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Audience and the Future

Posted by Amanda Gustin on March 14, 2011 in forum not temple |

Those of you who don’t listen to NPR regularly might not know that the public radio organization has been in quite a bit of hot water lately. Most recently, its former head of development was caught on tape saying some rather…ill-advised things. He believed he was talking to representatives of a potential donor; he was actually talking to political activists. As part of the fallout of those revelations, NPR’s board of trustees asked for and received the resignation of NPR’s CEO, Vivian Schiller.

What does this have to do with museums?

Well, a lot, actually. One of the hot-button issues in public radio right now is whether or not it should receive government funding. Museums are also in danger of losing their public funding; indeed, they already have lost quite a bit in recent budget revelations. Public radio and museums both find themselves juggling many of the same difficult issues: relevance, money, appeal, and message, among others.

One subject that has been talked about a lot in the museum community is audience: who is our audience now? who should it be in the future? how should we best identify, communicate with, and appeal to our audience? (should we do these things?)

For these and many other reasons, a recent commentary by Sue Schardt, executive director of the Association of Independents in Radio, really struck a chord with me. Among the really interesting things she said was this:

We have built an extraordinary franchise. It didn’t happen by accident. It happened because we used a very specific methodology to cultivate and build an audience. For years, in boardrooms, at conferences, with funders, we have talked about our highly educated, influential audience. We pursued David Giovannoni’s methodologies. We all participated. It was his research, his undaunted, clear strategy that we pursued to build the successful news journalism franchise we have today.

What happened as a result is that we unwittingly cultivated a core audience that is predominately white, liberal, highly educated, elite. “Super-serve the core” — that was the mantra, for many, many years. This focus has, in large part, brought us to our success today. It was never anyone’s intention to exclude anyone.

But we have to accept — unapologetically — that this is the franchise we’ve built.

Read the whole thing. It’s extraordinary.

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