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The Biggest Challenge For Public Radio Today Is…
Here is a surprise: ChatGPT LOVES public radio… and radio generally...and thinks you should too–and is a pretty relentless enthusiast about the medium, despite its challenges.
Welcome to Dispatch #39 of The Audio Insurgent.
Hopefully you realize that today’s dispatch is a follow-up to one posted yesterday. That one was focused on podcasting. This one is not.
More than 350 new readers have signed up for The Audio Insurgent since January 1st. If you are a relatively new reader and haven’t scrolled through the archives of this newsletter, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking this is only about podcasting–as it is all I’ve been discussing so far this year. But, over time, I discuss a lot of other outlets for spoken word audio: audiobooks, streaming, smart speakers, FM broadcasting, and a lot of talk about public radio, where I have a lot of history and still care about deeply.
Sidebar: When I say “public radio” it’s like saying “football”: it means something completely different in the U.S. than it does in many other countries. Elsewhere “public radio” often refers to privately-owned commercial radio stations. Here in the U.S., public radio means public service broadcasting on stations licensed to universities, community groups, or other not-for-profit organizations.
Even though this dispatch starts with a reference to the BBC, today, when I talk about public radio, I’m mostly–but not exclusively–referring to public service radio broadcasters in the U.S. But the takeaways apply to all non-profit public service and state-supported radio stations and services. While the governance and funding models may be different, they share a lot of similar challenges. So BBC, ABC, DBC, RTE, RÚV, CBC, and many, many others throughout the world…this is for you too.
First, a bit that started off as part of what I wrote about public radio, but then grew to being its own item.
So let’s light this candle…
[TODAY’S STARTER THING: CENTERING ON THE LISTENER] A bit of a preamble to our conversation about public radio…
Two weeks ago, I was in London for five days and spent a lot of time listening to BBC Radio 4–as in, I turned it on when I walked into the hotel room and let it run 24/7 until I checked out. For clarity, Radio 4 is the BBC’s domestic radio news service. It is a storied institution with a surprising origin story that laid a number of very early bets on the role that a radio broadcast service could play in a society… and was right. Amazingly, shockingly right. Its vision and programming principles were imitated all over the world and were held up as the gold standard for radio journalism and programming.
But listening now in my hotel room to Radio 4, the service sounds like that spirit of innovation and possibility is somewhat stuck in time. The global crown jewel of radio news and information services is a patchwork of programming that is almost impossible to navigate and creates a whiplash-inducing listening experience between subjects and genres.
One early morning time slot covers the following in one fifteen minute segment: “The Prayer of the Day,” “Farming Today,” “Weather” (which includes a several-minute laundry list of wind speed and direction in towns across Britain), and wraps with “Tweet of the Day” (which is not the best posting on Twitter, but two solid minutes of actual birdsong).
While there is some daypart programming, like a three-hour breakfast show, the rest oscillates through documentary, radio drama, special interest talk shows, history, comedy, science, and literature & poetry readings. It is a programming philosophy that was very common in the U.S. on commercial and public radio stations… until the 1970s. What killed this “little bit of something for everybody” approach is that audience measurement quickly told programmers that listeners, well, they don’t listen to that. Radio listeners don’t value variety (to them it means a little of something they like and a lot of things they don’t like); listeners value consistency. As research and measurement has proven time and time and time and time again: when you try to serve multiple audiences, you really don’t end up serving anyone very well.
Now, the BBC produces and commissions stellar programming–yes, stellar. One of the most prestigious and authoritative journalism operations in the world, one of the leading creators of spoken-word programming (commissioning more than £83 million of programming a year). But that isn’t the issue. The problem with this–and the program schedule is evidence of this–is that all the BBC’s resources and attention are focused on creating content, but the way they program the service lets one to think that they are not focusing on how listeners listen. All the attention is on creation, but less effort goes into understanding consumption.
Now, let me say clearly–the reason I listened every moment I was in my hotel room over five days is I love the BBC. I admire the BBC. I revere the BBC. But for the average listener, it often can be unwelcoming and inaccessible. It caters only to the hardest core listener. As a listening experience for others, including the next generation of audience, it is a hot mess.
When I hear concerns over ratings decline, debate over the license fee that accounts for the vast majority of BBC funding, and recent controversies about the BBC’s ability to flex with the times–it doesn’t surprise me.
As a programmer, when I listen, I hear the BBC’s focus on what they should create and program, rather than what the news and information audience wants to hear–as well as when and how they want to hear it. And I hear even less emphasis on helping audiences navigate their offerings and figure out what the service has to offer them later today, tomorrow, this weekend, or even in the next 20 minutes. Unless I am completely misreading the British public’s interest in hearing the wind direction and speed in Bristol–every hour–the BBC is centered on what they think the BBC needs to be, possibly on what their critics think they need to be. I don’t hear a lot that shows the BBC is centered on or paying attention to how listeners actually listen to the service.
Having a listener-centered approach as a creator and programmer infects everything: the stories you tell, the journalism you create, the specific audience you chose to serve, the aesthetic choices you make, the sound and vibe of your service, the relationship you have with your audience, and the love and support they direct back at you. Lacking a listener-centered approach also infects everything, but not in the way you want.
Radio (all radio, commercial and public) is unique among media in that its primary disruptor is not new technology or digital media or changing preference–the cause of radio’s disruption is radio itself. I’ve heard it said that radio isn’t what is dying–the medium’s spirit of invention and passion is what is hurting. You can’t expect listeners to care about your radio service if you aren’t generally focused on them and their needs.
For commercial broadcasters, their drive to increase margin has caused them to optimize stations and program services to the point that while 80%+ of the public listens, the number of people who actually care about commercial radio stations and consider them personally important is falling further and further.
And for public radio stations, well, this is probably the time to segue into our main item today…
[TODAY’S MAIN THING: THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE FOR PUBLIC RADIO TODAY IS…]
I think the picture above, and all three illustrations in this dispatch, summarize my feelings on AI. I asked the AI image creator DALL•E to create some illustrations with the instruction “Radio station employees solving a problem.” These are what it kicked back.
I showed them to my wife, expecting her to find them as odd as I did, and her response was, “What did you expect with a question like that?”
I think I expected something impressive. Maybe something insightful. Maybe something surprising. And that isn’t what I got. I got back something odd, slightly on the mark and quizzically off mark as well, and something unfocused. It did deliver on surprise, but not as I expected.
As I mentioned yesterday, the essence of generative AI services like ChatGPT all hinge on one thing: ChatGPT gathers its intelligence from reading everything on the Internet. So there are no profound insights in ChatGPT, its “intelligence” is limited to our collective intelligence. If you ask ChatGPT to determine the best selling female author who was born in Ohio–ChatGPT knows that because it analyzes information we gave it.
It can’t predict the future. It isn’t sentient or all-knowing. ChatGPT basically says back to us a collective and ranked version of what we say to each other.
So when I ask it about the biggest challenges facing podcasting or radio–what it tells me is what it is hearing from us.
So when I asked ChatGPT what the biggest challenge facing public radio today is–it replied
Any public radio CEOs and managers reading this are probably feeling quite seen right now.
However, declaring that the biggest challenge facing public radio is “funding” is much more off the mark than on. Focusing on funding is thinking too far downstream from the challenges I see.
To understand why, let’s look at what generates or initiates a lot of the funding of public radio: public service. And to be specific, public service programming that listeners actually listen to.
To me, funding is not the alpha–it is the omega. It is the outcome of a process that starts with creative distinctive programming that serves an audience as well as a compelling vision for making more of that programming in the future. That audience comes to value the programming and is willing to support it personally or support institutional funding.
Make great, distinctive programming that serves an audience well? Funding flows from that. It is what drives the giving process. Public radio stations invest a $1 in programming, they should be able to generate at least a dollar’s worth of public service and value out of that investment, which starts the cycle over again. But you can’t get “funding” without the programming.
So I presented this to ChatGPT. I said, “When you say that ‘funding’ is the primary challenge for public radio, that strikes me as wrong because ‘funding’ results from programming.”
“You are correct that creating programming that attracts listeners and sponsors is a key factor in ensuring the sustainability of public radio. In other words, it is not just about funding, but about using that funding to create programming that resonates with listeners and meets their needs and interests.
Public radio stations rely heavily on donations from listeners and sponsors to sustain their operations, and therefore must create programming that drives funding. This means producing high-quality content that is informative, entertaining, and engaging to listeners. However, in order to create high-quality programming, public radio stations require significant financial resources, including funding for staff, equipment, and facilities. This funding must be secured on an ongoing basis to ensure the sustainability of the station.”
I replied: “So you are saying it is a ‘chicken and egg’ scenario, between funding and programming.”
“You could say that it is a ‘chicken and egg’ scenario. In other words, funding and programming are interdependent and both play critical roles in ensuring the sustainability of public radio.”
I said, “So isn’t it then a matter of prioritizing? What programming choices will both fulfill the station’s public service mission and generate enough revenue to create the next batch of programming, right?”
“Yes. Ultimately, the key to success for public radio stations is to remain nimble and responsive to the needs and interests of their audience and to prioritize programming choices that will allow them to fulfill their public service mission while also generating the necessary resources to sustain their operations over the long term.”
I said, “Many worry that by prioritizing funding, stations will only produce programming that generates the most revenue, thus ignoring programming that is not as financially lucrative.”
“It is a valid concern that prioritizing funding may lead public radio stations to focus only on programming that generates the most revenue. However, it is important to note that public radio stations have a unique responsibility to fulfill their public service mission and provide programming that serves the needs and interests of their community.
“While funding is a critical factor in the sustainability of public radio stations, they must also prioritize programming choices that fulfill their public service mission and serve the needs and interests of their community. This means producing programming that is diverse, inclusive, and reflects the many voices and perspectives of their community, even if it is not as financially lucrative as other programming.
“In addition, public radio stations must maintain transparency with their audience and sponsors about their priorities and programming choices, and remain accountable to their public service mission at all times. By doing so, public radio stations can balance their financial needs with their public service mission and ensure that their programming serves the interests of their community.”
Okay, this is a robot talking to me, but the last part of that answer about transparency and accountability is pretty rad.
I said, “It sounds like you are now arguing that funding isn't the top challenge for public radio.”
It came back with
“I apologize if my previous responses were unclear. While funding is certainly a significant challenge for public radio stations, it is not the only challenge they face. Other challenges include attracting and retaining listeners in an increasingly crowded media landscape, adapting to new technologies and changing audience preferences, and fulfilling their public service mission while also remaining competitive.
It is true that funding plays a critical role in enabling public radio stations to create the programming that drives their mission and attracts listeners and sponsors. However, creating high-quality programming that resonates with listeners and meets their needs and interests is also a significant challenge that requires ongoing investment and innovation.
Ultimately, the success of public radio stations depends on their ability to balance their financial needs with their public service mission and produce programming that serves the needs and interests of their community. This requires ongoing investment in programming, technology, and audience engagement, as well as a commitment to transparency and accountability to their audience and sponsors.”
So then I got a bit more existential…
“Is public radio still relevant?” I asked.
“Yes, public radio is still relevant and plays an important role in the media landscape. Public radio provides a unique combination of news, information, and cultural programming that is not readily available on other media platforms. It offers a wide range of programming that includes in-depth reporting, analysis, and perspectives on local, national, and international issues. Public radio also provides a platform for independent voices and diverse perspectives that may not be represented in commercial media.
“Additionally, public radio is often seen as a trusted source of news and information, which is increasingly important in an era of ‘fake news’ and misinformation. Its commitment to impartiality, along with its rigorous fact-checking and reporting standards, helps to build trust and credibility with its audience.”
But, then, after saying all that, it quoted an audience figure for the reach of NPR stations… which was off by about 50 million people. So, take all of this with a grain of salt. Remember, collective wisdom. ;)
Then I played the devil’s advocate–throwing every bromide at ChatGPT I could about the “death of radio” and diminishment of both public and commercial radio. Things I hear often from those in the industry, but don’t really believe in myself.
And through it all, ChatGPT was absolutely relentless about the power of radio… today. It would not give an inch.
“While commercial radio has faced challenges in recent years, it is not necessarily ‘dying,’” it said.
“It is true that commercial radio has experienced a decline in listenership and revenue in recent years. However, commercial radio is still a significant force in the media landscape, and many stations continue to attract large audiences and generate revenue through advertising. Public radio, on the other hand, has maintained a relatively stable audience in recent years, and continues to provide a unique and valuable service to its listeners. While public radio faces its own set of challenges, including funding and relevance in a changing media landscape, it remains a trusted source of news, information, and cultural programming for many Americans.”
I closed by asking, “What would your advice be to radio programmers today?”
“As a language model, I don't have personal opinions, but I can provide some general advice to radio programmers based on industry trends and best practices. Here are a few suggestions:
Know your audience: It's essential to understand the demographics, preferences, and interests of your audience. This will help you create programming that resonates with them and keeps them engaged.
Focus on quality content: Whether it's news, music, or other types of programming, focus on creating high-quality content that is informative, entertaining, and culturally enriching. This will help you attract and retain listeners.
Embrace new technologies: Today's listeners consume media across a range of platforms, including traditional radio, podcasts, live streaming, and social media. It's essential to embrace these new technologies and offer your programming across a variety of platforms to reach new and diverse audiences.
Foster community engagement: Public radio stations have a unique responsibility to serve their communities by providing programming that reflects the many voices and perspectives of their audience. Encourage listener feedback and engagement through phone calls, social media, and other channels to foster a sense of community and connection.
Balance financial needs with public service mission: While funding is critical to the sustainability of public radio stations, it's important to balance financial needs with your public service mission. Prioritize programming choices that fulfill your public service mission and serve the needs and interests of your community, even if it's not as financially lucrative as other programming.
Overall, the key to success as a radio programmer is to remain flexible and adaptable, to understand your audience, and to prioritize high-quality programming that serves the needs and interests of your community.”
Okay, I couldn’t have said it better myself–though I often do say these things, just not as succinctly.
So I started off strongly disagreeing with ChatGPT’s answer: “funding.” Then, oddly through the “conversation” we ended up in largely the same place. The robot’s five-point summary is a better takeaway, in my opinion. They aren’t challenges per se, but the challenge they represent is for the industry to keep its eye on the listener, the relationship with that listener, and, ultimately, the public service that is created for listeners.
I hear from many in the public radio community that the industry is struggling with new giver acquisition and that the philanthropic community is slow to accept (and support) public radio’s vision for local news service. The new giver problem is pretty simple to me. Public radio has been using pretty much the same fundraising techniques and messaging to its listeners for more than two decades. There is a new generation of listeners–those case points and messages need to be updated and refreshed. It involves making the case to listeners as to why they value the service today and should financially support it based on how you are executing against the five points above.
For institutional giving, it ties in this conversation pretty clearly. Philanthropic institutions are not going to give you much money because of what you have done, but rather what you are going to do. The vision for that, the speed and ability to pivot towards that vision, and the impact of those actions–that is what funders need to believe in. “Doing local news” isn’t enough. You have to demonstrate how you will succeed based on a compelling vision.
Most of all, and I think everyone who works in radio should recognize this, and this surprised even me: if we understand that ChatGPT is simply repeating back what the world thinks of public radio–then that means the world has more faith in the potential of public radio (and radio generally) than many people who work in it do.
They still use it. They love it and would love it more. They see its challenges, but see a way through to continued relevance. Radio isn’t dying, to the world ChatGPT sees, radio is just changing.
And I think, the non-robotic observer in this conversation, is that after this I believe the biggest challenge public radio faces is if that change will happen passively to public radio, or if public radio will actively lead that change with vision.
We could talk more about this–and I will in future dispatches–but we are at time for today.
Okay, that’s it for today.
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Make great things. I’ll be listening.