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Should Public Radio chase Younger Information Audiences?

Recently Walrus Research published a report about the aging of the public radio audience.

Is this aging good or bad?  That depends.  For information-oriented stations, it seems that this aging is a good thing, not a bad one.

Says the report:

The NPR news stations are also aging but at a slower rate than classical or jazz stations – half a year older each year. No doubt there is some impact from a cohort effect, as educated Boomers have stuck with NPR news over the years. But unlike the classical or jazz stations, the NPR news stations have brought in more listeners. In fact, the NPR news stations that we analyzed in this study nearly doubled their audience from 1997 to 2009.

By contrast, the Jazz and Classical stations are aging at almost the rate of the US population and not growing audience.

This study looks at the composition of format audiences, not composition of the entire listening universe.  Thus the demographic shifts mask the demographic realities of the market as a whole. And those are shifting profoundly older.

As shown here, in 1990 40% of the US population was younger than 35 years old; by 2010, only a third will be younger than 35. In 2010, the majority of the US population will be 45 years and older, a change that represents a major turning point for the US population demographic.

Is it any wonder that format opportunities and ratings wins tend to skew older?

There has been talk over the years about creating younger-oriented versions of public radio tentpole programs.

The research I have done has clearly indicated that this is the wrong way to go and such efforts are likely to fail – as indeed they have generally done.

That doesn't mean there's not a market for information programs among younger audiences.  It simply means the way we define "information" must fit the definition of that audience, not the definition we associate with All Things Considered and Morning Edition.

It means the style and content must be stretched to fit an organic set of expectations unencumbered by the history of public radio news.

It means those who are the programming gatekeepers for public radio must be making their gatekeeping decisions according to a moving target of taste and appetite that has no roots in their professional experience.

It means recognizing that younger, newer audiences will be smaller ones that will grow over time.

It means acknowledging that older audiences will not necessarily like the content aimed for younger ears.

The mistake of public radio is to design younger-targeted news programming to be the same as Morning Edition and ATC – but younger.

That's like asking Lady Gaga to cover a Peggy Lee tune and expecting it to be a hit, assuming Lady GaGa would even be interested in covering it (which she would not).

The great strength of public radio is that it is where the program-makers live.  The Jerry Bruckheimers of radio are here (and if you just shuddered, then you are part of the problem).

I only wish we exercised that creative surge of program-making more often and gave more clearance to the worthiest experiments in the public radio sphere.

Jon Stewart is more popular among public radio listeners than the vast majority of public radio personalities.  Jon Stewart does a type of news show.  Jon Stewart reaches younger audiences.

One of my very favorite podcasts is Slate's Political Gabfest, a roundtable of prickly, personality-infused politics and perspective and debate.  It reaches exactly the kind of younger, college-educated crowd that public radio has coveted.  It sells out its occasional live events.  And, of course, it's not on public radio.

So should public radio news programs chase younger audiences?  Not necessarily.  But if we do, we should chase them their own way, not ours.

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