Public Radio’s Private Guru

by Samuel G. Freedman

New York Times, November 11, 2001

During the final days of October, as the public radio station WAMU-FM in Washington launched an on-air fund drive, one particular group of former listeners began calling in to donate only their complaints. They were fans of a bluegrass show that had been dropped without warning four months earlier from its coveted slot during drive-time on weekday afternoons. Refusing to contribute money, demanding refunds of previous gifts, the protesters meant to deny WAMU its goal of raising $1 million. And this was only their latest piece of political theater.

In the preceding weeks, bluegrass loyalists had picketed two fund-raising events, one man carrying a sign declaring "WAMU = Fraud, Stupidity and Heartache." "Save Bluegrass" Web sites and e-mail lists had sprung up. Back before the terror attacks of Sept. 11 had consumed Congressional attention, Representative Howard Coble of North Carolina had taken to the floor of the House to declare, "Perhaps the WAMU management team needs to be introduced to the woodshed."

This sort of strife was not limited to Washington, either. Seven months earlier and 2,000 miles away, to the strains of Haydn's "Farewell" symphony, the public station KUER-FM in Salt Lake City ended 40 years of broadcasting classical music, bringing condemnation from the Utah legislature and the state's major newspapers. Meanwhile, in Maine, town meetings were being held to assail the state public radio system for dropping live broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera. (They were ultimately restored.) And in Roanoke, Va., the United States District Court prepared to hear the case of the NPR station WVTF's former manager. He was suing university and state officials for $2 million for having fired him shortly after he dropped the Met broadcasts, which were restored over his objections.

All these controversies, seemingly so disparate, traced back to a common source. His name is David Giovannoni. A brilliant analyst of public radio's audience — who it is, how much it listens, when it listens, what it listens to, when and why it donates money — he is quite possibly the most influential figure in shaping the sound of National Public Radio today, the sound heard by upward of 20 million Americans weekly.

Mr. Giovannoni's company in suburban Washington, Audience Research Analysis, holds contracts with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Public Radio, Public Radio International and almost every major NPR member station in the country. He essentially invented the language of public radio today, terms like "affinity," "loyalty," "power" and "public service." The phrase most public stations intone in their hourly ID's — "listener-supported" — grew out of Mr. Giovannoni's research. What might be considered the standard public- radio schedule, with its daylong emphasis on news and talk, largely subscribes to his findings. And during the years NPR has applied Mr. Giovannoni's findings, it has more than doubled listenership and gone from near bankruptcy to financial stability.

Every one of the radio stations involved in these recent battles acted largely on Mr. Giovannoni's research. His analysis showed them that, however vociferous the audience for bluegrass in Washington or symphonies in Salt Lake City or the Met in Virginia and Maine, those programs drove away a vast majority of the most loyal listeners and donors. The way to bring them and their checkbooks back was to schedule more of the news and information programs they craved.

As such, Mr. Giovannoni is the lightning rod for the intense, often bitter debate about what course NPR and its member stations should take in their evolution from a hodgepodge of "educational broadcasting" outlets dependent on the largess of universities and the federal government to a media powerhouse increasingly independent of the public sector. Depending on whom you ask, Mr. Giovannoni either helped save NPR by pointing the path to financial self-sufficiency or helped undermine the kind of programming that made it worth saving in the first place. "A visionary," says Richard Madden, the vice president of radio at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. "A numbers Nazi," the independent producer Larry Josephson labeled him several years ago.

For all the heated language, the conflict shaking public radio is not the stereotypical struggle between aesthetes and philistines. When Mr. Giovannoni's clients dropped country and classical music, or consigned them to weekends and the after-midnight abyss, they didn't plug in Rush Limbaugh or Howard Stern or easy listening; they put on the news and discussion programs that have earned NPR its accolades: "Fresh Air," "Talk of the Nation," "All Things Considered." NPR's superb coverage of the Sept. 11 attacks, starting with round-the-clock reporting the first week, may have served as the ultimate confirmation of Mr. Giovannoni's thesis that news-information forms the most integral, essential, irreplaceable element of public radio.

To Mr. Giovannoni's critics, however, the reliance on widely lauded programs typifies the problem. Ratings increasingly rule. Every NPR station is sounding more like every other NPR station, with the same "news stream" during the weekday, the same lineup of "Weekend Edition," "Car Talk" and the quiz show "Whad'ya Know?" on Saturday mornings. In both Washington and Salt Lake City, music devotees pointed out that nearby NPR stations already broadcast the same news and information shows that WAMU and KUER were adding. Even as NPR basks in the National Medal of the Arts it was awarded last year by President Clinton for its cultural programming, the very genres of jazz and classical music that the system was created in part to support are shrinking on the dial. Inventive new shows, Mr. Giovannoni's foes contend, will not survive statistical scrutiny long enough to build an audience. Jay Allison, an award-winning producer and station manager, likens the reliance on audience research to "a deal with the devil."

For his part, Mr. Giovannoni says he abhors sameness, formats, consultants, all the plagues of commercial radio. He insists he never tells any station what to do or not to do. He merely provides information of unimpeached accuracy to executives who used to act on intuition, personal taste and informal feedback from listeners. He merely asks the pregnant, provocative question. "I'm constantly saying the emperor has no clothes," he puts it. "I'm shining the light on reality."

Now 47, David Giovannoni has been disseminating his findings and propounding his views through essays, speeches and workshops for a quarter-century. While his research instruments have grown more sophisticated — from a pocket calculator to interactive Web sites — his essential message has remained consistent. Public radio cannot serve every interest. It does not exist for the benefit of its producers but for the benefit of its audience. Attention must be paid to what that audience wants. Which, he invariably adds, does not mean selling out.

"Let me be very clear on this point," Mr. Giovannoni said in a keynote address last July in Phoenix to a convention of public- radio marketing and development specialists. "I am not saying that program directors should make programming decisions based on how much money they're likely to raise. That would undermine the values at the very heart of our service, making it unworthy of support. I am saying, however, that program directors should make the difficult decisions that give the public the highest level of service. That means replacing lower-performance programming with higher-performance programming."

A workshop that Mr. Giovannoni conducted last May for WNYC in New York typified his approach, and the tensions it can create. WNYC had been deeply influenced by Mr. Giovannoni for several years as it transformed itself from a station almost entirely dependent on municipal funding to one supporting itself, buying its AM and FM licenses from the city for $20 million. Since 1995, the station had doubled its budget to $16 million and almost tripled its income from members and corporate underwriters to $12 million. Yet WNYC also prided itself on a being a "dual-format" station, equally emphasizing information and classical music, an approach that defied his principles.

At one point in the workshop, Mr. Giovannoni projected a chart showing the weekday listenership for WNYC-FM. The graph consisted of an undulating series of bars, one for each half-hour interval, peaking between 7 and 9 in the morning, dropping into a midday trough, rising again from 4 to 7 p.m. The high points, as everyone in the room knew, corresponded to "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered," NPR's "tent poles," in public-radio parlance. As for the lulls, as everyone in the room knew, they were classical music shows.

Mr. Giovannoni indicated another chart, showing how much radio WNYC's audience tuned into, regardless of station. Those bars remained relatively stable between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. "These are your listeners," he said, tapping the wall. "And they're not listening to you."

Someone asked, "Does that make the programming from 9 to 4 bad?" Before Mr. Giovannoni could respond, another staff member offered, "People come to us for news and information." Then is it a mistake, a third wanted to know, for the same station to have two kinds of listeners?

"That makes it harder," Mr. Giovannoni said. "A radio station should be something for the same person all the time. You become less and you become better."

By Giovannoni standards, this was an elementary tutorial and a gentle one. Without dictating what WNYC should do, he was delineating the consequences of what WNYC had done. Within its mathematical neutrality, his data was advocating a certain model of public radio, one that made no apologies for tailoring programming to the audience's proven taste. Although the terror attack several months later would leave WNYC with more fundamental problems to solve — its FM transmitter destroyed, its replacement signal unable to reach half the normal audience — the broader issue of programming resonated throughout public radio.

"Your challenge," Mr. Giovannoni said as the session concluded, "is to mine the existing audience. You want to support programming, right? It's hard to do that when nobody's listening. Or when nobody values what you do. The way to get more audience? The way to serve your public better? Lose what's on the periphery. Focus on a single audience and serve that audience extremely, insanely well all the time."

The eldest child of farmers in California's Central Valley, David Giovannoni stood mesmerized as a toddler by the revolution of records on the family turntable. In his teens, he began trawling barn sales for junked phonographs and joined several friends in an "Obsolete Audio Oddities Club." Then, one day when he was 16 or 17, he dialed the radio to the far left end of the FM band and heard a man urgently incanting what sounded like his life story. The station, Mr. Giovannoni later learned, was KPFA in Berkeley, beacon of the iconoclastic Pacifica network, and the voice was Allen Ginsberg reading "Howl." A whole world had revealed itself.

High school valedictorian and student- body president, Mr. Giovannoni chose the University of the Pacific in nearby Stockton partly for its public radio station, KUOP. There he first heard "All Things Considered" and logged 1,500 hours in four years. Graduate study in communications took him to the University of Wisconsin and put him under the sway of Lawrence Lichty, a young professor intent on wrenching the statewide public-radio network out of its stodgy, pedantic style. "Brilliant and innovative," in Mr. Lichty's estimation, Mr. Giovannoni was harvesting raw Arbitron data on public-radio listenership and devising means of analyzing it. "Back then, anything we found out was new," Mr. Giovannoni recalled. "There was no context about the audience. You turned on the mike and sometimes the phone rang in the studio to ask for a request or to yell at you."

When NPR hired Mr. Lichty in the late 1970's to work on the development of "Morning Edition," he brought his protιgι to Washington. There, along with the audience researchers Tom Church and George Bailey — once ridiculed by Garrison Keillor as "guys in suits with charts" — they first stepped into the conflicts that would recur through Mr. Giovannoni's career. " `We don't do what people want,' " Jack Mitchell, a former producer and board chairman of NPR, recalled reporters and editors saying. " `It's killed by research.' "

What ultimately made Mr. Giovannoni a fixture in public radio, however, were events far outside his control. The efforts by Ronald Reagan in 1981 and Newt Gingrich in 1995 to "zero out" the Corporation for Public Broadcasting sent NPR and its member stations hunting for more secure financial support. Mr. Giovannoni's research held the clues to how to reach the listeners themselves. "It was a terrible thing but it was a good thing," Mr. Giovannoni said of the threatened cessations of federal aid. "Those two hits forced us to become self- sufficient. And the way we were able to do that was by shifting away from a subsidized economy and focusing on the listener."

OVER the last 16 years, Mr. Giovannoni and various collaborators have released a series of reports defining the public-radio audience in ever finer detail, augmenting computer models based on Arbitron data with follow- up interviews and focus groups. These studies started by disabusing NPR of its pride in its weekly listenership, known in the trade as its "cume." Ninety percent of those listeners — dubbed the "Cheap 90" by Mr. Giovannoni — never donated to stations. Sixty percent listened only sporadically. The remaining 40 percent, the "core" in the Giovannoni lexicon, accounted for almost 80 percent of the hours listeners spent tuned to public radio. Over time, Mr. Giovannoni has refined his picture of who they are (middle- aged, college-educated, interested in social issues), what they listen to most ("All Things Considered," "Morning Edition"), what other NPR shows hold their interest ("Car Talk," "Prairie Home Companion"), what generally causes them to turn the dial (radio theater, children's shows, music except on stations with all-music formats), and even what encourages them to donate money at the highest rate ("Marketplace," "Car Talk," "All Things Considered").

The divide between culture and information appeared prominently in a 1993 study establishing the affinity — that is, the demographic similarity — of the audience for "All Things Considered" with the listenership for NPR's 71 nationally syndicated shows. Of the 27 shows that performed worst — that, by Mr. Giovannoni's research, actively alienated core listeners — a vast majority featured jazz, classical music and opera. In a 1998 study, Mr. Giovannoni found that music programming brought stations far less income per broadcast hour than did news, talk or entertainment. Popular music appealed to listeners a generation younger than NPR's core audience; classical music and opera appealed to listeners a decade to a generation older.

Mr. Giovannoni's conclusion, indeed his belief system, came down to one mantra: "Programming causes audience." People didn't listen to public radio because they appreciated the concept of smart, commercial-free programming; they listened for the same reason people listened to classic rock or adult urban contemporary or Dr. Laura — because they liked what happened to be on. Putting more of it on, then, meant more listeners and more donations and more freedom from the caprice of Washington. (There are anomalies, numerically small but demonstrably generous niche audiences like WAMU's bluegrass fans.)

Following Mr. Giovannoni's precepts, NPR built its weekly cume from 9 million in 1985 to the current 22 million. It now raises more than half of its $500 million budget from individual listeners or private-sector underwriters. The number of paid-up members doubled to 2 million between 1990 and 2000. Over the same period, federal support fell from 16 cents per dollar to less than 11.

That dramatic growth has only encouraged NPR to become more cautious, which has turned Mr. Giovannoni into a convenient target. "To some extent, NPR is a prisoner of its success," said Alan Stavitsky, a University of Oregon professor who has studied public-radio consultants. "This once obscure and quirky alternative programmer is now part of the media elite. There's less room for the kind of offbeat experimenting with the medium that characterized NPR's early days."

"There's nothing fundamentally wrong with research," said Torey Malatia, the president and general manager of WBEZ in Chicago, the station that originated "This American Life," the acclaimed documentary series featuring Ira Glass. "But what happened in the commercial marketplace began to happen in the public-radio marketplace. There was this unarticulated but passionately held belief that there was a perfect formula and that if we used that formula in our community, we could be as successful as other communities that used it.

"But after believing that myself for a long time, I'd argue that public radio is at its most successful when it doesn't follow formula. Data is just one tool for ascertaining what works. And it's a shame that public radio is scared away from what doesn't show well in the Arbitron book or hasn't proven itself somewhere else or isn't understandable on first hearing."

Mr. Giovannoni's style also has wounded and alienated. He and his frequent partner George Bailey often led workshops wearing doctor's whites and Groucho glasses. A report Mr. Giovannoni released in the late 1980's, which calibrated how much or little of their audiences various NPR shows shared, branded those with the least congruence, especially opera, with frowning-face logos.

"Though I've been pilloried for it," Mr. Giovannoni says, "I don't see what I do as cynical. My role is to help people in radio understand their listeners. Public radio isn't just you in the studio. Something happens on the other side of the mike. And if people aren't listening, there's no public service." He pauses. "The thing a lot of people in public radio don't get is that I'm on their side."

Keenly aware of criticism, Mr. Giovannoni has in the past several years increasingly emphasized the importance of "taking risks" and "budgeting for failure." His own tastes in music run from Bach to New Orleans jazz to the alternative rock of They Might Be Giants. His research shows that certain stations can hold a loyal audience with programming built around music, whether classical at WQED in Pittsburgh or jazz at WBGO in Newark. What NPR listeners seek, he maintains, is not a narrow format but a "sensibility," a pattern of "interests, values, and beliefs," which explains why the audience for "All Things Considered" also responds well to the quiz show "Whad'ya Know."

Still, when the rebukes come, they do not noticeably bother him. Such equanimity owes less to patience, perhaps, than to an unshakable belief that while his critics have sentimentality, he has the facts. "Everything I've done has caused carping," Mr. Giovannoni says. "It's the allegorical loss of innocence. That's what research is. Every time you pluck somebody out of the garden, they get bent out of shape."  

Samuel G. Freedman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, is the author most recently of ``Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry.''