As Yulia drives to work in Novosibirsk, the third-largest city in Russia, she usually turns on the radio to catch the news on a local FM station. She can’t remember the last time she tuned in to Tochka, the state-wired radio network, but a few of her relatives occasionally do.
Yulia is 25, so like the majority of her peers, she gets a lot of her news through online media and social networks. But the original social network – word-of-mouth – is alive and well, and nearly three quarters of all Russians say they get their weekly news fix from family members and friends.
It’s becoming more difficult to find broadcasters that are not owned or controlled by the government. Late last year, authorities dissolved the main state news agency Ria Novosti and merged it with radio service Voice of Russia to create a new media agency. Ria Novosti itself called the move “the latest in a series of shifts in Russia’s news landscape which appear to point toward a tightening of state control in the already heavily regulated media sector.”*
Picturing Our Listeners
Yulia is not actually a real person, but a composite character – called a “persona” – created by using data from audience research data.
“Creating personas is a very useful exercise that’s widely used in the industry,” says AWR web manager Marvin King. “By creating profiles of typical listeners in different countries, we are better able to put ourselves in the shoes of our listeners and visualize how they listen to our programming – both on the airwaves and online.”
So, for example, AWR has also created the persona of Zaw, a 40-something farmer in Myanmar. After a long history of censorship, the country is benefitting from greater freedoms given to journalists, including the abolition of pre-publication censorship in 2012. Radio remains the primary source of news for the Myanmar people; this includes shortwave, which continues to attract a third of all citizens weekly.
Like Zaw, the rural residents who make up two-thirds of Myanmar’s population rely far more on radio than TV for their news. The country’s web infrastructure is meager, since Internet access was extremely limited and controlled until recently. Just 4.1 percent of people say they have ever used the Internet, nearly always at an Internet café.
So, as the media landscape continues to change rapidly – both in terms of technology and degree of freedom – how does AWR ensure that it is best meeting the needs of listeners? After all, as Jack Welch, former chair and CEO of General Electric, famously said, “If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near.”
“It’s an ongoing challenge,” says AWR senior vice president Greg Scott. “Up until the early 90s, we really didn’t have access to proper audience research data. We monitored the volume of listener mail that studios received and relied on localized reports from church workers in different countries, but that often didn’t paint the whole picture.”
In 1992, AWR and other international Christian broadcasters – such as Trans World Radio and Far Eastern Broadcasting Corporation – formed a consortium called InterSearch. A major focus of the group is obtaining reliable audience research, and by pooling their funds, the members are able to collectively purchase much more data than they could individually. Today, InterSearch has access to research conducted by top specialists such as Gallup and Intermedia in about 60 countries. The personas of Yulia and Zaw were created using this data.
“We are constantly adjusting AWR’s operations to match listening patterns in different countries,” Scott says. “For example, for the first time ever, we have been able to start airing programs on commercial FM stations in several large cities in India, and we are putting a lot of funds into this new outreach.”
But AWR often can’t rely on conditions remaining stable. In Russia, we have programs airing on a national network with 1,500 FM stations. Several years ago, however, AWR’s programs were removed from the network for more than a year, despite the contract we held. In Africa, many governments are currently making FM licenses available, and we have a small window of opportunity to partner with local church leaders to establish local radio stations [see cover story on FM activity in southern Africa].
Data and Decisions
“At our InterSearch meetings, we have quite an emphasis on how our different organizations can maximize the spread of the gospel, how to combine high tech with high touch,” Scott says. “One of the things I really value is the ability to network with other Christian organizations and come away with a lot of information and resources that can guide our decision-making.”
Audience research data help AWR determine whether to emphasize shortwave, FM, or online programs in a particular country; what time of day people prefer listening; what program topics people are most interested in; and whether literacy rates are high enough to support a Bible correspondence program.
“For example, the data show that there are more than a billion mobile phone users in China,” Scott says. “How do we as an organization utilize that technology to get our programs into the hands of those users? AWR is currently doing podcasting and audio on demand for all of our nearly 100 broadcast languages, and the results for Mandarin, for example, are tremendous: we had more than 4 million subscribers for that language at last count. We feel good about that, but that’s just one language. We must keep expanding and adapting, so we can carry the message of God’s love to as many people as we possibly can.”
* “Contemporary Media Use in Russia,” 2013 Gallup report commissioned by the Broadcasting Board of Governors.