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What Can Triple A Radio Do About its Aging Audience? Surprisingly Little

AAA Radio is becoming AARP Radio. It’s not a bad thing, but stations need to stop kidding themselves that they’ll “get younger”…

By Paul Marszalek

The Radio Research Consortium – the firm that acts as the go-between for Public Radio and Nielsen – recently dropped a deck of slides analyzing data from the Fall 2021 ratings.

While most of the deck was dedicated to tracking the recovery of radio listening post-pandemic (still lagging, btw), there was an interesting slide related to NON-COMM Triple A.

The slide, below, is the age demo breakout for the four largest NON-COMM Triple As — KCMP (The Current)/Minneapolis, KEXP/Seattle, KUTX/Austin, and WXPN/Philadelphia.

While the font size is microscopic (where did I put my reading glasses?), it shows that a full 26% of the combined audience of those stations is aged 65-74. When we add the 55-64 component, it’s 41%.

For other age cell combos, the 25-54 set makes up 52% of the audience; for 45-74 it’s nearly 60%.

This should come as no surprise to anyone who has tuned in to any full-time Triple A station not called KEXP or The Current.

Is this a bad thing? Not at all. These are fantastic demos full of music fans who accept the idea of directly funding their community stations.

The problem is, eventually – perhaps within just a year or two for older-skewing stations, there will be a demographic collapse that shaves double-digit percentages off the weekly cume. Another possible outcome is that the playlist becomes so wide in an effort to please everyone that it pleases no one, driving TSL down.

These events are already affecting several key radio stations. The stations will survive, and even perhaps occasionally have decent ratings as they over-serve an increasingly smaller audience. But they will not be able to operate at current levels of staffing and creative output – the money simply won’t be there as the membership drives slide.

A station that stand pat will become a niche of a niche. It might still sound fun and vibrant, but its overall impact in the market will be small.

Thus, the existential question: Is it okay to use a rare public radio license as a niche of a niche? After all, the word is broad-casting.

In looking back at the chart, perhaps the most alarming thing (but again not particularly surprising) is the complete lack of 18-24 audience. Even the “younger” Triple A NON-COMMs cannot compete here.

This is partly due to younger demos simply moving away from the medium, but also more than partly due to the fact that the medium does not offer them an attractive product.

There are only two options.

The first is for stations to get younger – and when I mean “get younger,” I mean targeting Gen Xers in the 40-54 realm. Younger is a relative term.

This is the only option for most stations, and there’s no guarantee all will be able to pull it off without shedding their Boomer-members. However, deploying incremental strategies toward younger demos that still love radio could buy these stations a decade of additional good years.

One could argue that KUTX and The Current, stations that ripped off the Band-Aid and went in new directions, successfully pulled off incremental innovative strategies.

The other option is to deploy disruptive strategies to create entirely new products to serve entirely new audiences. Note, this does not mean specialty shows on your current station on Sunday night.

What we’re talking here are completely new products. Perhaps we could view KEXP’s pivot to video and re-brand as cultural center as a successful example of the disruptive strategy approach.

The real problem with the disruptive strategy option is that we have nothing in the system that supports it. Not at the station level; not at the CPB level.

There are probably fewer than five organizations within the U.S. public broadcasting system – radio and television – that have the vision, toolset, ability to attract talent, appetite for risk, or even the basic desire, to go this route.

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