Three Things for October 7, 2021

This week: A few slices comparing the Public Radio TechSurvey with our commercial counterparts. Plus, paywalls and online news subscriptions, and CPB's Digital Transformation Program.

THING ONE: TechSurvey 2021 - How do public radio listeners compare with commercial radio listeners?

Last week Fred Jacobs of Jacobs Media shared the executive summary deck from the Public Radio TechSurvey 2021, offering an excellent overview of where public radio is at as audiences continue to move toward digital platforms. The survey is done annually in partnership with the Public Radio Program Directors Association.

Rather than go into many details from the results of the survey1, I thought it might be interesting to compare and contrast the results of the tech survey of public radio listeners with the study done earlier this year by Jacobs Media of commercial radio listeners.

See the footnotes of today’s post for a bit on the methodology of both surveys2.

An excellent place to start is with the Media Pyramid that TechSurvey has used for as long as I can remember.

The graphic above is the pyramid for public radio listeners from PRTS 2021.

The differences between public radio and commercial radio listeners are subtle but not all that surprising, given the older demographics and the known media habits of the public radio audience.

For example, commercial radio listeners are much more frequent television users than public radio listeners, except when it comes to streaming video.

By comparison, public radio listeners are more likely to listen to podcasts regularly than commercial listeners (39% to 29%). On the other hand, commercial radio listeners use smart speakers slightly more than public radio listeners (35% to 30%). The same is true with the connected car (27% of commercial radio listeners have a connected car compared to 21% of public radio’s audience).

One final piece on the Media Pyramid is that public radio listeners are much more likely to regularly participate in virtual meetings or calls: 53% to 38%. This is good news when it comes to building relationships with donors with virtual events, as well as regular stewardship of our most loyal listeners. It’s worth remembering that most of the folks participating in the PRTS are in the station’s database, with 86% saying they are members of the station that sent them the survey.

One of the trends that the TechSurvey has been monitoring over its history has been tracking how many listeners have working radios where they live. There isn’t a significant difference between public and commercial radio listeners in the decline of in-home radio listening.

What is worth noting, though, is the generation differences found in the survey. For example, only 55% of public radio millennials have a working radio where they live compared to 68% of commercial radio millennial listeners.

The two surveys resulted in little difference in how listeners are moving to listen on digital platforms versus traditional platforms. The pandemic has exacerbated the move away from traditional AM/FM listening over the past 18 months. This is obvious in looking at the contrast in 2020 between commercial radio listeners and public radio. The commercial radio Tech Survey was completed before March 2020, whereas the PRTS was in the field during the summer of 2020.

Public radio listeners said that 36% of their AM/FM listening was in the car, while 39% of commercial radio listening took place while on the road.

Worth noting is that these are most likely a station’s most loyal listeners and they are now spending more than a third of their listening on digital platforms.

Questions about podcast listening were also asked in both surveys, and public radio listeners are ahead of commercial radio in being regular podcast listeners. For example, 39% of public radio listeners taking part in the survey listen to podcasts weekly or more compared to 29% of commercial radio listeners.

One of the takeaways from this year’s PRTS is the need for public radio to urgently focus on a “generational strategy.” While the sample size for younger audiences in the survey was very small (a good indicator of who is in station databases), the results point to the need for public radio to urgently focus on where younger audiences are moving to for content and develop audience development strategies for those platforms.

For example, the Tech Survey results showed younger listeners are more likely to own a smart speaker. Rather than just promote our steams for smart speaker listeners - which we still need to do - what additional smart speakers skills can we create that would appeal to younger audiences on those devices?

Public radio needs a research agenda that focuses on how we can best appeal to younger and more diverse listeners to forge our future. Five years ago, 15 stations joined with the PRPD and Jacobs Media on The Millennial Project. Two of the key finding from that 2016 research was:

  • News access declines during the day and they’re OK with bite-sized packages – In the smartphone-dominated lives of these participants, the leading edge of news consumption shifts to social media as the day progresses and, with it, a willingness to track the key stories in smaller packages.

  • Podcasts are important and will grow in importance – media choice, variety, and control are central themes in this cohort’s lives so it is to be expected that podcasts are a highly attractive option.

These two findings are probably relevant today, but think about how different our world is in 2021 against 2016.

I’ve always found the Faber College3 motto “Knowledge is Good” as something worth remembering, and the PRTS is always a great tool in better understanding our audience. But, with only 7% of the 22,858 public radio listeners surveyed self-identified as Millennials and zero responses from Gen-Z, we need to expand our understanding of younger audiences to make strategic decisions to ensure a strong and sustainable future for us public radio.

THING TWO: Paywalls and Public Media. Let’s Discuss.

There’s been plenty of analysis in the media landscape in the week that’s followed word of the potential acquisition of the Chicago Sun-Times by Chicago Public Media, the parent company of WBEZ and Vocalo. One of the more interesting aspects hinted at what’s ahead came from a story in Axios Chicago about the possible deal.

Among the items shared in the story was that CPM staff learned that some WBEZ content might go behind a paywall.

There isn’t any further elaboration about the idea in the Axios piece. Still, it certainly gets one thinking about how that might look and feel for a significant public media organization to establish a paywall.

One of the reasons public radio and television have received decades of bipartisan Congressional support is due in part to the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967’s “universal service” mandate — to provide all Americans with free, over-the-air access to public broadcasting’s programming and services.

Today, more than 95 percent of the U.S. population can access public broadcasting’s over-the-air signals. The use of repeater stations to accomplish this is widespread across both public radio and television.

But, quite frankly, must this mandate also translate to digital platforms where, by the very nature of the distribution platforms, are not free? For example, for an audience member to access digital content in their home requires that the household pays for an internet connection, be it with a wireless phone company or a landline ISP. And that has been the case for years in public television with cable and satellite services.

Aside from that technicality, we have several recent examples of public media instituting what I would describe as “paywall-lite” systems where some monetary transaction takes place before the user can access the content. PBS Passport is undoubtedly the best-known and most successful example of public media content residing behind a paywall. The caveat here is that the content behind the paywall was available at some point in time to non-paying audiences on the station’s broadcast service.

A second example is the new podcast subscription service introduced earlier this year by Apple, including NPR and other public media organizations. The benefit that NPR is offering is ad-free content as the primary reason for subscribing. Unless I’m mistaken, public radio is falling into the “Freemium” category as detailed in the above graphic from Apple.

The final example that I’ll mention4 is the efforts made by a few public radio stations to create pledge-free streams as a benefit to existing donors. This idea, while perhaps great in concept, is a logistical/operational challenge as you’re basically adding an additional stream for pledge-week, plus it reduced the potential of garnering additional gifts and upgrades from current donors during on-air drives and created perhaps more negativity over pledge drives that we know most listeners hate to begin with.

Since we’ve established the precedent for public media paywalls of sorts, let’s look at some data to help us understand the types of paywalls that exist in publishing and how they might fit into the non-profit public media model.

Using the assumption that you’re looking to place some news content behind a paywall, let’s look at a graph from the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2020 on reasons for subscribing to an online news brand comparing the U.S. and the U.K.

Like members donating to public media, subscribers to an online news brand do so out of personal importance. The content is unique, and you can’t find it anywhere. In the U.S., there’s also the sense of shared purpose or values that aligns closely with donors to public radio or tv organizations.

The Wall Street Journal is probably the best-known publisher using a hard paywall. These work for publishers who serve a niche and dominate their market in that area or have a highly differentiated product. A hard paywall and public media do not seem compatible given our public and private funding mix and belief in at least some level of free and universal access.

If public media were to move to some sort of paywall, it’s unlikely that using a metered paywall would align all that well with our values. While this is the most popular form of soft paywalls for publishers, the idea of giving our audience a set number of articles (or programs) for free before requiring them to pay seems counterintuitive to building loyalty.

This would leave two other options beginning with the freemium model offering a mix of free and premium content. This is really where the three examples mentioned earlier fall, although I’ve not seen much research that tells me that ad-free content is that significant of a benefit to podcast listeners to push them to pay for a podcast.

A freemium paywall works best for brands with unique content, helping to highlight the valuable content you produce. However, “this model can also go wrong if the content chosen to be put behind the paywall is decided by gut feeling and not backed up by data,” suggests Mary-Katharine Phillips, former Media Innovation Analyst, Twipe.

Another approach used by publishers combines different aspects of metered and freemium models. This hybrid model may change users’ article limits based on their behavior or offer exclusive content/products to subscribers (like newsletters, events, etc.).

For any of these ideas to work, it’s essential that we finally create systems across the industry to allow for a single sign-on to track the user experience across our digital products. Unfortunately, our industry is so far behind in our ability to capture data from our audience to serve them more effectively and monetize that loyalty that comes with the use of our digital platforms.

I highly recommend this interview with WGBH’s Bob Kempf from last year, where he talks about the work of the Digital Infrastructure Group (DIG). DIG is a cohort of digital leaders from PBS, NPR, WGBH, KQED, and CPB. The interview is 18 months old, but it lays out the framework for public media’s digital future to make the most impactful use of our digital technology, whether or not a paywall of any sort is part of our future.

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THING THREE: Digital Transformation, Table Stakes, and Change Management

Last month, CPB announced a new Digital Transformation Program to educate, assist, and coach up to 80 public media senior leaders on the best strategies and tactics to transform their organization’s digital operations and culture. CPB selected the Poynter Institute to develop and deliver the virtual training initiative for up to 75 public media stations’ CEOs and their staff members and the leaders of five National Multicultural Alliance (NMCA) organizations.

With the deadline to apply next week (Friday, October 15, 2021), I thought it would be worthwhile to mention this significant investment by CPB and encourage stations to apply.

CPB’s Vice President for Digital Strategy and Innovation, Beth Jacobs, and Quentin Hope, who is a lead consultant for Poynter, have been making the virtual rounds doing webinars with station leaders for the last several weeks, providing an overview of the program and the outcomes hoped for through this major project.

I’ll elaborate a little more about the program but would strongly encourage stations to apply. So, if time is an issue, stop reading this and go straight to the application form.

Let’s dive into the program.

  1. The core tenets and program leads bring together some of the highest levels of thinking in digital, journalism, and media.

  2. The program is customized to meet the needs of stations of all types, sizes, and their current stage of digital development.

  3. The focus on change management is critical for success with the infusion of diversity, equity, and inclusion (thanks to the participation of the Maynard Institute) vital in bringing about transformative and sustainable outcomes.

One of the aspects of the program that excites me is having 75 public media organizations being introduced to the “Table Stakes” training that has been transformative for news organizations from around the country. The phrase “Table Stakes” comes from poker and provides newsrooms with a manual designed to accelerate journalism’s shift to digital from its traditional platforms of print and broadcast.

If you own a Kindle, you can download a copy of the Table Stakes book used as part of this training for $2.99!! The paperback version sells for $48.

Seven common themes emerge in this work to transform news organizations through the Table Stakes process. They all begin with the idea of putting the audience at the center of the work. They are:

  1. Serve targeted audiences with targeted content

  2. Publish on the platforms used by your targeted audiences

  3. Produce and publish continuously to meet audience needs

  4. Funnel occasional users to habitual and paying/valuable loyalists

  5. Diversify and grow the ways you earn revenue from the audiences you build

  6. Partner to expand your capacity and capabilities at a lower and more flexible cost

  7. Drive audience growth and profitability from a “mini-publisher” perspective

For the CPB Digital Transformation Program, the design of having cohorts and peer groups will bring a sense of accountability that will push the participants to make the changes needed for transformation. Too often, in projects like this, accountability is missing, and the dial of change doesn’t move.

In a recent webinar, a public radio Table Stakes alum commented:

As a Table Stakes alumni station, I can attest to the strength of the concept and to its lasting effects. Each TS station set its goals according to its needs and capabilities. Programs like this are a leap of faith in some ways and I would suggest this project will be well worth the leap. (The station) is still involved in the TS alumni work and is using the foundations of TS every day in our work.

Again, the deadline for stations to apply is Friday, October 15, 2021. The SRG has kindly posted publicly the video and the slides from the webinar where Beth Jacobs from CPB and Quentin Hope from Poynter outlined the program.

Learn more about the Public Impact Group

Thanks for reading. As always, your comments and ideas are welcome.

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You can download the full slide deck here.


The TechSurvey 2021 was in the field from January 5 - February 7, 2021, with more than 42,000 listeners from the email databases of 470 commercial radio stations in the U.S. and Canada. The Public Radio TechSurvey 2021 was in the field from June 25 - July 25, 2021, with nearly 23,000 core public radio listeners from the email databases of 56 U.S. public radio stations participating. All responses were collected online and weighted using Nielsen 2020 market population data. These are web surveys and do not represent all commercial or public radio listeners or even each station’s audience. It is not stratified to the U.S. population.


If you have no idea what Faber College is, please watch the movie Animal House.


There may be other examples, but these three come to mind first.