Fighting a four-year ratings decline, KFAI prepares to retool

KFAI has long been lauded — and occasionally ribbed — for serving the niche-iest of Twin Cities communities, the grassroots public-radio alternative to MPR’s mainstream behemoth.

But while MPR has been holding its own with the new Personal People Meter (PPM) ratings technology, KFAI has been hit — hard.

In a letter to the station’s many volunteers two weeks ago, program director Adam Mehl noted “KFAI listenership and membership are seeing their lowest levels in a long time and have been rapidly declining since 2005.”

Although KFAI’s slide predates PPM, and undoubtedly involves the Internet and podcasts, the recent numbers are stark. In 2005, an average of 50,000 people listened per quarter hour each week; this June, the number was 24,300.

Even worse, “time spent listening” (now known as “average time exposed,” since the people meters pick up an inaudible signal in public places) has plummeted from 5 hours per week last fall during the diary era, to roughly 1 hour a week this PPM spring.

It’s only my theory, but KFAI, like other shows and stations with intense fans, may have benefited from diary boosters writing in more hours than they actually listened. Personal People Meters are merciless.

Still, ratings aren’t the godhead for the self-described “radio without boundaries.” As Mehl’s email notes, “We are not looking to simply improve Arbitron ratings … The primary goal remains to improve community service and to serve listeners while serving our mission.”

In other words, Tom Barnard will not be arriving to save the day, even though Mehl’s email cites morning drive as a particular ratings weakness. (Tommy B would have to volunteer, since no KFAI host is paid.)

“We’re not looking to go ‘morning zoo’ or anything like that,” Mehl says. “Obviously, our audience is quite diverse and eclectic.”

However, KFAI’s numbers have sunk to the point where ratings do matter. According to executive director Janis Lane-Ewart, low listenership threatens a six-figure grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the private non-profit group that buoys radio and TV stations nationwide and around the state.

This year, the CPB contributes about $100,000, or 8 percent of KFAI’s $1.3 million budget. CPB’s formula factors in average quarter hour listernership divided by the coverage area population. The trends for KFAI are horrible, threatening the 2010 grant.

What to do? Mehl and Lane-Ewart aren’t ready to say — not because they’re being evasive, but because KFAI’s board is still figuring out an audience research mechanism.

Both say the plan will likely involve focus groups of listeners and non-listeners, and some sort of a scientifically valid survey to compile unmet or underserved needs for both groups. Mehl’s email mentions consulting with volunteers, “industry experts and other community radio station staff to learn what works and what doesn’t” but also notes listener needs have “not been factored into the conversation as heavily as needed in the past.”

I offered to funnel comments to the station, but Mehl says, “We’d be better served if people waited until this mechanism is in place. We want to have some way for people to give us information we can analyze, rather than random comments.”

(Still, leave your thoughts at the end of the piece. What would make you listen to KFAI more? What isn’t working right now?)

The plan is to have a plan in place within a week or two; Mehl says no changes are expected before the end of the year.

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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Bob Collins on 08/10/2009 - 09:36 am.

    This is certainly the dilemma facing anyone who programs to a diverse audience. People say they want the quality program, but there’s enough of an audience around to support it financially. We’ve seen this not only in public radio, but in commercial radio too where distinctive formats can’t make a go of it.

    It’s why every commercial radio station sounds the same.

    But what’s the answer? People SAY they want distinctive programming, but what percentage of them actually listen to it and financially support it when it’s available?

    In my previous life, I programmed a new FM in the Berkshires. We did exhaustive interviews with the locals about what they wanted. We gave them classical, we gave them folk, we gave them alternative.

    We gave them EVERYTHING they wanted.

    We went broke in a big hurry.

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/10/2009 - 12:18 pm.

    I think distinct formats can make a go of it, but they need be entertaining. You don’t get good formats from market research which tends to trend towards a mean, you get good programing from talented people who figure out not so much what people want to hear, but what people will listen to if they get a chance. If you ask people what they want to hear they can only reference what they’ve already heard, this tracks you into a status quo that eventually stagnates, hence if you give people what they say they want to hear, they’ll get bored with it.

    On the other hand, if you take away what people like to hear, your shooting yourself in the foot there as well.

    I’ve been an avid listener and supporter of KFAI for decades but I must admit my listening as dropped off in the last couple of years. For one thing, I hate to say it but I lost signal strength here St. Louis Park and I can’t get a static free stereo signal anymore after they “upgraded” their transmitter. I have to switch to mono to eliminate the static every time I tune in. It’s not a huge deal, but it’s been annoying enough to discourage me from trying, especially now that I have satellite radio as an alternative. That lead me to they’re web cast but I can’t do that in the car. They also changed some of the music line-up and I find I’m not as interested in what they’re playing as I used to be. Louisiana Rhythms for instance seems to devolve into ordinary blues at times, I can listen to blues any time I want, what I can’t listen to is cajun zydeco. One afternoon I found myself listening to funk- not interested in funk. I wish I could be more helpful.

  3. Submitted by Jason Walker on 08/10/2009 - 12:37 pm.

    The 3-6 p.m. weekday R&B/blues shows on KFAI are the best. I also try to catch “Good and Country” on Saturday afternoons. But other than those shows, I don’t listen.
    I think Bob is right: When you’re that eclectic, you alienate people. Radio is great when it’s predictable. And as much as I like the afternoon soul shows, I tend to forget about them because my car radio and home radio are set to The Current, not KFAI.
    Yet I also feel there would be a HUGE void in the local airwaves if KFAI closed up shop. It and The Current are the only music stations worth listening to, really, for non-jazz, non-classical, and the only two places where you’ll hear stuff that’s not corporate-spoon-fed garbage.

  4. Submitted by David Skarjune on 08/10/2009 - 01:08 pm.

    The competition is tough, what with MPR dominating “public” radio, and “alternative” listeners mesmerized by “The Current.” But, KFAI does need to retool. I was an original volunteer helping to set up a PSA system, and I had a 1/2-hour music show featuring alternative and local music. After one year on the air I was formally reviewed by a member of the board, who promptly cancelled my show and took the air time for their own show, and they still broadcast that show today. It’s time for KFAI to clean house of these grandfathered shows and offer more compelling content. The days of listening to the blues on the West Bank are long gone, times change, move on.

  5. Submitted by Leslie Davis on 08/10/2009 - 01:19 pm.

    Whenever I send KFAI an important newsmail about my environmental work, or my political campaign, I never hear back from them. I think they have their favorites and biases and express them to the disadvantage of their listeners. Bo-ring describes KFAI best.

  6. Submitted by Carol Overland on 08/10/2009 - 01:32 pm.

    That’s a hoot, my first volunteer job there was dealing with that awful PSA notebook, eeeeeuw! When I was there, we weren’t doing much in the way of marketing, but that’s necessary. Seems to me that retooling should involve beefed up news and local public affairs coverage, solid primary source news during drive-time, and more computer based marketing to let people know what’s on and when, with active audience building required of programmers, using broadcast emails, tweet followings, blog sections for each programmer, whatever it takes to target the niche. I listen only on computer now — what can be done to reach out to that market, what are the stats there (does radio marketing take that into account?).

  7. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 08/10/2009 - 01:35 pm.

    FYI…if anyone happens to read this and would like to actually listen, the station, KFAI-FM, can be found at 90.3 (west metro) and 106.7 (east metro), on the web at kfai.org, or on your iPhone (there’s an ap for this).

  8. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/10/2009 - 02:16 pm.

    I don’t think great radio is necessarily predictable radio. Predictability can easily devolve into mediocre.

  9. Submitted by dan buechler on 08/10/2009 - 02:21 pm.

    Honestly I think they cannot compete and they need to go in a 90 dgree change of direction. I’ve tried listening to the station and honestly it ain’t got no hook. Now I like listening to Kaxe in Grand Rapids and reservation radio in NW Wisconsin where they are both fortunate to have stronger signals and less competition albeit smaller population. Radio Heartland has to be doing a good number on KFAI. HI DEF is only gonna make it worse.
    I am gonna channel Bruce Anderson hear from the northern Califonia AVA. “They gotta start playin city council meetings, school board meeting, (altho I think northside radio covers that) and park board meetings.” Maybe even U of MN trustee meetings. And hell throw in the occasional storefront preacher every Sunday.
    It can no longer be hey wanna come over to my house and listen to records for an hour.

  10. Submitted by Ross Johnson on 08/10/2009 - 06:10 pm.

    Look at the environment.

    The whole PIE is smaller in the broadcast world now. So KFAI’s piece is smaller, if not proportionately equal to what is was in the past. It also only gets “parts of parts” because KFAI is NOT programmed with essentially the same content all day and night. It is much more like TV. The signal increase did really very little for strength and range from my radio and car, and I listen mostly on the web now. I’m amazed giving to KFAI has stayed as stable as it has.

    The station’s mission is to “serve underserved communities”. The biggest loss of value to the Twin Cities if KFAI were to fail would be the loss of COMMUNITY-based programs, often in the listeners’ language – often the only friendly on-air touchstone for immigrant, refugee and minority listeners. BO-Ring ain’t the case if you’re Somali, or almost a dozen other cultural groups. MPR of any stripe, and commercial stations cannot get anywhere near THAT claim.

    That claim has largely been made possible by givers/listeners of the roots/blues/folk/alt programming in the mornings and afternoons – and Democracy Now. All well done and all VOLUNTEER except for DN.

    KFAI in my experience used to represent a cultural common ground that was anarchistic and open horizon for volunteers trying new things and letting the public be the biggest part of the local radio experience. “Mechanisms” and “industry experts” are possibly part of the problem for KFAI in my opinion. I strongly doubt they know beans about the unique position of a “local” community-focused station in a big metro market.

    I believe KFAI need not compete with the big dogs, and will fail if it tries. It would be much better served to look hard at the core mission, have faith in the really very good product its volunteers produce right now, and return to the evangelism of ideas that made it so different and so great.
    That will require re-thiinking how to fund and market as much as trying to create “me too” programming.

  11. Submitted by Dan Brown on 08/10/2009 - 07:10 pm.

    I listen to KFAI almost exclusively, during drive time mostly. What I find attractive about KFAI is its eclecticism. Commercial radio bores me to tears. I remember when I was a kid and I actually HEARD songs I hadn’t heard before regularly on the radio. This no longer happens anywhere, I’ve determined, but on public radio these days, since all commercial radio wants to do is feed you pablum until your brain turns to mush and you robotically buy every doodad and gadget advertised by their sponsors.

    For me, all KFAI has to do to gain listeners is to up its signal decently so that it comes through without noise or interference. I can’t even keep the KFAI signal at 106.7 static-free when I’m driving through St. Paul, and it’s supposed to be the east metro station.

    The bottom line is that MPR, with its huge budget and apparently massive signal, is siphoning off the interesting music listeners because the signal is clearer. I’ve actually had MPR talk come through as interference over the KFAI 90.3 signal, which, if I’m not mistaken, is unfair competition.

    So for me, clear up the signal and put out a decent clear transmission that reaches the entire metro and I’m not only hooked, I become a messenger and marketer for KFAI. Unique music, blues, R&B, soul, live music, cajun, all sound sweet to me. I just have to be able to hear it without interference, either because MPR is camping on its signal on purpose, or because KFAI can’t put out a clear, strong signal on its own.

    With the signal as it is, I am embarrassed to even put the bumper sticker on my car.

  12. Submitted by Justin VanNingen on 08/11/2009 - 11:01 pm.

    I love listening to KFAI — when I can hear it. Before the power/direction change I could receive it pretty good in Columbia Heights/NE Minneapolis. Now it’s spotty at best in the car — gone in the house. Some of that is due to the ill-advised licensing on a station on 90.3 in North Branch, but with no other options it’s hard to appreciate it when driving around town.

    The morning drive was mentioned – I always thought that a consistent morning show would do the station good. Yes, it changes some of the feel of the station, but I think it would do good for the identity of KFAI to have something constant in its daily schedule beyond a handful of political shows.

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