Discover more from The Audio Insurgent
The Final Installment of The Three Paths: a framework for public radio’s future
The final installment in a framework for charting public radio’s future.
Welcome to Dispatch #52 of The Audio Insurgent.
Today is Part Three of a multi-part examination on a strategic framework for public radio’s future. And you will be as happy as I to know this is the shortest installment!
If you are coming to this without having read the first and second installments, I would strongly suggest you go back and read those first. The first is an overview and introduction to the three components of the framework. The second dives deep into all three.
Parts One and Two together were read more than 11,000 times over the past week, which is just remarkable to me. By far the largest dispatches to date on any subject (and to think I almost didn’t do this).
Again, for those not interested in public radio, thanks for your patience. The next dispatch will be about Spotify and audiobooks, of all things, and a deep dive into why people often overlook audiobooks and shouldn’t.
For those who have been along for the ride so far, today we wrap up by discussing a number of strategic perspectives that public radio should embrace in order to create strategic plans that will generate the correct level of outcome across Core, Adjacent, and perhaps even some Transformational Audiences.
While the response to the first two parts has been really gratifying, I expect this one will be harder for many to swallow. Do me a favor: if you encounter something you disagree with, that’s cool, but please read to the end. Then write to me and let me know.
And now, the thrilling conclusion…
Some specific actions, ideas, and perspectives to call out from the three frameworks
Hopefully you’ve read the other installments and are generating some ideas of your own by now. As I put this together I had a number of thoughts and ideas related to this which really didn’t fit well elsewhere, so I’ve decided to compile them. Here are some framing, perspectives, and ideas to borrow.
Shift the focus from inputs to outputs
Today, public radio measures its success by what it does, rather than what that work generates. When talking about its achievements, it focuses on inputs (“We set up a new climate desk” or “We hired a new DEI editor”) rather than on outputs (what changed as a result of your actions, such as audience growth, increased listening from a specific kind of listener, event attendance, revenue growth, etc). Without including the output, there is no accountability to show that the tactics you chose actually solved the problem they were meant to address. If the reason you are adding an editor or establishing a new desk is to increase service to a particular group of listeners, then measure that. Focusing on inputs is the equivalent of getting a cookie for effort. Focusing on outputs shows public service impact and gives you permission to try/fail/learn on the best tactics to achieve your goal. Too often, stations, shows, and organizations focus on inputs with implied impact. If they want to achieve more impactful results, any strategy needs to focus on outputs. Ask “What are we trying to achieve and let’s list out a number of different ways to try to get there–as well as some objective markers to know if we are on course” rather than betting it all on a single tactic and never asking if it is working.
Stop measuring your newsroom’s value by its headcount, instead, focus on the “wow” you create
Public radio has been focusing on building local news capacity as a core part of its public service for almost three decades. The main evidence of this has been the build-up of massive newsrooms across the country. Public radio expresses its commitment to news by its staff size, regularly pointing to headcount as a demonstration of public service. However, when viewed with a clear objective eye, those massive newsroom investments have very little to show for their efforts. There is little evidence of audience growth, or expanded service to others in their community, or significant new revenue to pay the costs of those equally-significant annual investments. Audiences agree with the importance of local news, but public radio often confuses the interest and intensity of this need with a justification for hiring more and more reporters.
One probable cause of the disconnect between size of newsroom and measurable impact is a lack of direction and strategy. Even though public radio has spent hundreds of millions of dollars creating newsrooms, they have offered very little editorial strategic direction to guide those talented journalists who hunger for a clear pathway to generate significant impact from their work.
And while listeners deeply value local news, they don’t seem to care about the size of newsrooms. They want good–and lots of it–but not too much (they value balance from their shows and stations between local, national, and international news). They really don’t care or have any context for the number of people it takes to make that happen. If that is what generates value to them (good–and lots of it–but not too much), then why not build strategy and tactics around that idea?
Listeners hunger for moments that stop them in their driveway or front steps, not wanting to end their ability to listen to what happens next. They want “wow,” so focus on creating as much “wow” as possible, the higher the ratio of “wow” to… “non-wow”... the better.
Retrofit newsrooms away from “fast” and “broad” and towards “distinction” and “depth.”
Public radio spends a lot of money to generate a lot of coverage. In fact, it often overspends to generate too much of the wrong kinds of coverage. The investment is very inefficient. There has been an implicit strategy from national news programs that the real value of audio news (as compared to other forms of news distribution) is its immediacy–being on top of news as it happens. Listeners rarely emphasize this when articulating why they listen or donate to public radio. Instead, they mention the intimacy and immersive qualities excellent audio reporting can achieve. When discussing favorite reporting that has stayed with them over the years, this sound-rich, captivating storytelling is always what they recall.
The industry often chooses between two wrong and inefficient directional choices on how to deploy its considerable pool of reporting talent. The first is the volume strategy, delivering a report with smaller ambition in order to deliver it as quickly as possible. The other choice stations, shows, and organizations make is the exact opposite, almost a “free range” approach where reporters are left to cover what interests them, with little accountability for time, impact, or the audience interest. These reporters create earnest stories and features without doing the work to show why listeners should care.
Listeners value distinction. They want reporting that connects the dots, more targeted and deeper coverage, revealing stories others ignore, angles others miss, or ideas others simply don’t have the skill, bandwidth, or time to pursue. In the audiences’ eyes, that is what has made public radio distinct and when they discuss the future, that is wholly unchanged. To that end…
Flip the script on the 80/20 editorial mix
In more than three decades of listening to tens of thousands of public radio listeners via focus groups, surveys, and research projects, what public radio listeners want from public radio news is very simple and clear: “Give me a little bit of what’s going on, and a lot of things I didn’t know or will surprise me.” That’s it.
However, going back a generation to the “Sense of Place” research study done in the early 2000s as part of PRPD’s Core Values Project, and continuing through many studies since (including as recently as this summer’s Millennial Listener Insight Study), there is a tension present in this. Listeners value balance between local, national, and international listening. They want all three, but in balance–though they struggle to articulate what that balance should be. Similarly, listeners have always struggled between the need for the basic utility hard news (like items featured in a newscast) with their intense interest in things that are deeper and surprising. They acknowledge the need to have basic hard, broad news coverage of what’s happening in their community, country, and world, but also somewhat dismiss that as being the coverage they get elsewhere. They send a mixed message to public radio: “Do the basics, we need the basics, but don’t give me too much basics.”
This is completely a matter of interpretation, but let’s come up with a debatable “golden ratio” between hard news headlines and in-depth coverage. For this model, go with 20% “what” and 80% “how, who, why, and surprise.”
That’s 20% “breadth”: use your impartial, independent lens on my community and the world and tell me what’s going on today.
And 80% “depth”: tell me how this came to be, who is affected by it in ways I may not be able to see, and why this happened…or offer me something that will completely surprise me.
You may take issue with this ratio–and perhaps it should be 30/70, 40/60, or even 10/90–but for argument’s sake, let’s just go with 20/80. The bottom line is that listeners want less of the hard news and more of the deeper explanatory and exploratory journalism. The ratio isn’t as important as the balance between them.
The problem is that, today, most of public radio has this formula completely backwards. Listening to local, national, and international coverage on public radio, it sounds like 80% “what” and 20% “how, who, why, and surprise.” This overdependence on breadth over the listener-beloved and repeatedly-requested depth is driving a lot of the editorial fatigue and lack of engagement with public radio today. It shows in the audience numbers. It also creates a lack of distinction from other news providers across platforms. And it is almost immediately fixable and addressable, at every level of the public radio system.
Reformat the newsmagazines
The drivetime newsmagazine format built public radio as we know it today. They have been the economic and audience-building engines of the industry. For the foreseeable future, that will remain true, but the idea of what a newsmagazine is and should be will need to rapidly evolve.
In addition to being prime examples of the inverted 20/80 ratio above, public radio’s primary news magazines (Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Marketplace) need a re-think to fit into the resources and demands of the coming years. ME and ATC are constructed around multiple hour-long clocks, mixing mostly from harder, immediate news to softer features as the hour continues. If we want the 20% “what” and 80% “how, who, why, and surprise” ratio above, how is that possible when a listener rarely hears a quarter of the program? If we want to deliver a 20/80 experience, the show’s clocks should be retooled to provide that experience in a window that matches the average listening opportunity. In essence, if any listener tunes in and listens for 30 minutes, how can we ensure they will get the right balance? A fresh look at format and clocks can answer this.
And while doing this, let’s please step away from an overreliance on staff reporter two-ways. This has become the default for too many stories in the news magazines. Public radio gravitated in this direction because it allowed producers to offer a lot of short takes on more stories. However, this is the opposite of what listeners ask for, as they value deeper looks into fewer topics, and including the first-hand sound and voices of the story.
A final thought
So this is it. Some of you, probably most of you, will read this and shrug, then go back to your day. But some of you will try to change something as a result.
I want to voice my worst fear in sharing this framework–that someone will find one small part of it that they disagree with, and use that as an excuse to write off the entire thing. I see that far too often in my work and have seen a lot of organizations suffer as a result of their resistance.
I don’t think this framework is perfect, but it is more than the public radio industry has in hand so far. I would be happy to endorse and evangelize another framework in place of this. I just want to see public radio thrive.
I’ve had some quietly tell me I’m wasting my time with this. That public radio is so change resistant that the industry can’t move. I don’t accept that. For every time I feel like I’m shouting into the wind with public radio, I meet some young talent at stations, reporters, hosts, producers, and yes, even executives, and I get excited because they have all the goods to carry the system into its next era. It is just incumbent on the system to give them the ability to do so.
I’ve tried to make it easy. I gave you the three-word “Make surprising choices” version. If that doesn’t work for you, here is this content framework in haiku form:
values from the past
echo yet morph in new ways
when serving next gen
Regardless, in truth, the most important component of this framework is you and what you do with this. If you have made it this far in reading this, you care. No one would read this far unless they (a) are hate-reading this or (b) care about public radio, or (c) both–but let’s assume it’s because you care. If you care, then you are feeling what has been happening in public radio and believe that more is possible.
This is a framework for a future that has more. If you agree, say so. If you disagree, say so even louder. If this inspires you to come up with your own ideas, share them. And regardless of how you feel, I do encourage you to write to me and share your thoughts.
I hope you found this useful. It was a bear to put together, but it feels really good to get out into the world.
And if your station or organization needs my help in finishing this, let’s talk. I’d love to figure out if I can help. So much is possible. It is time.
If this was forwarded to you or you read this online, would you mind subscribing?
Make great things. I’ll be listening.