From the moment we roll out of bed in the morning until we walk out the front door to start our work-day, we consume an astonishing amount of news, music, information, and other media content.
It wasn’t always this way. In the span of just a few years, we have replaced the comparative tranquility of easing out of bed with the clock radio and skimming the newspaper for the day’s headlines to today where we juggle numerous devices to scan what happened while we were asleep (email, social media, news headlines, and much more) and we start to plan for the day ahead (weather, traffic, etc.). It’s an endless chase to stay informed by always being ‘plugged in’ as we fear missing out on any small thing. And it’s now starting to reshape our expectations for our news needs in the mornings before we even properly start our day.
The changing taste in how people want to hear and consume their morning news was one of the key findings from a recent study I led for a top-market US Public Radio station. This NPR News station airs Morning Edition, the top rated morning show on radio, which nationally reaches more than 13 million listeners each week. The three-part study consisted of an online survey to better understand their audience needs and expectations, a two-day morning-media diary which was used to track what devices and sources people used from the time they wake up to the time they start their work or school day, as well as a review of the local Nielsen Audio PPM broadcast ratings.
What was most striking about the study results was not just what was being said in the surveys and the media diaries, but who was asking for a change – public radio listeners, a group who depend on, crave for, and value long-form news journalism – which is the unique selling point of public radio. When this audience voices a desire to hear something new that focuses on the headlines, on “what I need to know right now” in a much shorter, high-impact form, asking to hear “what I need to know today to better understand what I will face tomorrow”, along with the basics – the weather, traffic, the stock market, etc. – then you can arguably point to the beginnings of a massive shift in appetite for news consumption.
While the desire for the sound and feel of NPR/Public Radio remains strong, the audience is starting to point to a different model that is more in-tune with their activities at the start of the day. It was telling in the morning diaries filled out by the study’s respondents that beyond NPR (as well as the New York Times to some degree), that there was very little long-form journalism consumed in the mornings, even by these loyal public radio listeners. There simply isn’t time, given their behavior and the array of gadgets and sources to check.
This big shift in news appetite points to an irony for NPR and Public Radio.
NPR’s long record of success stems from its quest to provide in-depth, quality news, while following both the critical stories of the day and tracking complex issues over the long-term. Public Radio built this success at the same time that much of the rest of the news media resorted to hollow sound-bites, providing little to inform and educate. Now, listeners are indicating they want the short-form, but they want it to retain that public radio feel.
To be fair, NPR is already embracing this challenge with its efforts with member stations to change the show clocks to its two premier shows. NPR’s desire to have different clocks in the morning and the afternoon is smart considering how differently people use media throughout the day. But arguably, the clock changes alone won’t help bridge the gap to satisfy the audience’s changing needs and routines. On both the national level and the local level, the content can be changed to better fit the digitally-influenced morning appetite for news. Looking further into the data, there is also a second major finding that speaks to morning activities and the ever-increasing demand to hear fresh, new content, throughout the morning given radio’s capacity to be everywhere.
As almost any devoted Morning Edition listener will tell you, the show is two-hours long and is normally repeated at least once or more depending on where you listen in the US. Hearing the same stories repeated (either from the network or at the local level) on the same morning was the top reason for tune-out and led those listeners to go elsewhere, away from their local public station. This is not a result of listening for more than two hours at a time in the morning, although that does happen, but instead it’s more a function of our uniquely and ever-increasingly busy mornings – in other words, multiple occasions of listening across the morning.
For example, a person might wake up around 5am and hear the show as they get ready in the morning to make their way to the gym or do yoga. Then they might hear the show in the kitchen as they get the kids and family ready to start the day. They might hear it again in the car on the way to work or school, and they might listen again, likely via streaming, in the workplace. This means a person might hear the show (and quite possibly the same story two or three times) in three or four different environments (bedroom/kitchen/car/workplace) and through different channels (radio, computer, or mobile device) This provides a very unique challenge to programming in the mornings and it points to the likelihood that a sizable part of the audience will likely hear the same story over several occasions of listening. Given the numerous occasions of listening that are possible, listeners might stay engaged longer if the content was fresh.
Once again, the media diaries highlighted the unique companionship that radio provides unlike any other media device – being preset in every morning activity – though seemingly that’s still a surprise to some. But radio faces the same battle as every other media choice – that once you lose the attention of your audience, they will simply go elsewhere to find what they want. It is hard to imagine a time when the value of NPR and Public Radio has been as high as it is now, given today’s news choices. No one would fault an industry that holds onto its ideals in a business world that is being completely disrupted by itself and new competitors, but changes in how we use media are happening right now, in every demographic and during every part of the day. Let’s hope that public radio can find a way to balance what makes it distinct and so valuable to so many and meet our changing needs and routines for consuming news.