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Public Service, Public Support

Twenty years ago, pioneer researcher Tom Church observed: "Nobody can buy a public radio." He was right. His brilliantly pithy point – that public radio is subject to the same competitive rules as commercial radio – is as true now at it was then.

Today, however, the rules are getting tougher. Commercial station mega-groups are setting up multiple services in our markets. New technologies are opening up new information and entertainment possibilities. Audience targets for all media have become narrower. Competition for people’s time and attention has become as fierce as the stakes are high.

This year Arbitron begins offering information about listeners’ education in its basic subscriber report, putting our upscale, college-educated audience in easy aim.

These developments point in one direction. Listeners soon may be able to buy a public radio – or something very much like it – from someone other than us.

In fact, it’s inevitable. The only question is when. Our response lies in our two strengths: the public service we provide, and the public support that results.

Back when Church was being a wit, public radio could count on comfortable amounts of governmental and institutional support. Network programming was cheap. People were debating whether having a sizable audience was a worthwhile goal. We could afford that debate: listener support was a negligible entry in the ledgers of most public radio stations.

Today listener support is our largest single revenue source. And our reliance on those contributions is growing.

That’s put enormous pressure on public radio development professionals. They’ve responded heroically, in the best way they know how, with a barrage of professional training, improved data management and creative fundraising techniques, fueled by CPB’s Radio Future Fund.

But the most powerful force affecting giving is not in their control. Programming not only causes audience, it also causes audience support. Fundraising is always about programming. That’s the indisputable fact of 15 years of research, reconfirmed by AUDIENCE 98.

If more than half of our audience still sits out pledge drives, ignores telemarketing and tosses away mail appeals, it’s mostly because our programming service is not yet the best it can be. That leaves us wide open to competition. The new rules make it much easier for us to lose.

For the moment, we have an edge on commercial interests, with a reputation, a history and the loyalty of millions of listeners. But we can’t afford to take any of that for granted.

Our other chief asset is information. Right now, we understand more than any competitor about what draws listeners to our service, and inspires them to give. We can use that knowledge to strengthen our hand – station-by-station, program-by-program – and fortify the public service that primes public support. In fact, our future depends on it.

Information alone can’t assure our success, but information applied is an auspicious start. In these next pages, AUDIENCE 98 helps show the way.

– Leslie Peters
March 25, 1999

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Audience Research Analysis
Copyright ARA and CPB.  All rights reserved.
Revised: September 01, 2000 12:38 PM.