BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. What do buggy whip manufacturers at the turn of the 20th Century have in common with classical music public radio programmers at the turn of the 21st? According to a recent article in the Weekly Standard, both know the feeling of immanent extinction. In the case of public radio, that extinction has been brought about by programming changes away from music toward news and information formats. The strategy, which grew out of detailed audience research, has proved extraordinarily successful, if you gauge success by sheer ratings. But it has also proved enormously controversial, as fans of classical, jazz and bluegrass throughout the country lost their only source of non-commercial music on the radio dial. For many of those critics, the perpetrator of all that is wrong with public radio, the anti-Christ himself, is the man who served up much of the audience research. His name is David Giovannoni, and he joins me now. David, welcome to the show.
DAVID GIOVANNONI: Thanks, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: You're an audience-measurement guy, which I presume doesn't make you a proponent for any format. I don't know if you personally care what's on your public radio station or not.
DAVID GIOVANNONI: Actually I do, but I don't let that cloud my professional judgment, no.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so in no way am I trying to paint you as sort of the anti-classical music guy, but I am just curious -- has not the balance tilted dramatically in the number of overall programming hours toward news talk versus music, classical and otherwise?
DAVID GIOVANNONI: Yes. That's been the case for many years.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, if that shift has occurred, it strikes me that it seems to have occurred at a moment when public radio's fiscal health was very much in jeopardy, partly for economic reasons during the Reagan administration, and then subsequently for political reasons when the Republican revolution took place. Did some of the shift occur as a direct result of trying to build audience to generate more revenue for the system?
DAVID GIOVANNONI: Yes. The threat of diminished federal funding has in the past motivated public radio stations to become more financially self-sufficient. It means that they're going to take a hard look at their program schedules and they're going to determine whether a program is really serving the public, really serving the missions that they have set out for it -- both of those things. And so the threats of decreased federal funding did cause a number of stations to do that calculus, and many of them chose to add news and information programming, but also --and this is an important point -- many of them chose to make their music programming better or more abundant.
BOB GARFIELD: What kind of numbers are you generating that has precipitated these various programming moves?
DAVID GIOVANNONI: Well, let me give you one very specific example. Every public radio station across the week has a number of people that tune in to it. One of our assessments tracks that cumulative audience throughout the week, and what we find is that there are times of the day and types of programming that are very, very strong magnets for the stations' own listeners. And then there are times of the day and programming that basically chase the stations' own listeners away. Now, if a station were to fix that programming so that its own listeners would choose to listen to the station, we believe that that is an improvement in the public service.
BOB GARFIELD: It seems to me the central question here is just what constitutes public service. Is it to satisfy the wishes of the largest numbers and most engaged members of the listening audience, or is it to serve the under-served? Isn't serving the under-served a core responsibility of the public radio mission as many stations define it?
DAVID GIOVANNONI: As many stations define it, of course it is. And you know there is a vast under-served audience in America for intelligent, high-quality, civil, civically-responsible news and information programming, as much as there is an under-served audience for jazz programming in all of its flavors, as much as there is an under-served audience for classical music programming in all of its flavors.
BOB GARFIELD: Is it possible that technology will ultimately render this controversy moot -- that people who savor classical music and miss it on the public airwaves will soon realize that they don't need public radio to bring it to them?
DAVID GIOVANNONI: I guess every station has to ask itself what constitutes a more valued and valuable public service -- providing a listener something he or she cannot get anywhere else or something he or she can get somewhere else.
BOB GARFIELD: David, thank you.
DAVID GIOVANNONI: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: David Giovannoni is president of Audience Research Analysis.