"NPR Activists and Classical Monks"

Bailey, G. (2004). NPR activists and classical monks: Differentiating public radio formats. Journal of Radio Studies, 11(2), 184–193.

Theory and background: Bailey’s study was funded by a group of radio broadcasters who wanted to understand their audiences. Non-commercial radio stations in major markets have shifted away from their previous “crazy-quilt” programming to adopt a single format. In markets that supported a commercial classical music station, the public radio station usually abandoned music to concentrate on news. In other markets, two public stations would usually each take one of the classical or news formats. The stations wanted to know why, despite their similar demographics, there is little or no crossover between the audiences of classical music radio stations and National Public Radio news stations. Bailey discusses the “uses and gratifications” paradigm, which many researchers had abandoned because of methodological questions—namely that “uses” require quantitative data, and “gratifications” demand more exploratory research. Since surveys had already quantitatively established that there was little crossover between news and classical listeners, the researchers set up focus groups to explore gratifications.

Design: The research team identified four NPR stations, four noncommercial classical music stations, and two commercial classical stations that met strict criteria of broadcasting and audience service. The researchers deliberately chose disparate markets in several different American cities. The researchers aggregated their funding so that they could conduct 20 focus groups in their eight chosen markets, thus increasing their study’s external validity. Respondents were chosen for the focus groups by random interval samples from two sampling frames: a list of current and lapsed subscribers; and a telephone list of college graduates in target ZIP codes. This dual frame ensured that each focus group would involve both radio subscribers and non-subscribers. In the telephone screening, respondents were asked to describe their radio listening by unaided recall.

The 20 focus groups each consisted of 12 listeners. For the first 45 minutes of each session, the moderator asked what stations the respondents listened to and why. Bailey reports one particularly effective question that asked respondents how they would feel if a particular station were to go off the air. The remainder of each focus group session asked respondents to respond to brief samples of radio play from unfamiliar stations in order to get at “deeper, and more grounded expressions of how listener needs may or may not be fulfilled by radio programming” (p. 189).

Alternatives: In a world of infinite funding, the validity of the study might have been improved by conducting individual interviews with respondents, rather than focus groups, since social pressures might influence responses. A mailed survey could have reached a larger population, though that would not have allowed the researchers to play snippets of the radio programming to respondents, and would probably have resulted in less detailed responses, and given the stated qualitative nature of this study, a survey would have been less appropriate.

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