We are at an inflection point for our society, our culture and even our radio station. Things aren’t likely to return to the same way they were before the pandemic, nor should they. At the same time as our nation struggles to deal with COVID-19, we are also undergoing a long overdue confrontation with ingrained racism in our society and institutions, all while we experience a period of political and economic turmoil that is unlike any in recent memory. And all of this is happening while technology continues its long-term transformation of how we work, learn, socialize and use media, including this radio station. The resolution of all of these simultaneous issues will require new solutions and strategies, and changes that at times may be difficult.
Public radio is not immune from these issues. When workers began to stay at home due to the pandemic, in-car listening among commuters declined sharply. Nationwide, NPR stations lost about a quarter of their audience almost overnight, and while audience rebounded as summer began, it has been painful for many stations. Locally, the decline has been less severe, with our Nielsen audience estimates suggesting around a 13% decline in the number of total listeners this spring compared with 2019, and in the case of our Fresno audience, the amount of total listening actually grew despite the pandemic. Still, we have seen the painful reality of the disruptions of the pandemic, with significant declines in our sponsorship and our event revenue, which may linger for some time. Fortunately, unlike our colleagues at some other NPR affiliates, we do not anticipate any layoffs at this time.
Public radio is also not immune from the issues of racism and white supremacy that have gripped the nation. The events of recent months have led some white Americans to realize what people of color already knew – racial injustice is not a relic of history but a present day crisis, and no aspect of our society is untouched by it. In the world of public media, we often take pride in our inclusivity, yet our system has carefully cultivated an audience that is overwhelmingly white. Stations, including Valley Public Radio, have worked to increase the diversity of voices on the air and behind the scenes, but the results have not matched our collective goals or rhetoric. And in an incredibly diverse valley where Black, Asian, Native American and Latinx residents make up over two thirds of the population, we simply aren’t doing a good enough job of living up to our values or to the “public” in our name, or our public service mission. This is an issue of equity, but it’s also an existential question: How can we expect to remain relevant in a changing world, and a changing community, unless we too adapt and change? Staying put is not an option.
For too long though, we have stayed put, and that has created long-term problems. While the station has grown overall audience and revenue in recent years, most of that growth has come from rising listenership to our news programming. Meanwhile the audience for our daytime classical programming has declined. In radio, a programmer’s goal is to retain audience throughout the day, yet we have done the opposite. On weekdays, we currently change programming formats five times (news to classical, back to news, back to classical and then back to news again) in the span of eight hours. And while that may have worked 25 years ago, it’s now created huge challenges in retaining listeners to either format. Example: in the span of 15 minutes we lose about 60 percent of our audience in the switch from Morning Edition to classical music. That is not sustainable. Likewise, we have to adapt to changing demographics. The median age of our news audience is about 50, while the median age of our classical audience is around 70, or in some cases as high as 75. Our news listeners are also much more diverse than our classical audience, by a factor of two.
Since I took on the role of President and General Manager nearly two years ago, our team has been closely studying audience and donor trends, talking to listeners and exploring ways to evolve for the future. Some could argue that amid the turmoil of the present day, it is best to continue with the status quo. I don’t think we have that luxury. Long-term audience trends dictate that programming changes are necessary, it’s only a matter of when. I am confident that time is now. We have a rare opportunity to reset, to build on our strengths, engage new listeners, and prepare for now a post-pandemic world that will hopefully be here soon. Above all, we will stay true to our mission statement of “expanding your world through voices and sounds that inform and inspire.”
That’s why we are moving forward with programming changes beginning September 14th. As you’ll read in this issue, we are thrilled to welcome the addition of the new weekday talk program 1A from WAMU and NPR to our lineup, as well as Think, and Forum, a longtime program reborn as a new statewide talk program about the issues facing California. Together with Marketplace, which we began airing earlier this summer, these programs will help give Valley Public Radio a fresh new sound that will appeal to long-time fans and new listeners alike. Plus you won’t want to miss NPR’s Sam Sanders on It’s Been A Minute every Saturday, for fresh takes on everything from pop culture to the news of the week. We believe these programs will strengthen our overall programming lineup, leading to long-term audience growth, greater audience retention throughout the day, and greater appeal to the next generation of public radio listeners, who are as diverse as the communities we serve.
I recognize the loss of four hours of weekday midday classical programming will be disruptive and saddening to many. We remain committed to providing the valley with classical music programming, and look to do so in new ways. Earlier this year we launched KVPR Classical, an all-new digital radio station offering classical music 24/7, available for free on streaming audio devices. You can listen on your computers, connected TVs, smartphones, tablets, in many newer model cars, and on connected speakers from Bose, Sonos, JBL, Amazon, Google and many others. You can find KVPR Classical at KVPR.org or on the KVPR app.
Beyond that, we are embracing our 40+ year history of being your source for classical music by deepening our roots with our local classical community. This fall, we will be offering a variety of special programming featuring our local classical music community, including a new series celebrating Beethoven’s 250th birthday with Rei Hotoda and Andreas Werz, drawing from the recorded concert archives of their respective organizations. We will also be expanding Young Artists Spotlight with a limited run fall season, and we look to offer more locally focused classical programs as we go forward, by partnering with our local institutions.
Change isn’t easy, but there are times when change is necessary, and that time is now. Regardless of your thoughts on these changes, I welcome your feedback, and encourage you to listen to these new programs with an open mind. Thank you for supporting Valley Public Radio as we enter a new era.
President and General Manager
Valley Public Radio