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Survey Explores Public Radio Habits of Millennials

More local and on-demand content are needed

The listening habits of millennials are changing the ways that media content is consumed. This is one of the key findings of a new survey that was commissioned by the Public Radio Program Directors Association, and presented at their annual conference in Washington. The survey, funded by a coalition of 15 public radio stations organized PRPD, was conducted by Jacobs Media over the past year.

The main driving force for the study is data released by the U.S. Census Bureau, and analyzed by the Pew Research Center, which notes that millennials have eclipsed baby boomers as the largest generation in the American population. They now number 75.4 million, leaving boomers a close second with a 74.9 million headcount. Over time, that gap is expected to widen.

As Fred Jacobs, president of Jacobs Media explains, there were two parts to the Millennial Research Project. “First, we conducted 26 one-on-one interviews with millennials in five cities with public radio stations. Sixteen of the respondents said they listened to public radio, while nine did not. The conversations were 30 to 40 minutes long. Second, there were 12 ethnographic interviews, where we followed someone around all day and observed their listening habits and talked to them at the end.”

What made these interviews especially interesting, according to Jacobs, is that all took place shortly before or after the presidential election, a time of heightened news awareness.

As the survey unfolded, Jacobs found himself surprised that many of his stereotypes of millennials simply melted away. “They are not all tech-heads. Yes, they own gadgets like smartphones, tablets and laptops but they use technology to access the content they want. They are not experts, nor are they fascinated with it in the way that some baby boomers are.”

He also noted that, contrary to expectations, most do not work for tech firms like Google or Amazon. Rather, many have mundane jobs, some holding down two jobs to pay the bills. While nine of the 12 had vinyl records and a turntable at home, none had a radio.

Jacobs notes that what millennials have in common with public radio listeners of other generations is the same set of core values. What’s different is the way that they consume media. “There is little listening to public radio in real time, except for ‘Morning Edition.’ Most consumption is on-demand. At work, they tend to listen to more music and less news.” Jacobs adds that the irony to this finding is that many program directors obsess over which program to put in what time slot, and for millennials, that isn’t even an issue.

While millennials hold public radio in high regard, that doesn’t mean they don’t have criticisms. “Some feel that reporters in public radio don’t press newsmakers hard enough, and let them off the hook with answers that might not be true. In that regard, they favor the journalism of ‘Democracy Now,’ where the reporters are perceived as being more tough and aggressive.”

A second area of concern is public radio’s coverage of local events. “They wish there was more information about things such as concerts, the arts and restaurants. There is also a desire to engage more interactively with public stations at events,” adds Jacobs.