Where public radio rocks

This post is by Doc Searls from Doc Searls Weblog

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Santa Barbara

Where does public radio rock—or even rule? And why?

To start answering those questions, I looked through Nielsen‘s radio station ratings, which are on the Radio Online site. I dug down through all the surveyed markets, from #1 (New York NY) through #269 (Las Cruces-Deming NM), and pulled out the top 31 markets for public radio (where the share was over 6.0 — all numbers are % of all listening within a geographic market):

  1. Santa Barbara CA, 23.4
  2. Burlington VT, 17.2
  3. Montpelier-Barre-Waterbury VT, 17.0
  4. Ann Arbor, MI, 15.1
  5. Cape Cod MA, 14.6
  6. Asheville, NC, 13.4
  7. Portland OR, 12.6
  8. Denver CO, 12.3
  9. Austin TX, 11.3
  10. Eugene-Springfield, 11.3
  11. Washington, DC, 11.3
  12. San Francisco CA, 11.0
  13. Seattle WA, 10.9
  14. Raleigh-Durham NC, 10.6
  15. Portland ME, 10.5
  16. San Jose CA, 9.9
  17. Concord Regions) NH, 9.3
  18. Boston MA, 8.9
  19. San Luis Obispo CA, 8.9
  20. Columbia MO, 8.6
  21. Tallahassee FL, 8.6
  22. Washington DC, 8.6
  23. Sarasota FL 8.2
  24. Monterey CA, 7.7
  25. Gainesville-Ocala FL, 7.3
  26. New Haven CT, 7.3
  27. Lafayette IN, 7.0
  28. Traverse City-Petoskey-Cadillac MI, 6.7
  29. Hartford CT, 6.5
  30. Oxnard-Ventura CA, 6.3
  31. Grand Junction CO, 6.1

(Note: Totals above are of noncommercial stations with typical public radio formats: NPR-type news and programming, plus classical, jazz and noncommercial alternative music. I didn’t include noncommercial religious stations†).

Of course I’m pleased, but not surprised, to find my town, Santa Barbara, on top. So: why is it there?

Well, demographics are one reason. Santa Barbara is an upscale university town with a bonus population of active older folks who are intellectually and culturally engaged. Those are the kinds of places where NPR tends to do well. There is also a surfeit of noncommercial radio stations in Santa Barbara, including some based in Los Angeles but with programming localized to some degree. (This is new, and I’ll talk about it later.) Santa Barbara is also geographically (and to some degree culturally) isolated from big market influences as well. I think the same kind of thing can also be said for many of the other smaller markets where public radio does well.

But I think some other things are going on here.

  1. Local news lives on in public radio while it has been dying off on the commercial side. Old-fashioned “full service” local radio has been in retreat across the country. Stations categorized as “news” or “news/talk” are now mostly conduits for political talk. True full-time pure news stations are only in the largest markets. (Specifically, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco. That’s it.)
  2. For all the reasons listed in the last paragraph, plus its commitment to culture in general, public radio may be the only part of shared culture, other than sports, where the center still holds.
  3. Music and talk listening is moving from radio to streaming services, satellite radio and podcasts, leaving public radio with a higher percentage of listening to actual broadcasts.
  4. Public radio is doing a great job of embracing streaming, satellite radio, podcasting, smart speakers and other new technologies—while also maximizing what can still be done with legacy over-the-air broadcasting.
  5. Something that has long been a weakness of public radio, especially NPR—its fealty to stations, refusing to subordinate the network to those—is turning into an advantage, as local matters more and more. See, though all of us are “going digital” through mobile and other devices, we are still physical beings who live in the natural world, who vote in local elections, who drive in local traffic, who care about local teams, who deal with local emergencies, and who depend on each other for help when it matters. Public radio is especially compatible with all that

I may add to those points as I take in reader feedback and think more on all of it. Meanwhile, I want to look a bit more closely to what has happened to public radio in Santa Barbara over the eighteen years since I arrived there.

When I moved to Santa Barbara from the Bay Area in 2001, public radio was long on classical music and short on news and talk. The two classical stations were USC’s KQSC/88.7 with 12,000 watts and KDB/93.7 with 12,500 watts (that’s a lot), both on Gibraltar peak, overlooking town. KQSC was a repeater for KUSC in Los Angeles. On the talk (NPR, etc.) side, KCLU/88.3 had a 4-watt translator operating on 102.3 from Gibraltar Peak, overlooking town. It actually sounded pretty good if you were within sight of the transmitter, but to put its size in perspective, the biggest station in town was KRUZ/103.3 (now KVYB), with 105,000 watts, radiating from Broadcast Peak, which is over 4000 feet high. KCLU’s home signal from Thousand Oaks was weak and distant. So was KCRU/88.1, the Oxnard repeater for Santa Monica-based KCRW/89.9. KCRW also had a 10-watt translator on 106.9 serving Goleta (the next town west of Santa Barbara). Pacifica’s L.A. based KPFK/90.7 had a 10-watt translator on 98.7. UCSB had KCSB/91.9, its own non-NPR college station, radiating with 620 watts from Broadcast Peak, also on the Goleta side of town. There was also a local non-political full-service commercial news/talk station at the time: KEYT/1250am (now KZER), featuring a good morning show hosted by John Palminteri.

Since then, all this happened:

  1. In 2002, KSBX/89.5 came on the air from Gibraltar Peak. It’s a 50-watt repeater for KCBX/90.1, the public radio voice of San Luis Obispo. On the same channel, KPBS from San Diego also pounds into town on warm days.
  2. In 2003, KEYT was sold, John Palminteri spread his reporting talents across lots of other stations (including KCLU) and local news/talk was gone until…
  3. In 2005, the Santa Barbara News-Press, owned by Wendy P. McCaw, got its own local AM station, now called KZSB/1290, which has been a local old-fashioned commercial ‘full service” news station ever since. The main personality there is “Baron” Ron Herron, who has been a local radio personality for many decades.
  4. In 2008, KCLU bought a local station on the AM band. That’s now KCLU-AM/1340.
  5. In 2014, a bunch of things happened at once:
    1. KPCC/89.3 in Pasadena/Los Angeles came on with a 10-watt Gibraltar Peak translator on 89.9. This signal technically repeats KJAI/89.5, KPCC’s repeater in Ojai.
    2. Santa Monica Community College, which owns KCRW, bought KQSC from USC, and made it KDRW, which has a local studio and does some local coverage, though most of the time it’s a repeater for KCRW.
    3. Santa Monica Community College, which owns KCRW, bought
    4. The University of Southern California bought KDB and moved KUSC’s classical program over there from what had been KQSC.
    5. KCLU replaced its 4-watt signal on 102.3 with a new directional one that maxes at 110 watts toward downtown, but radiates as little as 5 watts in other directions.
    6. Along the way, local journalism flourished online as well. The Independent, a weekly, has remained a strong local institution. Edhat (founded and led by the late and still much-missed Peter Sklar) was born and became the first great “placeblog” that’s more than still around. Bill MacFadyen’s Noozhawk also became a local news institution. And the News-Press didn’t die.

If I had more time, I’d put all that stuff in a graphic.

Here’s how Nielsen breaks out the ratings:

  1. KCLU-FM 7.8 — the 110-watt translator on 102.3, not the home station on 88.3, which barely gets into town.
  2. KCLU-AM 2.6 — same as the FM, so the two together are 9.4, which makes KCLU #1, edging the 9.2 of KTYD, the landmark local rock station.
  3. KUSC 5.2 — actually KDB/93.7, which repeats KUSC.
  4. KCRW 3.9 — actually KDRW, but mostly identifies as KCRW
  5. KDRW 1.3 — same station, for a total of 5.2
  6. KCBX 1.3 — actually KSBX, but it identifies as KCBX
  7. KPCC 1.3 — the 10-watt translator on 89.9

People report what they hear, which is why there is lots of call letter confusion.

†Explanations, qualifications and cautions

Shares, Nielsen explains, are “quarter hour rating (AQH) share of persons, ages 12+, Monday through Sunday in the Metro Survey Area. A share is the percentage of those listening to radio in the MSA who are listening to a particular radio station. Average Quarter-Hour Persons (AQH Persons) is the average number of persons listening to a particular station for at least five minutes during a 15-minute period. [AQH Persons to a Station / AQH Persons to All Stations] x 100 = Share (%)”

The latest rating period differs by market. In big markets, surveys are monthly. The most recent for those are February 2019. Some are quarterly, or twice annually (Spring and Fall). The most recent of those are Fall 2018 in some cases (e.g. Hudson Valley, measured quarterly, and Santa Barbara, measured Spring and Fall), and Winter 2019 in other cases (e.g. Louisville, measured quarterly).

Noncommercial stations are not listed for all markets, and not every time in all of those where they are surveyed. For example, the listings for Santa Barbara noncommercial stations say “N/A” for the three survey periods prior to the latest one (Fall 2018), while the current listings for Monterey-Salinas (Winter 2019) list noncommercial stations as “N/A” while showing them in Fall 2018. So for Monterey-Salinas, I used the Fall 2018 listing. (The 7.7 there was just one station: KAZU, which was also #2 overall.)

In all markets there is lots of listening to radio stations not listed in the surveys. For example, all the listed shares for New York stations totaled 88.4, while Tampa-St. Petersburg stations totaled only 24.1. That means 11.8 of New York and 75.9% of Tampa-St. Pete listening is to stations not listed in the ratings. I am sure in many markets noncommercial listening is part of that dark matter, but there’s no way to tell.

In some cases, the only stations appearing in a survey are those of one or two owners. The Grand Junction survey lists only seven stations, five owned by Townsquare Media and two by Public Broadcasting of Colorado. The total of those is only 28.7. The Monroe Louisiana survey lists only six stations, all owned by Holladay Broadcasting. Those total 50.6, which means half of the listening in that market is to unlisted stations, and (presumably), ones not owned by Holladay Broadcasting.

Some stations’ online streams do make survey listings in some markets. I don’t know whether Nielsen counts listeners physically located outside a market, or how Nielsen deals with smart speakers. I do know that Nielsen cares about streaming, though, because their home page says so.

Okay, I’ve already said too much, and I have much more I could say. But this post has been sitting half-written in my browser since I started digging online one sleepless night in early March, so I’ll call it done enough and put it up.

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