Before there was such a thing as “public radio,” social scientists established theories and models on which our later research was based. The most influential body of work is on media “uses and gratifications” by audiences. The progression of studies makes interesting reading for practitioners and is the harbinger of media research today.
Over the past few decades, public radio has amassed a body of knowledge of its own about the listening public. Some of it is quantitative — relying on statistical measurements — and some of it is qualitative — relying more on impressions and interpretations. (Most is really a mixture of both.) This knowledge has informed numerous national and local programming decisions. More importantly, it explains the push toward greater news and information on public radio leading to a seven-fold increase of the national audience between 1980 and 2008.
Much public radio research was funded with tax dollars through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Two landmark studies — Audience 88 and Audience 98 — shifted programmers’ attention to audience statistics as a measure of public service success. Audience 98 showed how public radio attracts a unique segment of the public (known in one schema as “Fulfilleds” and “Actualizers,” later changed to “Thinkers” and “Innovators”). It was shown that news served this educated segment of the population very well, which resulted in listener loyalty and, in turn, financial support.
There is no Audience 08 study, but there is an Audience 2010 study (that was done in 2006). This and many more reports continue to shape the system in which we work. ND’s would be advised to stay abreast of such research.
Local News Research
The findings of the ’88 and ’98 studies were dominated by the influence of national programming. Other studies have gone further to explore audience expectations of local news programming.
In the late 90’s, PRNDI helped sponsor the first major study on local public radio news. While the “The Local News Project” is now rather dated, it is still the largest quantitative study ever done on local public radio news — surveying 2900 listeners.
“The fundamental research question was to determine whether stations should continue devoting their resources to producing local information programming,” according to researcher Peter Dominowski. “The answer is a definitive YES.”
To help define the fundamental appeal of public radio programming, the Public Radio Program Directors Association (PRPD) developed a multi-year, multi-prong project on “The Core Values” of public radio.
For several years, NPR fostered “The Local News Initiative.” The project sponsored numerous research and training projects — including this PRNDG — to probe the dos and don’ts of local news. NPR handed off the LNI to be continued by the PRPD.
Working with PRNDI and independently, MVM Consulting has advanced deeper understanding of the local public media new system — particularly its staffing, funding and programming choices.