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A look back at 2021's biggest radio stories would have to include the continuing power of the news/talk pubcaster. While the format as a whole rode a growth wave from election to insurrection to vaccine rollouts, non-commercial news/talkers were hitting new ratings highs, in some cases leading their markets in persons 6+, according to Nielsen.

In this second of Inside Radio's two-part series, programming heads at several of these prominent stations address the importance of ratings, COVID's impact on their business and how success has impacted various means of financial support.

Ratings: 'Just One Of The Many Measures Of Relevance'

In the past year, the programmers sharing their thoughts have had great ratings stories to tell, but how important are those stories when it comes to driving content decisions or impacting business?

“This data isn’t the last word, but we do our best to use it in concert with other analytics to ensure we’re a trusted part of the day for our audience,” Ernesto Aguilar, Director of Radio Programming for San Francisco's KQED, says. “Ratings are just one of the many measures of relevance. Are we addressing people’s questions, relating to problems they’re experiencing in their lives, and responding in ways that make people feel like we understand them?”

John Mussoni, Audio General Manager of Philadelphia's WHYY agrees that “[while] we don’t live or die by ratings, as may be the case at commercial stations, learning when and for how long people are listening helps us make programming decisions. Since we sell sponsorships, being ranked in the top 10 has been helpful especially when approaching media buyers.”

How ratings are used vary by station. For WNYC Program Director Jacqueline Cincotta, they're “the best information we have about how our audience 'consumes' us and how much they value what we offer, so ratings are an integral part of our content evaluation and the key measure of our success at reaching the entire community.” At Colorado Public Radio's KCFR, Senior VP, Content & Planning Sean Nethery uses ratings “to understand the reach and impact of our services. We will follow progress when making strategic changes and launching marketing campaigns.”

COVID: 'Still A Good Deal Of Uncertainty'

Like most stations, public news/talk outlets have been hit hard by the pandemic. Now with yet another wave, they continue to deal with issues from holding onto listeners whose lives and daily habits have changed, to normalizing operations and its impact on staff.

“There’s still a good deal of uncertainty about what the new post-COVID reality will look like,” Cincotta says. “We have prided ourselves on welcoming guests into our studios for live programs, [but with] staff still working remotely, that’s not been possible. While it’s extraordinary that as a broadcast/audio/news organization we were able to adapt quickly and not miss a beat serving our audience at a critical moment, we are at our core an organization that thrives on collaboration and community.”

COVID's effect on remote staffs has been a key concern. “It is important to recognize the toll from such a relentless and varied news environment for so many months,” Nethery says. Adds WHYY's Mussoni, “[While] we’re seeing more staff turnover than we would like, the good news is that as positions become open, there is a good pool of qualified candidates who want to work in public media.”

For Aguilar, the challenge has been “reminding audiences, many of whom have had their work, families and aspirations changed by the pandemic, that KQED is here for them with evocative programming on platforms they rely on.”

Funding: 'Listeners Have Been Stepping Up'

Station funding from businesses has also been impacted by COVID. “Rebuilding sponsorships lost during the early stages of the pandemic has been a major focus for our development team,” KCFR's Nethery says. “Major donors and foundations continue to support and spur our growth by helping us launch a new podcast studio and expand reporting and beat coverage.” At WHYY, “underwriting did decline earlier in the pandemic and has now been making a comeback,” says Mussoni. “We’re not quite at pre-COVID levels, but we’re getting close.”

On the upside, listener contributions have remained strong. “We have one of the most loyal audiences in the market, as measured by P1 percentages and time spent listening, and that translates into strong membership support,” WNYC's Cincotta says. “We’ve experienced growth in the number of members and in the amount of donations,” Mussoni adds. “Listeners who appreciate the value of our news service have also been stepping up to make additional gifts on top of their annual membership donations.” – Rich Appel

Read part one of this two-part series, Public Radio's News/Talkers: 'We Have To Change How We Think About Ourselves,’ HERE