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Details, Details: Keeping the Morning Edition Audience

By Kathy Merritt
Director, Public Media Strategies

There are thousands of moments across the broadcast day when thousands of individual listeners decide whether to tune out or keep listening. Top performing stations know that good execution on the radio fundamentals can make all the difference when listeners face that choice. Focusing on the details has a cumulative effect that results in more listening and better public service.

Outstanding execution on radio basics is what distinguishes a group of stations identified in an SRG research project that examined which stations in the top 50 markets had programming that performed well in the two hours following their broadcasts of Morning Edition. We used five criteria to identify the top performers: Morning Edition share, share for the two hours following Morning Edition (ME+2), a ratio of the share numbers (ME+2 share as a percentage of ME share), ME recycle (how many ME listeners stayed around for the next two hours) and a loyalty ratio (ME+2 loyalty as a percentage of ME loyalty).

To read more about the study, click here.

We came up with 17 stations that performed well on at least three of these criteria:

KANU - Lawrence, KS
KCUR - Kansas City
KNAU - Flagstaff
KQED - San Francisco
KUNM - Albuquerque
WBUR - Boston
WNYC-AM - New York
WUOM Ann - Arbor
WWNO - New Orleans
KCRW - Santa Monica
KJZZ - Phoenix
KNOW - St. Paul
KPLU - Tacoma
WAMU - Washington
WFPL - Louisville
WUAL - Tuscaloosa
WUSF - Tampa

The 17 stations represent a wide range of formats, budget sizes and location – showing that there’s no one formula for success in the hours following Morning Edition. Because they were all performing well, we wanted to find out what they have in common, so we’ve conducted interviews with their general managers and/or program directors and turned up a set of characteristics that they share. The common thread, in a word, is execution. These stations are executing radio fundamentals extremely well.

Focusing on the basics of good radio is always worthwhile. We sometimes take for granted that all station staffers know the Radio 101 lessons that more veteran public broadcasters learned years ago, but that’s not always the case. We dismiss attention to details as micromanaging or nitpicking. We think we’ve moved beyond having to get the simple things right because we’re in a major market or “we’ve been doing things this way for 10 years.” Taking a fresh look at the fundamentals can show where improvement is needed and even stir creativity that can improve a station’s sound. The ultimate goal is to attract listeners, and in this case, to keep the Morning Edition listeners tuned in following the show.

Here’s how the top performing stations rolled up their sleeves to keep listeners:

Strategy – The stations recognize the importance of the Morning Edition audience and have developed strategies for keeping it. For most stations, Morning Edition generates the highest cume and share of the Monday-Friday broadcast day. Having a strategy to keep that audience is an essential part of a station’s success. For example, WWNO created a “listen at work” contest (with help from Krispy Kreme doughnuts and a local coffee shop) to help build audience.

High quality local content – The stations are using information from PRPD’s core values research as they create content to insert into Morning Edition. For most, the emphasis is on feature reporting (in-depth, issue-oriented). They spend less time on spot (breaking) news reporting, although many produce local newscasts. The stations carefully place local content in Morning Edition, making sure that its quality matches that of NPR. George Boosey, program director of WBUR says, “The stories are going to be important. We have to meet the same high standards that the network needs to meet day after day." Some of the stations place large amounts of local content in Morning Edition each day, while others place pieces on an occasional basis when they believe the quality is high enough. As WFPL Program Director Terry Rensel put it, “We don’t do local just to do local.” John Stark, general manager at KNAU, describes the local content on his station as having a “sense of context, a sense of place.”

Promos – Good promotion is essential. Many of the stations do a live cross promotion in the last break of Morning Edition or a live hand-off to the following show. The stations strive for topical, fresh-daily promos that are in character with the values and content of the programs. The stations are following best practices for promotion by airing specific rather than generic promos and by rotating promos throughout Morning Edition, increasing frequency closer to the program being promoted. KANU Program Director Darrell Brogdon describes what happens at his station: “In the last cutaway in Morning Edition, every day, the morning music host comes on with the ME host and does a two-way. Listeners say it’s a high point of the day. They do a great job in two minutes of making listeners think if they miss the next hour, they’ll miss the greatest thing all week.”

Positioning – The stations on the list take steps to position themselves as a reliable source of breaking news for their listeners. They want listeners to know that even though Morning Edition is over, they will still hear about important news stories if they happen. According to Scott Williams, program director at KJZZ, “Our goal is that we want people to feel like they don’t have to go to the all news station if something happens, we will have it for them.” News/talk stations insert news into the breaks of national talk shows or cover local stories on their own talk shows. With music and news/talk stations, the presence of live, local voices throughout the day assures listeners that the stations are keeping an eye on the news. “At any point through the day, there’s a constant reassuring sense that if anything important happens you’ll hear about it, “ says Craig Curtis, of Minnesota Public Radio (KNOW) and KPCC, Pasadena.

Transition – The stations pay careful attention to the transition from Morning Edition to the program that follows:

    Strong local breaks – Strong execution of local breaks in Morning Edition is always important but especially so in the breaks leading up to the next show. Program Director Mikel Ellcessor at WNYC says, “We make sure we’re utterly flawless. We want to make sure there’s not a single misstep, nothing to make listeners turn off.”

    Billboards –The opening of the program that follows Morning Edition is very important. If the program has a billboard, then it should be carefully crafted every day. Ellcessor at WNYC tells his host to see the billboard for his show as “a highly creative writing assignment every day, not just a list of what’s coming up.” Billboards can become formulaic and boring – not what you want at a transition time for listeners.

    Pacing – The music stations on the list focus on matching the pace of Morning Edition in the hour following the show. “We keep the first hour of classical music moving pretty quickly, four or five pieces, to keep in traffic and weather from our announcer,” says Fred Kasten, program director at WWNO. By keeping a lively pace in that first hour, the transition from Morning Edition to music doesn’t seem abrupt.

    Consistency – The stations believe that consistency in sound is important and helps provide a bridge for listeners as they move from one program to the next. Keeping a consistent sound and style from Morning Edition to a music format can be particularly challenging. WUAL Station Manager Roger Duvall says, “We don’t want it to be like turning one faucet off and turning on the next; turn off the news faucet and turn on the classical.” The stations apply the same intelligent, thoughtful approach heard on Morning Edition to their music presentation. News/talk stations apply the same philosophy.

Talent – The stations invest in finding, keeping and cultivating great talent because strong on-air talent keeps listeners tuned in. The GMs and PDs interviewed describe their on-air talent as sincere, natural, positive, smart, and energetic. They exhibit clarity and quick thinking in their presentation. “The key job for anybody is to be interesting,” says KPLU Program Director Joey Cohn.

Community connections – Listeners like to hear about where they live, and the stations make the most of that fact. They make local connections at every opportunity, and creating local content – whether music or news – is part of the station strategy for success. They put live, local voices on the air as often as possible. These quotes from GMs and PDs capture the importance of connecting to local listeners:

    We want to have someone who can say ‘it’s snowing outside.’
    -John Stark, general manager of KNAU

    We try to be local as possible. We have a feature called Soundscapes – 30-second pieces that are modeled after Jay Allison’s sonic IDs. We’ve produced about 100 of these and they rotate throughout the schedule.
    -Joey Cohn, program director of KPLU

    In a PSA, you might add something that says you’re a real person, you’re there locally, anything you can do to help listeners make a local connection.
    -Roger Duvall, station manager of WUAL

    KQED Radio's editorial philosophy is to present local, national and international news, a complete view of the world.
    -Jo Anne Wallace, KQED

    Public radio listeners are reaching out into the world, gathering information and drawing conclusions. That big loop starts and ends with themselves. They are looking for connections.
    -Craig Curtis, of Minnesota Public Radio (KNOW) and KPCC, Pasadena

Music appeal – The stations changing to music formats following Morning Edition carefully choose their music to appeal to news listeners. The music selections are not restricted to a small list, however. Our music mantra is “accessible without being ordinary,” says Fred Kasten at WWNO. Some of the stations have conducted research to help them fine-tune their music list. All of them have created playlists in a thoughtful, well-reasoned manner. KANU Program Director Darrell Brogdon explains his approach, “We have dayparting guidelines, here’s the feel we’re going for, the number of pieces for this hour. The weight and spirit of music changes from hour to hour. Our guidelines are from what research is commonly available.”

Management support – The station management supports the front-line employees in excelling at their jobs and encourages departments to support each other’s efforts. KCUR program director Bill Anderson says, “We approach programming initiatives as a team and utilize the strengths and cover the weaknesses of our staff. The talk shows have the full support and assistance of the newsroom, the PD and the announcing staff, including our music hosts. We all end up making contributions and take ownership of the product. That improves the quality and the listeners respond accordingly.” Program directors and other managers sit down with hosts and staff members to critique and discuss on-air performance. Another important factor, according to WUAL Music Director David Duff, is that announcers “are allowed to focus on being on air while on the air, rather than having too many things to do.”

Tracking performance – The stations all track performance using standard audience measures. The stations with greater resources invest in their own research. Some go beyond standard measures to include other factors as they measure success –attendance at station events, awards, media coverage, web site hits. All recognize the importance of tracking performance over time and constantly striving to do better.

All in all, these stations have taken on the challenge of tackling each broadcast day with enthusiasm and creativity, paying attention to the details and embracing the fundamentals. Listeners are noticing.

This report was developed as part of Charting the Territory, SRG's national planning initiative for public radio that is supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and SRG member stations.

Copyright © 2004 Station Resource Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.