leroy have described what they consider
a public radio truism: "Audience size affects pledge success" (Leroy, 1995).
Using a case study approach, this paper will consider one National
Public Radio (NPR) affiliate station in transition: WPLN in Nashville,
Tennessee. After 25 years under the founding general manager, WPLN recently
underwent an administrative change. This change coincides with a desire to
reevaluate how well the station's programming matches the interests and tastes
of its audience and underwriters, a consideration which is necessary in order to
ensure the station's continued viability. Through personal interviews and
examination of research data related to the station's existing and potential
audience, this case study will provide a generalizable look inside the
reevaluation process occurring at public radio stations as they adapt to a
changing political and economic climate. It should be noted that the findings
presented for WPLN will have ramifications for public radio member stations
nationwide. Bailey (1995) asserts that the appeal which draws listeners to
NPR-style programming transcends geographic boundaries and regional differences.
Stavitsky (1994) has argued that the concept of "localism" in public radio has
changed "from a spatial emphasis -- based on traditional geographic notions of
community -- to a social conception in which community is defined in terms of
shared interests, tastes, and values." This paper will also identify some
strategies (and their potential outcomes) stations like WPLN may employ for
identifying and serving their audiences during this important period of change.
Literature Pertaining to Audience Identification
Given the many options available to a radio programmer, how can he or
she know the best way to achieve and satisfy a large and economically desirable
audience? When the programmer's decisions are guided by a mission statement as
well as a bottom line, how does that affect the programming strategy? These
questions can be answered, at least in part, by recognizing the importance of
Audience identification has been described as the key to successfully
satisfying an audience's needs (Atkin, 1983). Audience-focused programming is
touted by large media corporations like Gannett as a means to meet audience
expectations and place audience needs above the needs of media practitioners
(College Media Advisers national convention, group discussion, 1992).
The importance of understanding one's audience is underscored by the
research of Chaffee and McLoed (1968). They assert that communication and
persuasion are most effective when the parties involved have a similar
orientation to the concepts at issue. "Co-orientation" suggests that for a
media programmer to reach the audience effectively, the orientation of that
audience must be known to the greatest extent possible.
In 1979, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting published the
"Public Radio Handbook," a how-to guide covering all aspects of starting a
public station. The authors stress the importance of audience identification:
"Knowledge of the audience and of its expectations provides the essential
groundwork for programming decisions." They also believed that the best public
radio stations are "custom tailored" to fit the communities they serve
(Corporation for Public Broadcasting, 1979).
In her comprehensive review of public broadcasting in Japan, Geller
(1979) stressed the importance of public broadcasters using research to "find
[their] proper niche." Geller asserts that intimate knowledge of the audience
helped Japanese broadcasting flourish.
Ettema and Whitney's comments (1994) summarize the basic marketing
concept: "[I]n more competitive industries, firms may find it more profitable to
segment the market and offer specialized products to the various segments."
According to this theory, then, market segmentation is presumed to be the key to
surviving in a competitive media market.
WPLN'S Competitive Environment
The principal norm of business is to maximize profits over an
indefinite period (Main & Baird, 1981). In any given radio market, this equates
to competition for audience share and, thereby, advertising revenue.
Historically, some public stations have been "exempt" from market forces,
relying mainly on public funding and financial endowments and following a
qualitative "public service" mission that may not necessarily have stressed
audience size. Today's public broadcasters are increasingly required to
maintain financial viability based on listener contributions and corporate
underwriting. Failure to do so could have direct and detrimental effects on a
station, from staffing and programming cuts to closure (Giovannoni, 1995).
As McManus relates, the ever-increasing numbers of media outlets have
"vastly expanded" competition for the audience member's attention. The
proliferation of cable TV channels and videotape rentals has had widespread
effects on the consumption of all types of media. "CNN [Cable News Network] and
C-Span, for example, greatly expand choice for national and international news
among cable subscribers" (McManus, 1994).
This expansion of media outlets relates to public radio stations, and
to this case study of WPLN, because these new sources affect the station's
ability to maintain and/or increase its audience. Programming like CNN, for
example, may provide public radio listeners with alternatives to NPR staples
such as All Things Considered.
WPLN currently offers NPR news and a mix of music and talk
programming dominated by classical music. Today WPLN is the only NPR affiliate
broadcasting in the metropolitan Nashville market. However, a second
independent NPR affiliate, WMOT, 30 miles south in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, is
expected to receive FCC permission for a new antenna location that will bring
its signal clearly into Metro Nashville (C. Pedersen, personal interview,
6/30/95). WMOT currently programs an NPR news and jazz format.
Audience research and measurement data shows that while WPLN is the
only NPR news and classical music station in its market, it competes for
listeners with several commercial stations offering adult alternative
contemporary, easy listening, country and news/talk formats (AudiGraphics,
1995). The impending introduction of WMOT's NPR news and jazz format into the
market may reshape the nature of WPLN's competitive landscape considerably.
Richard Peterson (1994) reports that the growth in listenership experienced by
NPR stations in the mid-1980s was due almost entirely to the increased
proportion of news programming on those stations. WMOT, which carries much of
the same news programming, will presumably compete directly with WPLN for
listeners during certain important time slots.
Today's public broadcast managers face a complex set of fiscal and
programming challenges. But some public radio staffers view these challenges as
opportunities to refine and refocus their mission and format in a way that
delivers quality programming to a larger audience and ensures economic viability
(WPLN staff survey, 7/25/95). Giovannoni has termed this strategy "delivering
significant programming to significant audiences." This, he argues, is the key
to public radio stations maintaining economic viability (Giovannoni, 1994).
Literature Pertaining to Economic Viability
In current trade literature, Giovannoni (1995) discusses strategies
local affiliates can employ in their efforts to replace CPB (Corporation for
Public Broadcasting) revenues. He describes various risk factors which stations
can use to analyze their economic viability. These include: current dependence
on CPB; the ability to replace CPB revenues with development revenues; and level
of efficiency of audience service.
Bailey (1995) and Hills and Messerschmidt (1994) have analyzed the
listening habits of NPR news devotees. Bailey's work implies that the news
audience's strong appetite for quality informational programming may very well
be a driving force in the continued success of public radio.
Although little has been written in academic journals that relates to
funding for public radio since this most recent funding crisis, the work of
Ettema and Whitney (1994) is instructive. The 1994 Congressional elections
furthered debate over the federal budget deficit which has led to proposals to
eliminate federal funding for various agencies, including public radio. This
represents a (perhaps not-articulated) shift in perspective on the part of the
government from an "Effects" model of the media where "[t]he public interest is
served by a media system that...promotes meritorious content" toward a
"Marketplace" model where "[t]he public interest is served by a media system
that is responsive to audience preferences as revealed in their [media usage]
choices" (Ettema & Whitney,1994). These authors also describe the "Commodity"
model, which characterizes the audience as a commodity that is delivered to
advertisers. The Commodity model does not clearly predict how public
broadcasting might evolve with underwriters and contributing audience members
sharing the role normally held by the advertiser.
Since the first round of funding cuts, the CPB has pledged:
"Everything will be thrown on the table, but the essentials of public radio and
television must remain: quality, universal access, localism and a noncommercial
nature." The CPB has also begun to "analyze potential nonfederal revenues for
the field" (Currents, 20 March, 1995).
In the sections that follow, this case study of WPLN will examine
some underlying assumptions about public radio listenership and programming --
assumptions which have direct bearing on the medium's future economic viability.
Hypotheses & Research Questions
Both the available literature and personal interviews suggest an
increasing need for public radio stations to garner enough audience market share
to ensure their financial viability. In the following sections, WPLN's efforts
to achieve these goals will be examined as a case study with generalizable
implications. The hypothesis and research questions below will guide that
Peterson's (1994) report of NPR listenership growth, an overview of
ratings data from AudiGraphics, and information gathered in personal interviews
all suggest the following hypothesis:
H1- NPR news programming is the main audience draw for NPR
Previous research, data from the ratings services, and information
from WPLN's fundraising staff will be considered in determining whether the
hypothesis is supported.
No conclusive prior research was located that assisted in framing
issues related to programming and format. Posited as research questions, three
R1-Has WPLN targeted a specific market and/or audience segment?
If so, is this the best audience for WPLN to attempt to serve,
available market data?
R2-Which format can best hold the public radio audience between
R3-Is a public radio station better advised to use a "pure"
format, or to mix format styles in an effort to appeal to
Analysis of the first research question may indicate that the station
employs a pattern of programming that is not clearly focused on a specific,
easily definable market segment. This may be resulting in ratings
Investigation of the second research question may reveal that WPLN's
current classical format is not yielding the largest possible inter-news
The third research question will entail a comparison of programming
strategies that questions whether it is better to have a smaller audience which
listens more often or a larger audience which listens less on a per capita
basis? The benefits and drawbacks of both strategies will be explored.
Present Programming Practices
Although its programming strategy has been arrived at somewhat
non-empirically, WPLN has been successful in attracting a financially supportive
audience (Dobie, 1995). Programming decisions have historically been made based
upon intuition, listener feedback, ratings, political pressure and anecdotal
audience measurement. A previous program director was reportedly making
programming decisions based on "just providing a variety" (R. Gordon, personal
interview, 10/12/95). The station's programming also has evolved, in part, out
of habit. For 30 years, the format has been essentially the same; the staff is
comfortable with it and has been able to attract what has been described as a
"wide and devoted audience" (Dobie, 1995). In some cases, the music staff has
objected to the introduction of news programming that has turned out to be very
popular. In other cases, programs have been aired not only because of audience
demand, but also because corporate underwriters existed for the programs (R.
Gordon, personal interview, 10/12/95).
Currently, WPLN offers NPR news and classical music, with a mix of
programs in the "other" category, such as Author's Talk, My Word, Jazzset,
Hearts of Space and Bluegrass Breakdown. Weekdays, the station airs NPR/PRI
news programming from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. and from 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Aside from
five-minute NPR headlines at 10 a.m. and at noon, the remainder of the schedule
is classical music programming and other music and talk programs. Local news,
as well as weather and traffic cut-ins, is provided by a small news staff.
Locally originated programming, not including pre-recorded music shows, accounts
for approximately 6 hours per week (WPLN Program Guide, 1995). Overall, the
listener's perception of the station's fare is likely to be dominated NPR news
and classical music, with an eclectic and somewhat irregular offering of special
interest programming mixed in.
WPLN's leadership team is in the process of carefully evaluating its
programming strategy in order to better understand the success it has enjoyed as
a public station and explore opportunities for audience expansion. This
evaluation is timely, as a second independent NPR affiliate, WMOT in nearby
Murfreesboro, Tennessee, is expected to begin broadcasting in the Nashville
market in 1996. WMOT currently uses an NPR news and jazz format.
Audience research reveals that WPLN primarily competes for listeners
with four other stations: WRLT-FM; WJXA-FM; WSIX-FM; and WLAC-AM (AudiGraphics,
1995).2 These main competitors are all commercial stations, offering adult
alternative contemporary, easy listening, country, and news/talk formats. There
are no other stations in the market offering classical music programming or
significant jazz programming.3 (Again, the impending broadcast of NPR news
products into the Metro Nashville market by WMOT may represent significant
direct competition for WPLN in the near future.)
Historically, assumptions have been made about the station's
audience. First, the assumption has been that a classical music format is what
the audience most desires in between the morning and afternoon NPR news
segments. A second assumption is that WPLN's classical format fills a niche
that would otherwise be unfilled in the Nashville market. This implies that the
station is capitalizing on the classical market segment without competing
directly with another station. It also has been suggested by some staff members
that because no other station offers classical music, WPLN should do so as part
of its public service mission (music program host, personal interview, 9/8/95).
Today, under the guidance of its new general manager who began in the
spring of 1995, WPLN is beginning to take a more quantitative approach to the
product it offers by using objective secondary market data. The station
subscribes to the "ratings book" published by Arbitron which provides raw data
on listenership. WPLN also purchases an AudiGraphics report which compiles the
Arbitron data into more easily understood charts and graphs (see appendix A).
To gain an expert opinion of what this data means for WPLN, the
station has engaged a private consulting group, which is in the process of
analyzing the numbers and preparing a report that will help in guiding future
programming decisions. Primary research, most likely in the form of focus
groups and listener/market surveys, is also being planned for in 1996 (Dobie,
A 1979 survey conducted by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting
found that, when those who listen to public radio were asked which type of
programming caused them to listen, the largest percentage (37%) said music
programming (Statistical Research, Inc., 1979). However, Richard Peterson
(1994) reports that the growth in listenership experienced by public radio
stations in the 1980s was "due almost entirely to the increased proportion of
news programming on NPR stations (notably All Things Considered, Morning
Edition, and Weekend Edition)." In August of 1995 All Things Considered was
expanded to two hours nightly, in response to continued, long-term demand for
the high quality news and information it provides (Current, 3 July, 1995). This
situation has given rise to various "News +" public radio formats such as 'NPR
news and Jazz,' 'NPR news and Information,' and 'NPR news and Classical Music'
In the case WPLN, the market data does indicate that NPR news
programming generates the largest audience for the station. This is evidenced
by the upturns in weekday listenership at 6 a.m. and 4 p.m., which coincide with
the start of NPR news programming. Total audience levels drop when these
program blocks end (AudiGraphics, 1995). (It is worth noting that the end of
these program blocks coincide with the end of the peak usage "drive time"
The currently available market data also reveals that an average WPLN
listener spends more time listening to other radio stations than to WPLN,
although that is not true for WPLN's "core audience." The core audience is
defined as those listeners who listen to WPLN more than any other station.
Fringe listeners are those who spend more time listening to a competitor
(AudiGraphics, 1995). The conventional commercial radio strategy is to attempt
to increase the size of the core audience, and to attempt to increase the amount
of time that core audience listens to the station (Peterson, 1994). Currently
WPLN is programming for both its core and its fringe audience. As discussed
above, the station's management is still in the process of determining exactly
how to program for its core audience (R. Gordon, personal interview, 10/12/95).
However, the Arbitron and AudiGraphics data available has provided
WPLN's programming staff with information about the kinds of individuals who
make up their audience. Nearly 80,000 persons over the age of 12 listen to WPLN
at least once each week. This represents a 7.7 rating, putting the station at
number 12 in the Metro Nashville Arbitron rankings. Most listeners (31%) fall
into the 35-44 age group; 20% are 45-54 and 16% are 25-34. The audience's
racial makeup is overwhelmingly white (94%), and for some programming blocks is
almost exclusively white. Male listenership is slightly higher overall, and
specifically higher during the morning and afternoon news blocks. Female
listenership is predominant during the intra-news day parts. The data shows
that WPLN's fringe listeners are tuning in most frequently during the morning
and afternoon news blocks. Finally, it also shows that listeners who live in
areas considered more affluent (i.e., ZIP codes 37215, 37221, & 37204) are more
loyal than listeners in general (Arbitron, 1994; and AudiGraphics, 1995; U.S.
Market data from The Nashville Media Audit (1995) reveals that the
largest occupational grouping for those who listen to WPLN most often is
"proprietor/manager" followed by "retired." The most common level of
educational attainment is "advanced college degree."
The main way WPLN is trying to attract this audience is simply by
airing programming which has been demonstrated successful in the past -- or by
airing programming which seems, a priori, like it will be successful. Also,
WPLN does do some advertising and promotion. It has used full-bus billboards on
the city buses within the last year. The station also sponsored its first
"listener thank-you day" in 1995, which consisted of free concerts and events
and took place in downtown Nashville. It also co-sponsors a number of civic and
cultural events throughout the year. WPLN places newspaper ads occasionally but
does not advertise on television (R. Gordon, personal interview, 10/12/95).
The analysis and development of audiences discussed above relates
directly to WPLN's goal of ensuring its financial viability by attracting not
only a large audience, but an audience which supports the station with
contributions and is desirable to the station's corporate underwriters. In
large part, WPLN is attracting the kind of listener most programmers would
consider desirable (generally a well-to-do group of urban and suburban listeners
ranging in age from 30 to 50). The station's management believes, however, that
it may be possible to increase the raw numbers of desirable listeners as well as
the amount of time each listener spends with the station. To that end, the
programming staff is open to changes that would help meet these goals.
Discussions have taken place in which format changes ranging from minor to
drastic have been explored, and input has been accepted from listeners, board
members and staff members at all levels (C. Pedersen, personal interview,
7/11/95; R. Gordon, personal interview, 7/21/95). In the following section,
this paper will examine more closely the nature of WPLN's audience, consider the
station's use of current and future market data and evaluate strategies for
changing the programming mix with an emphasis on the audience.
Emphasis on the Audience: A Reassessment
This case study of WPLN has presented a public radio station which,
like many across the United States, is entering a period of transition. The
staff is in the process of redirecting its energies to emphasize the needs of
the audience it serves. During the 1980s, audience research became accepted as
an essential management function in U.S. public radio (Stavitsky, 1995). WPLN
has only recently begun to take an analytical, quantitative approach toward
audience appraisal, market segmentation and product development.
Effectiveness of Current Practices
By incorporating an audience emphasis and employing research and
analytical tools for programming development, the station is progressing toward
its goal of modernizing and strengthening its format. Historically, intuitive
programming practices (although successful in many respects) may have resulted
in a lack of programming focus. This can cause confusion on the part of the
listener. A 1993 independent consulting report described WPLN's local
programming as "adequate but uninspired" (Read, 1994). This condition may have
resulted from inadequate audience analysis in the past. It may also indicate a
lack of long-term proactive decisions about the kind of audience WPLN wants to
aggressively target. The current use of consultants to interpret ratings
information and the planned use of focus groups and surveys to learn more about
the audience will allow WPLN to continuously improve the quality of its market
analysis and its service to listeners. This section will provide an analysis of
the hypothesis and the research questions posed earlier, and will also provide
suggestions for further redirection of emphasis toward the audience through
changes in programming and promotion.
Hypothesis and Research Questions
The hypothesis (H1) presented earlier states: NPR news programming is
the main audience draw for NPR member stations. The best evidence supporting
this statement is found in the ratings information provided by Arbitron and
AudiGraphics. Virtually every graph, chart and table in the ratings reports
displays what Bailey (1995) refers to as the "tentpole" pattern: significant
increases in listenership during the NPR news programming that is aired during
the a.m. and p.m. "drive time" (see appendix A). During the last six rating
periods, the only time slots where the average number of hourly listeners
exceeded 10,000 were 6 a.m. to 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays (Arbitron,
1994). One of the ways AudiGraphics analyses the listenership data is in terms
of "leverage," which considers how well WPLN exerts influence over a listener at
the time he or she chooses to use radio during the course of a day. These
graphs reveal that WPLN is well-leveraged at the beginning of the morning and
afternoon news blocks and significantly under-leveraged at the end of the
morning news block, and also at mid-morning (AudiGraphics, 1995). This supports
the claim that non-news programming, consisting primarily of classical music, is
less of an audience draw.
The hypothesis is additionally supported by Peterson's (1994) report
that the growth in NPR listenership during the last decade was due almost
entirely to the expansion of NPR news programming. Further evidence of the
importance of news segments to the economic viability of the station is that
WPLN's development staff reports that corporate underwriters are almost
exclusively interested in sponsoring the NPR news segments (R. Gordon, personal
If WPLN accepts the premise that the Morning Edition and All Things
Considered news blocks are of primary importance to the audience, extending
those news blocks would be a logical and economical way to capitalize on their
popularity. Many public radio stations rebroadcast the first 30 or 60 minutes
of these programs based on the reasonable assumption that few individual
listeners will tune in for more than a two hour period. This strategy would be
a simple way for WPLN to add important programming to the schedule.
The first research question(R1) asks: Has WPLN targeted a specific
market and/or audience segment? If so, is this the best audience for WPLN to
attempt to serve, based on available market data? In WPLN's case, its own
market data reflects the radio industry's awareness of the importance of market
segmentation. The potential audience is broken into sub-categories by gender,
race, age and ZIP code (AudiGraphics, 1995). Thorough and accurate
interpretation of this demographic information can help a station gain the most
accurate possible picture of its audience. For example, ZIP code and income
data from Arbitron can reveal listener socioeconomic status. A station can use
this information to determine, for example, if it is reaching and serving the
kinds of listeners targeted by its mission statement or programming policy.
There are several other sources for market data available to public
radio stations, many of which could be used to augment underwriting efforts.
The Media Audit, for example, is a demographic reporting service which includes
listings of the specific businesses and services most frequently patronized by
WPLN's listeners. The Audit reveals where the station's core audience buys
hardware and electronics, for instance. It reports where listeners conduct
financial affairs and indicates what kind of vehicle they are most likely to
buy. Such specific data can be used by a station's development department to
entice a business to underwrite programming that is currently enjoyed by its
Knowledge of the audience also enables the station to provide
programming that will most likely appeal to its listeners thus holding, if not
building, its market share. A healthy market share means more listeners and
therefore more listener contributions. It also allows the station to gain
underwriting funds by providing a sizeable and attractive audience to its
corporate sponsors. This cycle of audience cultivation and development is of
service to the individual audience member as well, in so much as the financially
healthy station can provide more programming and higher quality programming
(which is generally more costly) to the listener.
At this time, WPLN has not really targeted a single, specific market
segment. The general manager reports that the station is airing programming
that it hopes will be desirable to both its core and its fringe listeners at
various times during the day. The audience research data is being used to
identify who is listening to the programs that are offered, but has not yet been
used in a proactive way to create a program schedule that will attract a certain
group of listeners (R. Gordon, personal interview, 10/12/95). This is evidenced
by the AudiGraphics (1995) analysis of listener tune-in/tune-out activity. The
graphs indicate that there are various times at which one "audience" is tuning
out and a second "audience" is tuning in. One could argue that this essentially
means that the NPR news "tentpole" audience is not very interested in the
inter-news programming, and those interested in the inter-news programs are not
as interested in NPR news programming (see graphs in appendix A).
Consulting research completed in 1993 affirmed that the audience that
listens in the morning and evening tunes out during the day at rates greater
than can be explained by the fact that daytime radio usage levels are much lower
in general. The report concluded: "The reason for this situation is that the
station's local programming appears driven more by organizational and
musicological concerns than radio sensibilities" (Read, 1994).
The second research question (R2) asks: Which format can best hold
the public radio audience between news segments? As discussed in the Present
Practices section, there has been a long-standing assumption at WPLN that the
classical music format is best suited to satisfy the needs of the public radio
audience between the popular news segments. Perhaps the best argument for this,
aside from simply jumping to conclusions about the personalities of classical
music fans, is that the station's listener sponsorship is extremely strong
(Dobie, 1994). (The station raises over $600,000 annually through listener
pledges and another $500,000 through corporate underwriting.) When compared to
all NPR member stations, WPLN is ranked very near the top in fundraising,
adjusting for market size (R. Gordon, personal interview, 10/12/95). Certainly
this indicates that something - or many things - are working well. However,
since no other format has ever really been tried, it is impossible to deny that
another format might be supported even more strongly. Perhaps the development
staff is simply functioning at an extraordinarily high level? Bailey (1995) has
studied public radio membership trends extensively and reports:
We consistently find that news loyalists are much more likely to
support public radio than any other segment of the audience. A
percentage contribute than classical or jazz listeners, and they
money more often [italics added].
With this in mind, WPLN may wish to consider the addition of new news
and information products to the programming schedule. Various programs of this
type are available to NPR member stations including Talk of the Nation, Fresh
Aire, and To the Best of Our Knowledge. Programming of this type would be a
logical extension of what has already been demonstrated to be popular with the
public radio audience in the Nashville market. It could be used to extend the
high-listenership morning and afternoon news blocks and combat the audience
tune-out and underleveraged time periods discussed above. Another promising
possibility is the addition of a daily locally-produced news and public affairs
program, perhaps airing during the lunch hour. Such a program would serve the
purpose of attracting the core news audience and would also heighten the
station's image and improve its visibility within the community. This kind of
program would add a local dimension to the popular NPR news coverage and give
listeners another opportunity to identify with the station as their own. A
local news and public affairs program is the only type of programming that could
get listeners saying things like: "Did you hear what the governor said on WPLN
today?" That type of interest is arguably the best kind of promotion. Hills
and Messerschmidt (1994) have asserted "When local news maintains national
standards, listeners don't distinguish between the sources. It's all from
'NPR'." WPLN could successfully expand its offerings to its main audience with
the addition of both nationally- and locally-produced news and information
The third research question (R3) asks: Is a public radio station
better advised to use a "pure" format, or to mix format styles in an effort to
appeal to various, diverse audiences?
The available literature suggests that there are two schools of
thought which inform debate on this issue. In 1993, Goodman and Armstrong
reported that 75% of public radio stations have changed their programming format
to target a more affluent market. Goodman (1992) has argued that this means
public radio has become less populist in nature because these stations are
eschewing local and multicultural programs in favor of national news programming
and pure single-music formats. These critics are advocating a mixed format
because they believe it is best suited to serve a diverse public in ways that
commercial stations can not. Peterson (1994) agrees, advocating "mosaic
programming" which he says is "uniquely suited to NPR's public service mission."
Such a strategy might make sense financially as well, because
many more kinds of people could be induced to become station
to support their distinctive program interests. Likewise, a
wider range of
companies uninterested in the mass market might become
specialty programs targeted at specific audiences.
Peterson also relates, however, that conventional programming strategy
would favor an emphasis on the core listeners (news loyalists) in an effort to
get them to listen more and longer. In other words, decrease programming
diversity and air only programs that news listeners like.
The reality is that public radio must compete with commercial radio
for listeners, and only about 10% of public radio listeners pay membership dues
to local stations (Kosof, 1993). When this fact is combined with Bailey's
(1995) findings detailing the relative levels of listener contribution, it
becomes clear that public radio stations must serve, first and foremost, the
news audience which makes the service economically viable. Once a station
commits to this philosophy of market segmentation it must present a format that
is listener-friendly, where an audience member can expect to experience
programming consistent in type and quality, regardless of when they tune in.
Consequently, WPLN should consider a reduction in the eclectic nature of its
programming. If WMOT, an NPR affiliate located 30 miles south of Nashville,
does enter the Nashville market with jazz programming (see Competitive
Environment section), WPLN should strongly consider dropping much of its jazz
lineup, already relegated to off-peak hours. News listeners who seek out jazz
will likely tune to the NPR station which plays only jazz and which, presumably,
has an on-air staff which is oriented toward jazz music, culture and events.
Further, WPLN should consider dropping the miscellaneous BBC programs
it currently offers and refine it's weekday format to be NPR news and
information and classical music. (Again, according to Hills and Messerschmidt
(1994), listeners take "NPR" to mean high quality, in-depth programming,
regardless of its source.)
WPLN's general manager reports that the station has already
instituted a policy of programming classical music which is "more accessible"
(shorter pieces, fewer obscure pieces, and, generally, quality pieces that have
popular appeal). This decision reflects a desire to make use of the demographic
data for listeners. The 35- to 44-year-old age group is the largest audience
segment and the station might benefit by cultivating classical listeners from
the group of younger (25- to 34-year-old) audience members who tune in for news
WPLN's Saturday schedule is perhaps the exception to the "pure
format" rule. The AudiGraphics data shows that the "tentpole" pattern is
magnified on Saturdays, and that the station is severely under-leveraged between
11 a.m. and 4 p.m. (see appendix A). Listening by total audience, and especially
by those for whom WPLN is their self-described favorite station, is extremely
low during the day on Saturday. Symphony and opera programming is not
effectively matching the needs and/or demographics of listeners during this time
slot and the station should consider replacing it with special interest shows
that have proven to be popular for NPR affiliates. This is not a contradiction
to the "pure format" philosophy because a persuasive argument can be made that
Saturday is unique in terms of audience needs and usage patterns. Lately,
public radio has become a major force in alternative pop formats (Bessman, 1993)
and Saturday programming might include alternative pop, bluegrass, world music,
folk music and syndicated entertainment programs such as Le Show and Wha'd a Ya
Know? This kind of lineup would tie in more closely with popular Saturday
offerings like Car Talk and A Prairie Home Companion, and could make the day
much more successful for the station. It would also allow the development
department to experiment with the kind of niche underwriting described by
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting has attempted to attract
younger audiences through development of popular music formats and programs like
World Cafe (Viles, 1992). The success or failure of WPLN's modified Saturday
schedule could give the station insights into the best way to attract more
attention from listeners who are currently heavy listeners to a prime
competitor, WRLT, Nashville's alternative adult rock station.
WPLN's ratings generally show cross-listening with an AM news radio
station (Arbitron, 1994). However, Bailey (1995) asserts that commercial
all-news stations offer little competition for public radio news loyalists. He
In their Arbitron data, program directors see cross-over
listening with the AM news station and conclude that we ought to
"full service" radio. The downside of that strategy could be
value to the most loyal news listeners.
WPLN can make use of this information by ensuring that the local news
programming it offers is high quality, in-depth and unique.
Suggestions for Future Marketing Strategies
Regardless of the changes made in WPLN's format, the station can
improve its situation by improving its marketing. A premium media product does
not necessarily attract a large audience (McManus, 1994). The key to making
format changes pay off for public radio lies in communicating the desirability
of those changes to potential listeners. WPLN can use the information it has on
audience demographics and values and lifestyles (VALS) not only as aids to
programming but as guidelines for targeting station promotions. Bailey (1995)
has studied listener VALS in depth and describes the most loyal group of public
radio users as "bookworms." WPLN does enjoy underwriting from a prominent
Nashville bookstore, but the station should consider reversing the roles and
direct its advertising efforts toward avid readers. For example, it could
sponsor readings and booksignings at local bookshops, or perhaps provide
bookstores with quality bookmarks featuring the store's name and the station's
schedule printed on them. As another example, Nashville's alternative weekly
paper recently published a special section on the Southern Writers Conference
held in the city. This section would have given WPLN an especially good
opportunity to target its most likely listeners with a promotional message.
The station also receives underwriting money from the local PBS
television affiliate. Again, this relationship could be turned around to enable
WPLN to promote its schedule to PBS viewers, who are by definition proven
consumers of public broadcasting. There are many marketing and promotion
opportunities that the station should consider taking advantage of in order to
build public awareness, identity and listenership.
This case study demonstrates that the issues surrounding public radio
are complex, and that their effective resolution has become critical for some
stations. Mission, programming, funding and listenership are deeply
interconnected. In order to ensure continued success, what stations like WPLN
must do at this stage is continue to evolve. This does not mean abandoning its
public service mission, but strengthening and refocusing it to, as Giovannoni
(1995) puts it, "deliver significant programming to a significant audience."
WPLN's movement toward programming based on quantitative audience research is a
very positive step. The station need not become commercial to adopt useful
commercial market strategies and apply them to public radio's unique market
Exploration of this paper's hypothesis and research questions has
demonstrated that it will be crucial for public radio stations to carry
programming which emphasizes the needs of their most significant audience. An
increase in high quality news and information programming and a streamlining and
focusing of entertainment programming is recommended. As competition grows and
funding shrinks, effective marketing and development of underwriting sources
will continue to take on increased importance for public broadcasters. Several
specific suggestions have been offered for WPLN in this area. As an
institution, public radio is at a crossroads. By drawing on its distinguished
history, its prior successes, and on the best research and marketing techniques,
public radio can manage change effectively and fulfill its increasingly
References and Notes
1 George Gibson, writing after the 1976 authorization of the
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2 This primary group of competitors does vary somewhat from
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3 WRLT, which is a primary competitor of WPLN, airs jazz on
Sundays from 6 a.m. until noon. WFSK, a college station, also
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