Listeners Like You

I work in public radio. It’s an on-again, off-again relationship that began long ago at a community station in Boulder, where I volunteered for a few years, hosting shows, stuffing envelopes, answering phones. I’m now a host at my local station in southern Indiana, the voice that reminds you that “support for this station comes from listeners like you.”

Radio has become a legacy industry. Like traditional publishing, radio is in the midst of the kind of creative destruction that Joseph Schumpeter and others, including Karl Marx, understood to be the essential fact of capitalism: an incessant revolution from within that upends culture and unmakes livelihoods while providing the system its essential juice.

Out with the old, in with the new. Onward and forever, ’til death or abject poverty do us part.

Like others in legacy media, my station is grappling with a diminished audience and decreased underwriter funding in the aftermath of the pandemic. We’re trying to do more with less (the mantra of our times!) and asking ourselves how we might attract new listeners and if we might somehow broaden our appeal to become relevant to a younger audience.

It’s the Holy Grail, that younger audience. It’s also a bit of a red herring.

The working assumption in commercial radio for the last half-century is that one needs a strong showing among people aged 18-34 in order to survive. There is a reason for this. An ad-driven reason. This is the prized age group that drives trends, defines the popular culture, and spends money with the greatest abandon.

Advertisers love this cohort.

But public radio is not ad-driven. Its funding comes from listeners, foundations and philanthropic organizations, local fundraisers, underwriters, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Like any not-for-profit organization, public radio operates under a complex business model that doesn’t look much like that of the HOT-101 commercial station down the street.

And yet, when facing down the steamroller of creative destruction, the siren song of that young demographic persists, even among experts who really ought to know better.

Here’s a tautology, one that those experts might want to ponder: public radio skews older because its content is of interest to older people. That’s not a bad thing. As younger people become older people, they’re more likely to become interested in public radio.

Let them come when they’re ready. When they’re older. It’ll be okay.

After all, legacy industries don’t automatically disappear when they’re dislocated from their central positions within an economy. Sometimes they transform into elite preoccupations, like horseracing, or tourist railways. Some people say public radio is already an elite preoccupation, but anyone who’s listened to Alternative Radio, for example, or even recent episodes of NPR’s The Takeaway, knows otherwise.

It remains to be seen how public radio will transform. It’s always been a long-tail operation, appealing to a small subset of the overall audience. An older subset. Listeners whose curiosity about the world didn’t end when they finished school.

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