Informed by recommendations from Michelle Owens of Vermont Public Radio, Craig Oliver of Greater Public, Jody Evans of Public Radio Program Directors, and Izzi Smith of NPR
Listening is the most elemental unit of the public radio economy. The past year has seen record increases in listening, and many stations are converting that increase into new revenue, updated case statements, and new content for future audiences. The importance of listening is simple: Those who listen more have a better ability to understand and internalize the value of public media and the public funding model. Decades of studies have indeed shown that station revenue is listener-sensitive; more people listening means greater opportunity for fundraising success. Better fundraising leads to more investment in great programming, which brings in more listeners and so on.
Here are some great ways to grow listening over the long-term.
1. Understand that listening actually decreases during a drive and plan accordingly.
NPR looked at a sample of 12 stations in the three weeks before and after a pledge event to see what effect a drive has on listenership. Listening did drop off before and during the drive. But the drop was reversed within one or two weeks post-drive.
Both program directors and fundraisers should look at their internal numbers to make predictions about what their fundraising goals should be in late 2017 early 2018 with a reduction in listenership in mind.
Remember also that listening is a habit, and habits can be built. Spend time listening to your station so you know where your audience is coming from. Figure out how to optimize for more listening year-round, and consider planning destination content during drives.
2. Use Greater Public’s Benchmarks to connect with other stations for inspiration.
Greater Public’s Benchmarks for Public Radio Fundraising is included in your Greater Public membership. Participants will discover how much their fundraising programs (underwriting and membership) can grow given their current listenership. Find Benchmarks stations with listenership numbers similar to your own, but whose revenue per listener hour is superior. Reach out to those stations and find out what are they doing differently to improve their ratio. Don’t be shy to ask your peer group what they are doing to be successful. If you’re a top-performing station, be generous with your knowledge and expertise.
Vermont Public Radio is one of these “top performers.” Manager of marketing and communications Michelle Owens says that one reason their revenue per listener hour is high is due to a solid sustainer program. VPR recruits sustainers aggressively and has made electronic funds transfer (EFT) their preferred payment method. Owens reports that VPR uses their on-air drives primarily as a member-acquisition tool, and they’re constantly working to develop more digital and off-air fundraising opportunities.
Some trends among other top performers include holding three drives per year and raising 6 of every 10 dollars outside of drives.
3. Establish a strong partnership between programming and membership.
Set up regular meetings between your program director (PD) and director of development (DD) or membership manager. A strong and flexible relationship between these two areas is critical to audience growth, deepening audience engagement, and increased fundraising results.
Transparency in data is a good way to build that relationship; both the PD and the DD should be able to quote key station numbers in programming and development, including AQH, P1 growth, average gift amount, member count, and retention rate. When both departments feel a sense of ownership and responsibility to the audience, any conflicts that arise are more likely to be resolved by focusing on the listener, rather than deciding which department is “right.”
Building listening is really building a positive habit; stations need to actively and consistently emphasise the value of listening and of listener contributions. The more we understand our listeners and deliver them relevant and enriching content the stronger every program in the system will become.