Minnesota Public Radio confronts ratings drop

Joe Eskola acknowledges concern: “By no means are we panicking, but we are watching things.”

Minnesota Public Radio’s research manager (and, yes, Eric’s first cousin) isn’t waving away the obvious: MPR’s three local stations — News (KNOW-FM), Classical (KSJN-FM) and The Current (KCMP-FM) — all have smaller shares of the Twin Cities listening audience than a year ago.

News is off 23 percent, The Current is down 14 percent, and Classical has declined a whopping 38 percent in the broadest measure of listenership (people 6 or older, 6 a.m. to midnight).

The arc and velocity of each fade is different.

The Current numbers fell off the table in fall and again this spring, but have rebounded to 1.8 percent of the listening audience as temperatures warmed. Classical hit bottom in February but has been around 1.5 for the last five months.

The News slippage has been more gradual but more consistent — its last two months (4.6, 4.4) were the lowest since a new measuring technology, portable people meters (PPM), replaced listener diaries in April 2009.

Madness in the methodology?
To some extent, MPR’s troubles reflect national trends. PPMs, which are wearable and pick up ambient music whether the listener is listening or not, have tended to favor big music stations; talk and classical stations have seen numbers fall across the country.

“It does seem that in diary days, people didn’t forget to note they listened to their news station,” Eskola says. “Did they write down every music station they listened to, or their kids listened to in the car?”

Locally, though, MPR News has seen a bigger slide in the past year than several non-music competitors (see chart at left).

WCCO-AM is up a bit July-to-July, as is sports station ESPN 1500 and right-wing talker The Patriot. KFAN and women-talker My107 are flat, while right station KTLK and lefty counterpart AM950 have also dropped.

It’s important to note that even though MPR’s share of the listening audience has dropped, that doesn’t mean fewer people are listening. Eskola says between the three MPR stations, the total number of people tuning in — known in the ratings trade as “cume” — is up. The Current has seen its cume rise the most, while News is up modestly and Classical is more or less flat.

However, cume has risen for almost all stations in the PPM era; meanwhile, the other ratings component — “time spent listening,” or TSL — has dropped. This is likely because the meters pick up more channel-changing than people remembered to put in their diaries. MPR’s problem is that its cume-TSL combo hasn’t kept pace with the rest of the market’s.

Like for-profit radio execs, Eskola worries that Arbitron’s “jury” system — roughly 1300 people metering for 13 weeks with far less turnover than the old diary method — may not have all the kinks worked out. Early on, minorities complained about underrepresentation, and locally, there were big gyrations in the first couple of PPM months.

During the 16-month PPM era, Eskola has seen some big shifts — The Current’s 35-to-44-year-old listenership shrinking dramatically, and then “popping back up” in March; at Classical, “the 65-plus crowd cut in half” — that make him wonder about methodology.

Still, Eskola says, “I don’t want this to be, ‘MPR sees crummy numbers, blames it all on Arbitron.’ Do we feel concern? Yes. Are we treading carefully? Yes. We have started to dig in more, but there’s no major ‘Holy Cow, batten-down-the-hatches’ changes to news because we had low numbers in July.”

The News blues
Eskola says the news numbers are down across the board. It’s not a case of one show — “I kind of wish it was,” he quips — though the falloff is “a little” bigger in the mid-day block (9 a.m. to 3 p.m.) compared to drive-time.

The News-side decline is more alarming considering 2009 wasn’t an election year, but 2010 is. That would seem to indicate numbers should be rising. Eskola says his research shows non-presidential election years don’t produce a ratings bump until September or October, and then only at about half of the presidential-year rise of 20 percent.

This is also the first year since 1998 that a governor’s race stands alone. “The governor’s race is intriguing, and it might capture the imagination, but it hasn’t kicked in as much,” Eskola notes.

The music-side slide
What about The Current? Here, Eskola has a theory, and it doesn’t revolve around the quality of the music. (I regularly get emails lamenting the station’s turn toward the mainstream, something I’m not qualified to judge.)

Instead, he sees an increase in “sharing” (listeners who flit among two or more stations) between The Current and sports stations KFAN and KSTP-AM (now 1500 ESPN). “Having the Twins and Vikings as newsworthy at all is definitively pulling numbers away,” he says of the young-skewing audience.

Classical’s drop is another mystery: programming hasn’t changed, and the “cume” — the total audience listening — has remained where it was during the past decade of the dairy era: 200,000 people, plus or minus.

The audience is aging, though — Eskola says the average listener is now in the upper 50s, a decade older than the News audience, and nearly three decades older than The Current. Eskola says the graying listenership is mostly due to the aging of the Baby Boomers.

What’s being done
As I noted Monday, MPR depends less on ratings than commercial stations. Membership, a bastion of public-radio support, has never been higher, topping 100,000 people. But Eskola says ratings do affect income from MPR’s sponsorships.

When it comes to dramatic changes, Eskola says he is preaching caution. PPM isn’t more than a year old, and 2010 is its first full year. “If there are seasons and cycles, we feel like we only have one data point, and we’re at the start of Year Two,” he notes.

While there are no doubt tweaks being explored for each station’s programming day — various teasers and tweaks to keep listeners listening longer — Eskola says there’s probably more to gain by getting more people to listen. That would imply a marketing challenge more than a programming challenge.

However, for a 40-year-old network that is public radio’s biggest by far, how many more listeners are there, and how much longer before bigger programming changes are considered?

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Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by Stephan Flister on 09/02/2010 - 11:41 am.

    I stopped listening to MPR when they followed NPR into the swamp of he said/she said, with many of the he’s and she’s willingly supplied by the Heritage Foundation and their brethren.

    Reestablish a reputation for finding and reporting the truth and some of us will come back.

    Oh, and bring back Dale Connelly!

  2. Submitted by Rick Ellis on 09/02/2010 - 11:47 am.

    I WANT to listen to MPR during the midday hours. And I keep trying. But it’s just so deadly dull. I’m not arguing that MPR needs to sound like a traditional talk station. But how many times can you fill hours with replays of some speech from the Aspen Idea Festival before listeners go elsewhere?

    What I’d like to see MPR try in midday is a news-driven talk format. Not pontificating or us vs. them commentary. But you can talk about the news (with a focus on things that have a local impact) in a way that is lively and respectful and even…..(gasp)….sometimes entertaining.

  3. Submitted by John Olson on 09/02/2010 - 12:02 pm.

    I might offer up one suggestion regarding the drop in classical listeners: free online streaming audio like Pandora and Slacker.

  4. Submitted by Marta Fahrenz on 09/02/2010 - 01:00 pm.

    I am a loyal and consistent daily public radio listener–in fact I only listen to public radio–but MPR has made a lot of changes in programming over the years that are problematic for me. Weekend programming has weakened steadily. They’ve dropped many good shows, from travel to the Satellite Sisters, and repeat many of their Saturday programs on Sunday. It’s not surprising to me that it’s catching up to them, but it’s very disturbing.

  5. Submitted by Susan Wetenkamp-Brandt on 09/02/2010 - 01:12 pm.

    I’d agree with John.

    I’m a loyal MPR listener – mainly News and the Current – and rarely, if ever, listen to commercial radio anymore (too spoiled to put up with commercials!) But two things that do compete with MPR for my listening time are my iPod and online services such as Blip.fm and Pandora radio, especially now that I have a Android phone with an unlimited data plan and the Pandora radio app. It turns my phone into a portable commercial-free radio.

    As for Rick’s comment, I happen to love the speeches from the Aspen Ideas festival! I wish I could listen to them while at work but it’s usually not feasible. Where else can I go to listen to something in its entirety, rather than just a 20-second blip?

  6. Submitted by Kevin Reichard on 09/02/2010 - 01:51 pm.

    @Marta: The Satellite Sisters were carried locally by FM107. They went podcast-only some time ago and are not on the radio, period. Can’t really ding MPR for that one.

    My only real contribution to this: MPR has worried so much about empire building — like aggregation, online news, online-only radio — that it’s lost sight of its mission. Listening to an hour of local programming means a dozen or so pitches to unrelated online properties.

  7. Submitted by Dean Carlson on 09/02/2010 - 01:56 pm.

    I’m definitely a “sharer” and my 3 stations listened to equal amounts are the same as listed above: MPR News, the Current, and KFAN.

  8. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 09/02/2010 - 02:06 pm.

    I’d like to know the demographic breakout of the lost listeners. Are they losing soccer moms? Liberals?

  9. Submitted by Arito Moerair on 09/02/2010 - 02:07 pm.

    Maybe the Current would be doing better if they didn’t play so much pointless, whiny music. Just because a band is local doesn’t make them any good.

  10. Submitted by John Eidel on 09/02/2010 - 02:21 pm.

    I’m with Dean. News, the Current and KFAN with a little KSTP thrown in during Twins games.

    In regard to MPR news, I have found that Midmorning and Kari Miller is and always has been excellent. I catch her show whenever I can. Unfortunately I can’t say the same thing for Midday. I also like the Aspen and National Press Club speeches, but the coverage of state politics has really taken a downturn in my opinion.

  11. Submitted by RA Cordes on 09/02/2010 - 02:40 pm.

    The Satellite Sisters were on MPR on Saturdays several years ago and I enjoyed them a lot, along with most of the Saturday programming.
    My listening to MPR went down when the Morning Show was disappeared and I don’t listen at all anymore during the day since Dale Connelly was disappeared. I have an HD radio so I could listen at work but tuning is spotty and since Dale is gone I seldom use it. The music on Radio Heartland isn’t the same as the Morning Show music anyway. I now listen to Sirius radio on my morning commute to fill the Morning Show void and I play my Morning Show Keepers disks when I am home.
    I don’t contribute anymore either. I know several other people who feel the same as I do.

  12. Submitted by Mark Gisleson on 09/02/2010 - 02:45 pm.

    MPR’s classical station deserves to die. First they kill off WCAL, then they lock themselves into a deadly dull “highlights” format in which they don’t actually play symphonies or even complete movements, just pleasant bits and pieces. If you go to their webpage they show you what’s playing. All the cuts I’m seeing are two minutes long. Two minutes? For classical music?

    I am not aware of any music fan based movement pushing this kind of “highlights” programming. It’s dumbing classical down to muzak. They do play 20th Century composers now, but precious little post-WWII and NOTHING from the new century we’re living in.

    Having said that, I like their classical programming better than their news or The Current. I’m 57 now and imho public radio’s been in serious decline for nearly 40 years.

  13. Submitted by Don Lee on 09/02/2010 - 06:36 pm.

    To Mark Gisleson:

    I think you’re misreading the Classical MPR playlist. The numbers posted next to the pieces are not durations; they indicate the start times for each piece.

    If you ever listen, you will discover that they often play full symphonies in the evening. During the day, pieces do tend to be shorter but they’re not “highlights.” If it’s 21st-century music you want, tune in Performance Today from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. (Fridays especially).

    There are lots of radio stations in the country that play “dumbed-down” classical music but, believe me, Classical MPR is not one of them.

  14. Submitted by NIcole Masika on 09/02/2010 - 09:19 pm.

    Dave has it right on 91.1 ,I used to listen a lot, but it pisses me off far too often now

    The Current has held on to me just fine, though at 50 I’m not their main demographic, so I’m glad there’s a bit less hip hop lately. Stream it at work every day. I kind of gave up listening in the car most days because the signal is weak, so I pop in a Muse cd instead

  15. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/03/2010 - 10:05 am.

    It’s a double bind. I think to the extent that MPR is really losing listeners and failing to attract new ones it because they’re news programming is stale, Current programming is boring, and classical programming is niche.

    If they make changes they alienate their loyal listeners- I’m sorry but I can’t imagine finding the Aspen series or the Press Club stuff interesting. The problem with Midday’s political coverage is for some reason Gary hasn’t figured out that last people you want to talk to if you actually want answers… are politicians. Near as I can tell, Miller has turned Mid Morning into a book club.

    For the people who like this stuff it’s fine, but that’s going to be a small audience so either get used to it or make some changes. I think they could attract new listeners, but not without losing some of the current listeners.

    At the end of the day I blame the mediocre programming and risk aversion on the increased role of corporate sponsorship. I think we fully fund public radio and television with with tax dollars and listener contributions and eliminate corporate sponsorship altogether. The more they have to rely on sponsorship the more they have to try to compete for ratings, and that’s a lost game in a niche market.

  16. Submitted by Hillary Drake on 09/03/2010 - 10:43 am.

    RA – They’ve probably picked up listeners with a more consistent format throughout the day. I’m on the older edge of the station’s target demo. I didn’t start listening to the Current until they switched to the present morning show format. I tried a couple times, but the old morning show was a major turnoff for me (I remember a half-hour zydeco set for Mardi Gras or something – I kept switching back to the Current hoping it was over on my drive to work). Maybe it’s demographics, but I felt like the old morning show belonged on a different station. These days I listen to either the Current or my ipod.

  17. Submitted by Mark Gisleson on 09/03/2010 - 12:50 pm.

    To Don Lee: thanks. Apparently it was two o’clock when I kept going back to see what the next “song” was. I will check out Performance Today as I have not heard any 21st C classical on MPR since their old New Releases show on Thursday nights went off the air. (Entire symphonies? Other than live orchestra broadcasts?)

    Still, I rarely get in the car without channel flipping past the classical music at least once, but rarely do I hear anything I find interesting. There’s an enormous amount of world music-classical fusion going on, but not that I’ve ever heard played locally. The point of radio is to serve up the new with the old, but classical in this town just seems to be old, period.

    I’m also still in shock over my discovery that MPR refuses to put their call letters or frequencies on any of their webpages (unlisted radio?).

  18. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 09/03/2010 - 02:17 pm.

    Paul U. (#16). Yes, absolutely, full public funding for public broadcasting — both radio and TV. During the Bush administration, George Bush appointed the same kind of corporate-friendly types to the Public Broadcasting boards as he did to the Supreme Court.

    This led to such annoyances as the Union Bank commercials at the beginning of BBC telecasts which I still watch anyhow. Public radio seems less burdened with actual commercials. I listen to the BBC in the very early morning and watch the St. Paul SPNN network’s Channel 15 for news from Al Jazeera, Democracy Now, Russia, France, Germany, Japan and Taiwan in the early morning, but not all of them every day, of course. The perspectives are varied and informative and often differ in their approach from the (for instance) news provided to the MSM by the Pentagon.

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