Radio killed the TV star

The comments in the previous post made me realize how little I watch PBS.  I wake up to NPR every morning, but I hardly watch PBS.

I am not alone – nationwide, much more people listen to NPR than watch PBS.  They also contribute more to NPR than PBS.  As this New York Times article says, NPR has 30 million listeners now, and it has only grown from 2 million listeners in 1980. In contrast, the all-time record high viewership for any single show of PBS is only 7.3 million viewers.

(For Indian readers – NPR is National Public Radio, PBS is Public Broadcasting Service on television).

In a way, it is ironic that a radio channel is more profitable than a television channel. Wasn’t radio supposed to die out with the advent of TV?

True, car radios and long commute times have helped NPR. But it also comes down to content. I find “Morning Edition” a great way to start the day, and I am not surprised it’s one of NPR’s most popular shows. In contrast, watching PBS would not be convenient for many in the morning, but surely PBS can get a slice of the evening hours?

Well, not if the best they can come up with is “Antique Roadshows” or whatever. There are some good shows like “Nova” and “Nature”, but these are so infrequent that I, for one, never know when they are on. You don’t watch a channel for the rare good show that comes once in a month. If PBS wants viewers to tune in regularly, they should broadcast these shows more often.

After my last post, I went back to search for the next episode of Nature and Nova and schedule them in my DVR. That was how I watched “Yellowstone in Winter”. I watched it, even though I realized I had seen most of the footage on NPS’s Yellowstone website a few months back, while researching for a trip to Yellowstone. Hopefully, now my DVR will record and show me every episode of Nova and Nature, even if I forget.

I wonder if it’s a truism that public television will always be less popular than public radio? Is that how the medium works? Private channels can outspend public TV with big budget shows, expensive sets and celebrities, but on radio none of this matters. All you need is a good selection of music, some call-in shows, and news.

Thinking back to India, Akashvani/ AIR was the only Indian radio option in my childhood, so not surprisingly it was very popular. I wonder how it is holding up against all those private radio channels now – Radio Mirchi and the likes. Is AIR still very popular?

So does my theory work in India? Is AIR more popular than Doordarshan? One thing that DD is doing differently from PBS is having a slew of channels, including one news-specific channel. But when compared with the most popular channel in a region, which has a larger audience – DD or AIR?

I wonder if there is something PBS can learn from Doordarshan’s experience.

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15 thoughts on “Radio killed the TV star

  1. Im not sure they are completely substitutable – had done a paper on this a few years ago, and some interesting stuff had come out ( this of course was in the Indian context and in FM context – not so much AIR) – essentially the mind-frame and expectations which one has for radio is completely different from television and therefore, radio by nature needs to be less intrusive and take less “effort” for lack of a better word, than television – which of course has a direct impact on the kind of programming that is suitable – so intensely cerebral programmes are typically not a good fitment. Which I would assume stands true for AIR as well. I have no clue on the nature of the radio- listener relationship in the US – but does this argument hold true?

  2. Radio has an inherent advantage in that the long hours most Americans spend commuting (mostly alone) can be put to parallel use listening to “All Things Considered” or the news on NPR, whereas TV viewing requires one to sit down for a bit and compromise with the spouse/kids on what to watch. So, I am not surprised that NPR is way more popular than PBS.

  3. As Idling-in-Top-Gear points out radio will always be more popular by audience numbers because it allows mental time-share. After all people can hardly watch TV as they drive, for instance.

    So it is not just about the quality of programming but the broader definition of public service broadcasting remit and its sources of funding. BBC for instance has 4 main TV channels and 11 radio stations in the UK alone (including a hugely popular BBC Asian Radio which I have never tuned to, a live sports channel, an intellectual talk radio much more versatile and global and intense than NPR, a pop music station, a classical music station etc). Each caters to a different target audience. BBC also makes very popular TV programmes such as Top Gear which are exported widely and make the corporation considerable money. An estimated 375M people worldwide watch Top Gear every year. I even watch repeats on a digital channel we receive on Freeview in the UK! BBC receives a lion’s share of the £135 we pay as licence fees (we meaning all households that own one or more reception equipment). On the other hand, we have a PSB called Channel 4 which has a remit to develop the British Indie sector but which does not receive any public money. So for watching intellectual content on TV, one can pick from BBC 4 or Channel 4.

    PBS/ NPR are of course funded through fund-raising telethons and through programme sponsorship – very different from the model in the UK. With much global competition for content, if PBS does not raise enough money it can neither make its own nor purchase rights to good programming profitably. Oh, by the way, BBC’s Antique Roadshow is a hugely popular export as well. Britain is a nation of collectors so I can understand its local appeal but its global appeal puzzles me too.

    In India my guess is AIR has gone the same way as DD. Their interpretation of PSB might have been quite broad but in earlier days, they did not have the same spectrum access that the BBC has, so being forced to juxtapose Krishi Darshan with Chitrahaar and day time TV on the same channel will mean their audience has more opportunity to seek desirable programming elsewhere. If now, as you suggest, they have more of focused channels, of course, it is their programming quality that will determine audience numbers. However my observation from my India trips has been that a vast majority of audience seem to be seeking more entertainment and less education. Perhaps some are UGC-ed out. More Indian bloggers seem to know Top Gear than Blue Planet. More ordinary people are better informed and talk about Bollywood and cricket than about international politics and trade. None of the non-PSB channels seems to be serving anything that requires any brain engagement but non-stop sensationalist news reporting interspersed with Bollywood gossip keeps many entertained it seems. 😦

  4. It’s the quality of content that will drive viewership / listenership. I was gifted a radio recently, a National. It’s a treat to listen to the radio.

    The inflections in the anchor’s voice, the occasional static, being able to hear it around the house without having to sit in front of it, the wafting of old hindi songs, and the phone-ins.

    It’s easy to imagine when listening to radio, and I guess that makes a difference.

  5. I find listening to the radio more convenient than TV. It is least distracting. The most important reason for me is the weather broadcasting. I always have a radio handy for emergency purposes. It’s more practical than TV in that sense.

  6. Well, much as I enjoy radio, I think PBS grabs a greater share of my time. (I have a short commute to work and back.) There are some PBS shows that I try and catch regularly – Nova, Independent Lens, POV, American Masters, Live from Lincoln Center, Bill Moyers etc.

    I sometimes get the feeling that 80s-era DD was closer to PBS (content-wise) than it is today.

  7. We watch more PBS in the house than listen to it on the radio: Nova, Nature, Masterpiece Theatre (both Period and Modern), Frontline, Antiques Roadshow and Bill Moyers, Cyber Chase, Arthur, Wishbone etc. for the kiddo.
    As for the radio, I like the classical FM and the Jazz and world music (Hindi film songs on Sundays for an hour), but it drives me crazy when they have their fundraisers, as has been going on for the last month. I think I could deal with short advertising jingles better than the ‘Won’t you please call in and pledge X dollars to keep our station on air?” that rend the airwaves.

  8. Other than the oft-cited “can listen while commuting” argument there is one more thing. People look for options only when there are none. For example, in India AIR catered for several years to a large classical-music listening base which did not find similar options in television. Today, with the arrival of satellite channels like Shruti worldspace that has changed yet the sangeet sammelans (a unique feature) continues to be popular. Same goes for NPR – good news/analysis and eclectic programming is absent from other radio so it fills a gap. As for PBS, between NBC/ABC/CBS and Fox there are a lot of television channels competing in all these spaces and PBS has relatively lesser USP of sorts there.The only avenues they have are documentaries/films, classical music, theater, educational and indepth interviews/analysis. Speaking for myself, I was one of the PBS regulars for the Charlie Rose show (since it is now retired and I have nothing specific to look for on PBS today and get rather bored with imported BBC programming ) . If I need documentaries and films, I go pick it up from the local library. Again same with kids programs, between nick jr, playhouse disney loyalty is divided. So there is a cost and a challenge to constantly come up with something different than what commercial channels have to cater to audiences who want alternatives , yet have some commonality. I think this is one of the reasons NPR is more successful than PBS.

  9. I listen to the FM channel (Tamil) of AIR very often while driving to work. What gladdens my heart is the kind of people who phone in: Apart from housewives, most are self-employed people like Electricians, Tailors, Grocery shop employees and so on. To it’s credit, AIR offers programming in this channel which does not talk down to its listeners.

    Comapred to this, the private FM channels, catering to students and young working professionals, offer mundane, mind-numbing uniformity, in the mistaken (?) belief that this is what their target audience wants. Pity.

  10. i have always wondered why radio didn’t suffer the TV impact in the US where has it has been hit badly in india. i think it’s the fact that almost every citizen in the US owns a car, and that they spent a lot of time evry day in the car that’s made the difference. radio has factored in that reality and catered to te mobile audience.

  11. Lekhni

    This song was on the radio this afternoon and made me think of one more reason why radio will always trump TV. Nobody can ever write such a lovely song about a television. 🙂

  12. DD? AIR? Akashvani? 🙂

    You’d be lucky if you found a household in the metro that even switches on to those once every year!! The radio business has picked up a LOT over the past few years here in India, but it’s mainly targeted at the entertainment genre. You will never find a source close to what PBS does back there.

  13. “You’d be lucky if you found a household in the metro that even switches on to those once every year”.

    I don’t think this statement is entirely true. Maybe not the well-heeled upper and middle classes who have other avenues of entertainment perhaps! But AIR’s phone-in programs are definitely poular with the common man. (Please see my earlier comment)

  14. @Rada : True. But the trend is the FM stations with continual nonsensical ramblings & songs. But then, there’s a audience for that too. I did notice your comment above & am genuinely pleased.

    Quite seriously, aren’t the new FM channels a hit with the population who aren’t ‘well-heeled upper and middle classes’ too?

    I guess if DD did a revamp of its outlook, it’d attract a whole lot more audience, rather than waiting for the Olympics to come every four years.

  15. always an enlightening experience, reading your blog, you know that. thorougly enjoyed ur post and the comments.

    learnt quite a bit. i wake up to npr as well. 🙂

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