Six Pieces of Advice for Those Interested in Public Radio
Public radio is experiencing an existential reckoning long in the making, but the future can be bright by keeping it simple, focused, and intentional.
Welcome to Dispatch #19 of The Audio Insurgent.
After a run of dispatches about podcasting, I thought I’d share some thoughts on another audio subject I think about a lot...public radio. To be clear for those who read this from outside the US, “public radio” means something almost opposite in the United States than it does elsewhere. Here, “public” stations are non-profit broadcasters, often licensed to universities and community boards, that feature NPR content (also a non-profit “public” broadcaster). For my American readers, “public” stations in many parts of the world are what we refer to as “commercial” radio stations (or at least those not operated by government broadcasters). This definitional difference can cause a lot of initial confusion when talking to international broadcasters.
So, in the same spirit as the recent dispatch on Five Pieces of Advice for Those Interested in Podcasting, this edition will revisit a recent talk I gave about public radio. It’s the one thing I have today, so let’s get to it...
[TODAY’S THING: SIX PIECES OF ADVICE FOR THOSE INTERESTED IN PUBLIC RADIO] Recently I was asked to speak to a cohort of “next generation” leaders in public radio who are part of a large training initiative called the Public Media CEO/COO Boot Camp created by Public Media Women in Leadership. It is a terrific project that’s really exciting to see happen.
I was recently asked to speak to them about public radio content, along with two friends, PRX CEO Kerri Hoffman and NPR Programming SVP Anya Grundmann. Below is a tweaked (and somewhat expanded) transcript of the six ideas I presented.
Hi everyone. I’m Eric Nuzum, I help run a podcast consulting and production company called Magnificent Noise. It's nice to see you all. I recognize a number of faces who I've met before, during the years that I was part of public radio. Today, I wanted to give you six concepts to work with when you're thinking about content and podcasting for public radio today and in the future.
Idea #1: Effective public service is measurable. This is a statement I fully believe, yet I will admit I spent a large part of my career in public radio arguing the opposite. I felt that “real” public service couldn’t be measured. If our mission was to create a more informed public, can you really measure that in a way that proves a cause and effect relationship? No, I offered.
I was wrong. You can measure it.
Public radio organizations exist to serve the public. That mission orientation is your distinction and it should permeate everything you do. I fear that in this era dominated by podcasting (which is itself a bit of a false notion), public radio is losing that distinction. If you are creating real impact, that impact can and should be measurable--and you should hold yourself accountable to that when planning what to do.
There are traditional ways to measure, like Nielsen ratings or downloads, but you can measure beyond that. If, for example, you say that your organization’s intention is to provide a voice for the voiceless. That is something you can measure. Even though it's an ideal and a principle and kind of squishy on the specifics, it's something you can define, then look at afterwards and determine if it happened. The same with a buzz phrase like “civic engagement”--did anyone (or enough people) actually engage? Figure out what, specifically, “engagement” means, then answer the question.
The key is to orient your goals towards actions. Actions can be measured.
But there is some caution around this, which brings us back to ratings for a moment, because that is the primary method that stations use to objectively assess their public service, Nielsen broadcast ratings. I notice more and more stations using market Share (the percentage of radio listening done to any given station in a market), bragging that this measure is growing. That’s great right? Not necessarily. In fact, more often than not, when a station is trumpeting Share as a marker of success, that’s because other listening measures are down. And that’s the case with public radio stations: Time Spent Listening, Cume (total) audience, Average Quarter Hour--all trending down on many stations. Bragging about a bigger Share is being satisfied with a bigger piece of a shrinking pie.
My biggest concern is that public radio leaders are using media disruption and the pandemic as a cop out. For many stations, rating measures are down, which means fewer people are listening and those that do listen less.
That’s because of the interruption of commuting patterns, right? Or we all knew this was coming, which is why we are making a bunch of podcasts now!
Both of those notions are wrong.
When ratings are down, that may be part of a trend (rating ratings have been slowly falling since...the mid-1980s)...and the pandemic did screw up time in the car.
But the bottom line is when ratings go down, so does public service. Less listening equals less public service.
Is that okay?
Hell, no. But what have you done to address that and not accept generating less public service? From listening to stations, I see almost no meaningful changes happening meant to shape the experience to today’s listener. And this should not only be happening at this point, but that constant refresh of format and scheduling should ALWAYS be happening as radio continues to evolve.
The “cop out” part kicks in when the excuses roll in. “Sure, our ratings may be down, but we provide public service in other ways.” Almost universally, those other ways tend to be hard to quantify or measure or aren’t generating enough engagement and service to make up for the eroded audience decline.
If you asked this group individually to define “public service”--there would be a lot of different definitions. And I think that’s dangerous for you. Because it is subjective.
With content, there's a way you can measure the effectiveness of your work based on how valuable your work is, to your community, as well as to your licensee and those who provide resources.
Idea #2: Effective public service content solves problems. This is something I've come to embrace the last two years, largely driven by the pandemic. Public service is, at its core, the business of solving problems for the greater good. Public service problem solving can be picking up garbage on the sidewalk or building a park for kids to play or creating a senior center or broadcasting an FM signal of information and entertainment. It not only involves a solution, but a clearly defined user-centric problem.
When our company works with other companies, organizations, or talent to define what they should be doing in the podcast space, we have five questions that we spend about two or three hours answering. One of those five questions is “What problem are you solving?” (And here is a hint, it can’t be YOUR problem that you are trying to solve, it is your listeners’ problem.) Saying, “Every station is making podcasts because that is the future--so I need a podcast too.” That is your problem, not your listener’s.
Frankly, listeners don’t care whether you have a podcast or not.
There are things they do care about--problems you can solve. For example, I want to know more about this issue or story in our community. I want to hear something that surprises me or that I didn’t know about our community. I want to understand the impact of and solutions to this problem we all have. Those are problems that you can solve.
I always think the best way to prioritize projects your station or organization can do is to ask yourself “What problem are we solving for the largest, most significant group of people who really need us to solve the problem?” If you attended the PRPD conference, you probably heard the keynote from author and facilitator (and also a Magnificent Noise podcast host) Priya Parker where she phrased this very idea slightly differently: “What need exists in my community that I am uniquely qualified to address?”
Idea #3: Mind the equation. Those who have spent time analyzing public radio’s performance over the past fifty years have noted some pretty simple patterns that have been surprisingly consistent over the decades. I like to think of them as equations for generating public service and the public support to make that programming possible.
My version of this is Significant programming -> significant audience -> significant public service -> significant value -> significant support.
Simply put: it all starts with making great programming. And the greater the programming, the more support you will eventually receive in recognition of that programming’s value.
In public radio, you don’t get a prize for doing something--you get the prize for doing something that a lot of people see value in. Making something great.
There have been a number of versions of this equation over the last generation in public radio, from different research projects and different programming initiatives that all boil down to “Programming causes audience” or “Significant public service begets significant public support.”
That seems kind of simple and easy, but it isn’t. It is actually really hard to do and very easy to take for granted.
Regardless of which version you use, it is important to remember that great programming comes first--it is the catalyst. And the greatness of that programming is measured by its distinction and the amount of service it generates (problems it solves).
For all the initiatives I’ve seen in public radio--all the programming ideas hatched and launched--the projects that succeed are the ones who keep this equation in mind. Make it great--and all the later considerations have a way of working out.
Former NPR CEO Jarl Mohn liked to say that nothing solves a problem like a hit. That’s so true. So, public radio needs to be in the business of meaning public service hits.
Today, one remaining distinction about public radio that most other media companies can’t match is that you have the ability to be patient and play the long game. Even companies with alarmingly deep pockets don’t have very much patience. Most of the media companies rushing into podcasting are expecting big results, fast. Large audiences; big revenue lines--right away. Most will fail because they don’t have the patience and long-term view of what’s possible. But you can do that. You can invest in a good idea and give it time to grow, become really distinctive, and build a supportive relationship with an audience.
Yet I feel that few in public radio see or understand that competitive advantage. Think of the public radio shows that became HUGE podcasts. With the exception of something like TED Radio Hour, you won’t find many examples of things that were immediately huge and successful. Those who created them followed the equation: create something exciting and then give it the space to take form.
I'll be honest with you. In the 20-plus years I've been working in public radio, I've never seen someone be successful with a project that didn't follow this formula.
Idea #4: Set intentions. When your organization is saying: “What problems can we solve? What public service can we provide?” There's no shortage of options. And I think it's very important for organizations to set an intention, as an organization, as a newsroom, as a content creating organization, where you answer “What specifically are the stories and topics we cover in our newsroom or a program?” We do this--which means we don’t do that. Like, what is our “beat” as an organization? What are the things that we are really good at covering and we are uniquely positioned to solve?
If you don’t take the time to answer these questions, then it is a strategic free-for all, where everyone is operating with their own set of intentions.
I think it is very powerful for organizations to set shared intentions--very hyper-specific things you will focus on, even to the exclusion of other things.
This is especially important as newsrooms and organizations work through DEI issues and equity, representation, and inclusion.
I think it is best to sit down, virtually or in person, and spend a few hours debating and then coming to a shared answer for three questions:
What stories/topics does your newsroom or program cover?
How does it cover these stories?
Why do you do things this way?
Most public service newsrooms, public radio newsrooms, and public journalism newsrooms would be so well-served by just stating this out loud and then agreeing to revise it every six months to see what works, what doesn’t work, and what needs reconsideration.
It's really hard to achieve synergy and maximize what your organization can do without that shared understanding. Not that everyone has to agree or that this is a democratic exercise--but what is the articulated vision of this organization--what do we editorially stand for and spend our days in pursuit of? If you're not all marching in the same direction, you can’t expect to go anywhere.
Idea #5: Podcasting isn’t your future. Even though I've been quite a proponent of podcasting, and podcasting as part of public radio, I don't think it is the future.
I think it is part of the future.
Audio is the future. Using audio as a means to connect people is the future. Podcasting is an important component of audio, right now, but it isn’t the only component, even in the future.
If podcasting is the future, what happens in 5-10 years when a new technology inevitably emerges to replace it?
The definition of “radio” continues to be less and less tethered to technology. Your thinking needs to reflect that. But betting the farm on podcasting is a reactive panic move, not a strategic one. How can the boom in podcasting teach you how to react to future (and, again, inevitable) technological disruption?
Those who are convinced that podcasting is the future of public radio often end up investing and pursuing things that defy the basic economics of how podcasting works. While a lot of podcasting’s story has yet to be written, the smart money is on seeing podcasting as part of the future, not the entire future.
And finally, Idea #6: The solution for a more diverse audience isn’t difficult. I’ve been saying this a lot lately, because many people across a number of media outlets are wrestling with how to make their content more representative, equitable, and inclusive, as well as welcome more people into their organizations. As I mentioned when talking about the importance of intentions, these bring up some really tough questions that need to be talked about openly and out loud. However, I think the solution, the thing that really brings about change, is actually pretty simple.
I like simple. I’m the type of person who needs to boil things down to being very simple in order for me to understand them. And when I’m advising someone on this, I tell them that the most effective means to attract a more diverse audience is putting a microphone in front of the audience that you want to speak to. Meaning that if you want to understand the audience your programming will attract, look at who is behind the microphone.
And if you are a bunch of older people trying to attract a younger audience, or a bunch of white people trying to attract a browner audience, I don't understand how that works, right? If you want to attract a younger audience or a browner audience or an audience from a different part of your community, they need to be behind those mics. They also need to be in positions of authority to decide some of those intentional questions we mentioned earlier.
But I don't think that this is as difficult as people make it out to be. I think a lot of people just don't like the answer because it requires making change.
So those are six things that I thought of for you. I believe you are the future leaders public radio needs and the work in front of you isn’t going to be easy. However, I hope these ideas help you make better decisions as you address the challenges you’ll face.
Okay, that’s it for this dispatch, too.
If this was forwarded to you or you read this online, would you mind subscribing?
Make great things. I’ll be listening.