The Three Paths: a framework for public radio’s future [Part Two]
Part Two (of Three) on a strategic framework for public radio, as well as introducing you to The Thanos Effect.
Welcome to Dispatch #51 of The Audio Insurgent.
Today is Part Two of a multi-part examination on a strategic framework for public radio’s future. Like I shared in the last dispatch, this went from one extremely large dispatch to two, but as I’ve finished it, it is now three. The final installment will come in a few days. That last dispatch was the overview and top-level of the framework. This dispatch digs deeper in the three audience-centric strategic frames.
I confessed in the open of last week’s dispatch that I was hesitant to offer all this, because I wasn’t sure it would be welcome. The reception was very reassuring–surprisingly, it generated the most sharing and most new sign-ups of any dispatch I’ve ever done, as well as more people reading it in the first 24 hours than read the previous dispatch in the past month. So, a lot of interest in this.
This dispatch may be more difficult for many to accept, because now we start to get specific–and that’s hard. Part Three will be even more so.
I’m grateful for your attention on this, and hope this is the start of a conversation and not the extent of it.
Non-public radio readers–thank you for your patience. We’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming shortly. With that in mind, let’s dive back in…
The Thanos Effect
When I’m leading a conversation and things get stuck, I sometimes bring out The Thanos Effect as a way to get things moving. It’s a tiny exercise I made up on the fly once and have returned to often.
For those of you who have not sat through the entirety of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thanos was a 1,000-year-old supervillain on a quest to restore balance to the universe. His grand scheme to do so was by mounting six all-powerful infinity stones on a glove called the Infinity Gauntlet. Once he had all the stones mounted, he snapped his fingers and half of all life in the universe immediately disappeared, in an event known as The Blip.
So in The Thanos Effect, let’s imagine that Thanos snaps his fingers and something disappears, then ask ourselves: How do we go on without that thing?
If you work at a public radio station, I want you to imagine that today Thanos snaps his fingers, and NPR disappears. No more Morning Edition, no more All Things Considered, no more newscasts, no more Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me… all gone.
What’s the plan? Seriously. How would you continue on?
You may want to consult with your management team to understand the full economic and audience impact of that. But if Thanos has it out for NPR (and Thanos seems like the kind of dude who watches Fox News 24/7, plus, he’s 1,000 years old, which really leans into the Fox demo), what does a world without it look like? How does that affect the mission? How does that affect your staff? What would we need to do to continue?
Then ask: Why aren’t we doing that now?
And, again, just for kicks, let’s assume you are NPR. Let’s say Thanos snaps his fingers and all the stations go away. 1,000 radio stations across the country… gone in an instant. What happens tomorrow? How would you recover the revenue from station fees and broadcast underwriting? Should you recover them? How do you connect with listeners? How do you maintain your news mission? And why aren’t you doing those things today with any sense of urgency?
You can do countless variations on this–and while it is admittedly a bit grim, it is also an important way to look at the elements of what you do and understand how they could survive independently. If it is impossible for something to survive or find a new way to serve, should you still be doing it that way? But more importantly, it demonstrates how interdependent everything you do is on everything else you do.
It’s that thinking that drew me to the model I’m forwarding as a framework for the future of public radio: Core Audience, Adjacent Audience, and Transformational Audience. Too often, those in public radio get too binary in talking about the future. They don’t realize that the past and present work together to create the future. You can’t just focus on the future and ignore the present. If anything, the future is the result of how you treat the present.
Getting up to speed
Before we move forward, a brief recap. I based all this on a framework developed by Bansi Nagji and Geoff Tuff called the Innovation Ambition Matrix. If you haven’t read the introduction in the last dispatch, I suggest you go back and do so before proceeding with this.
As explained in a 2012 HBR article, the Innovation Ambition Matrix is meant for resource allocation, but we’ll borrow the main ideas of this framework by dividing public radio’s current and future audience into those same three buckets: Core, Adjacent, and Transformational:
Core Audience: Very similar to the “legacy” core or P1 audience that public radio serves today. The dyed-in-wool public radio listener. Many donors are in this bucket as well. If you called Central Casting and told them to send over a “public radio listener,” these folks would show up: most being high income, well-educated Baby Boomers. They are the most audio-centric group.
Adjacent Audience: These are light and occasional listeners today. They may listen to broadcast, listen to podcasts, visit web sites, follow on social, or even those who click links sent by friends. They are already in the tent, at least a bit. Most importantly, most of public radio’s current younger audiences and audiences of color fall into this bucket.
Transformational Audience: These are the people who public radio wants to serve, but currently isn’t. Or the connection is so occasional and passing that it is irrelevant. They are not only “those who should be listening yet aren’t” but those from segments of the public that have no current relationship to the station, show, or organization. Most importantly, public radio shows, stations, and organizations must understand that none of its current program offerings will serve Transformational Audiences effectively.
By placing the audience in these three buckets, we can develop a strategic framework for each.
The synergy of the three strategic frameworks
One of the early readers of this dispatch’s drafts told me, “Most people can’t handle one strategic plan, how can you expect them to handle three?”
Well, that’s because the three strategic frameworks are to clarify thought, intention, and action, but they all work together in harmony to help the show, station, or organization through the next 5-7 years. If the goal is to have a thriving organization in the 2030s, then these three different frameworks work in concert to accomplish that singular goal.
The Core Audience strategy will require the first action (starting the day your plan is finished) and should net the first tangible changes and results. It will help “stop the bleeding” of current audience and revenue erosion, or at least slow it enough that stations, shows, and organizations can manage their transition. Many in the Core Audience will sunset their relationship with you over the next 5-10 years, but, unlike today, you will be ready for that. Success at your Core Audience-oriented tactics will also start to grow more listening among Adjacent Audience. Your Adjacent Audience strategy also commenses right away, but will take longer to fully realize and will only begin to yield tangible results over the next 1-2 years as these listeners and users with lighter engagement deepen their relationship with you because you are better oriented towards them. Planning and action for your Transformational Audience will take longer to solidify and execute, and take a number of years to bear fruit. The risks are higher here as well as the risk and likelihood of some false starts.
When most in public radio think of the future, they go straight to Transformational Audience. They also often limit their thoughts on ways to get new audiences to listen to what they already make. Despite many such attempts, it’s hard to point to any success stories. That approach simply doesn’t work. The most important thing to remember about Transformational Audience is that you will never have a chance to serve this new audience unless you also focus on your strategies for Core Audience and Adjacent Audience. Without their foundational support, you will lack the ability to invest in new service to new audience.
So let’s go through them one by one…
A Strategic Framework for Adjacent Audience
One might expect to start this conversation talking about Core Audience, but we will start with Adjacent Audience today. The reason being that if public radio fails to more deeply engage with this audience, any other strategy is pointless. Literally. These people are the future lifeblood and foundation of public radio in whatever form it takes for the next 10-15 years. If public radio doesn’t get it right with these folks, it will lack the resources, bedrock, and support to do anything.
With the Adjacent Audience, there is good news and bad news.
As written before, there are already a lot of them. In fact, younger current listeners are the largest demographic cohort in public radio today. There are more public radio listeners today that are under age 45 than there are Baby Boomer listeners. And while there are generational differences and expectations, they love public radio and share its values.
And as we’ve also discussed before, in study after study, when asked why they don’t listen, they say the primary reason is because public radio “sounds like it is talking to someone else.” That someone else is the often older Core Audience. As a result, the largest group of listeners to public radio today listens about half as much as their older fellow listeners.
That’s the bad news.
It will be impossible to better or more deeply engage this audience unless public radio embraces a consequential shift in editorial view to embrace how news and events resonate with these listeners. (Look out for the 20/80 editorial mix, thoughts on newsmagazine format, and the importance of “distinction” and “depth” in Part Three.)
For example, when looking at student loan debt, this is a very different issue for a 65-year-old (who made their last student loan payment during the first Bush administration) from a 35-year-old (who is struggling to figure out how it will ever be possible to buy a house). Too often, public radio news is approaching news and information through the lens of its legacy Baby Boomer audience, which sends clear smoke signals to others that they are not the focus of the service. This happens multiple times every day. This is not only a generational concern, but one that fits squarely into public radio’s DEI aspirations, since public radio’s current listeners of color have this same experience with often being marginalized from the industry’s editorial vision. To survive, public radio needs to switch its primary focus to center the Adjacent Audience. And not only your local programming, but you must champion national programming (which delivers the lion’s share of your audience) to make this change as well.
Further, this Adjacent Audience experiences public “radio” on multiple platforms. While their experience is deeply anchored in audio (linear broadcast as well as local and national podcasts), public radio is much more of a multi-platform experience than the Core Audience. They express deep affection for and belief in public radio, but their public radio is different from the public radio of the past. It reaches beyond just FM broadcasting and includes national and local podcasts, newsletters, websites, and community events.
While audio is still dominant with Adjacent Audience, and that shows little sign of changing in the next 5-7 years, other engagements are where the relationship with these listeners will be strengthened and deepened. As such, the editorial POV of these platforms should be positioned as such: a way for occasional listeners to deepen their engagement and relationship with public radio shows, stations, and organizations. For example, the payoff of a live event can be a positive P/L, but the real value is in the in-person time between the organization and its most devoted fans. The value of mobile/web/text may be an entry point for occasional new listeners or a reference resource for current audience, but the experience users see when they arrive should be specifically focused on building increased engagement. That is very different from being a wide-ranging source for news.
And to be really clear, Adjacent Audience (who listen some today) are very different from Transformational Audience (who don’t). In targeting Adjacent Audience, you must keep in mind that these listeners already like some or all of what public radio produces, they just feel it isn’t fully for them. This strategy isn’t about reinvention, it is about realignment. Same types of programming, same values, but a difference perspective.
The most critical part of coming up with a strategy for segueing editorial perspective towards Adjacent Audience is building in a means of testing to make sure that what you do is actually of significant interest and value to these listeners, as well as that it engages enough of them to really steer the ship in a different direction. Too often efforts at engaging non-Core audiences are too small, too tepid, and not impactful enough to matter. Regarding the value of research and audience testing, Lori Kaplan of NPR often says, “Why wonder when you can know?” Public radio does not have enough time to wonder. It needs to know that its efforts are impactful so there is enough time to test, learn, and try new approaches.
Approach and tactics
This is where you and your colleagues come in. Given the challenges and goals for Adjacent Audience, what are some of the specific and ambitious approaches and tactics you can undertake at your show, station, or organization to engage your own Adjacent Audience more deeply? What are the focused initiatives, projects, or programs at the right scale and level of ambition that would allow your organization to build deeper engagement with a much larger group of Adjacent Audience five years from now? Think of who they are, how they engage with you today, and how those engagement methods may evolve to bring in more of them and more often. Think of how you can change your editorial perspective to center Adjacent Audience more, and do so over the next 12-18 months. And more importantly, what will you stop doing?
One interesting point to debate is setting your expectations around the size of the audience. An optimist would say that audience may increase because the occasional Adjacent Audience listeners will tune in more often, download more, and engage more. The less-optimistic view would be to expect that future audiences may be more modest (as may happen to media publishers of all types, not just public radio) and that the value of these relationships will be measured in depth, not volume. It might be useful to try The Thanos Effect on this question.
Debate all this with your colleagues, write it down, and commit how you begin to put tactics into effect this month.
So if Adjacent Audiences are public radio’s future “health,” let’s talk about public radio’s “wealth.”
A Strategic Framework for Core Audience
It is imperative for stations, shows, and organizations to see this 5-7 year period as a time rich with public service potential for Core Audience, rather than treating public radio’s legacy audience and programming as if in some kind of hospice care. These years can be vibrant, successful (audience reach and financially), fulfilling for listeners as well as staff, and an opportunity to serve millions of Americans with programming they love. They will reward you with listening, financial donations, and community support.
Again, the Core Audience is exactly what you think they are, public radio’s most regular, consistent, and ardent fans. If asked if they listen to public radio, not only would they reply “yes,” but they would then want to talk about favorite shows, hosts, and reporters. They are the biggest listeners, most likely to be financial contributors, believe in public radio’s mission, and are the industry’s best public defenders. They are proud of public radio and proud to be part of it.
Yet, despite this admiration, public radio has done a poor job over the past few years in loving them back. Public radio’s ambition for its core linear broadcast programming has largely atrophied over the past 15 years, sounding stuck in place with little meaningful change, innovation, or attention to the detail for the programming offered while the industry has focused on building news capacity and debating the future.
“More journalism” is neither the problem nor the solution. Given the explosive growth in newsrooms over the past 15 years, and the decrease in consumption of all public radio’s journalism, it is hard to look there for a solution to public radio’s decline. Public radio can improve the editorial clarity and consistency it offers, but the larger concern are the containers and vessels that present that journalism (shows, their formats, the scheduling of these programming, the microformating that stitches all these pieces together, and the user friendliness of all this). Many in public radio are quick to point out expanded coverage and new initiatives that they or their colleagues at national programs or other stations have implemented. Yet with listening down, are those initiatives successful? Are they the right scale and focus to match the problem of core audience erosion?
Without really meaning to, often public radio speaks pejoratively about its legacy audience, describing them as “old,” “too white,” or “fading”--even though looking at the demographics of the public radio audience show that while these do describe many listeners, saying that is deceptively reductive. Though the pandemic brought about the most seismic and fast changes in listener behavior in public radio history, major programs and stations did little programmatically to address them. And “programmatically” does not mean new coverage or adding a talk show at 9 p.m., it means to examine the flow of the entire day, minute by minute, and asking “Is the way we are offering this programming matching how the audience wants to consume it?” Do we have length right? Are we starting and stopping things at the right times? Are we updating enough–or too much? As listening patterns have changed again now with increased commuting patterns, once more, little has changed.
And through all this Core Audience has responded by listening less. Fewer of them are tuning in less often. And this is among the industry’s biggest and most important customers today.
The strategic goal should be to not only deliver on listener expectations, but to over-deliver on expectations–that is what drives listener evangelism and financial support. Overdelivery is not measured in volume of programming, but with the quality, distinction, and the surprise and uniqueness of what’s offered.
A great example of this from another industry is Apple’s new Snoopy watch face for the Apple Watch. If they were just meeting listener expectations, they would simply license an image of Snoopy and be done with it. No one would have been left wanting. But that isn’t what Apple did. They created an animated watch face that is shockingly dynamic: it changes with the time of day, the position of the watch hands, day of the week, and even the weather. Apple ended up creating 128 new animations staring Snoopy and Woodstock. Watching it is super fun… and one of the reasons is the entire effort and the results are so far above what we might expect or think is possible. It is delightful.
Public radio’s programming should have the same effect.
This romance with the Core Audience won’t last forever. By the end of the 5-7 year timeline we’ve discussed for the viability of current program offerings, every Baby Boomer will be over the age of 65. But today, this audience remains critical, arguably more now than in the recent past, as they will provide the foundation for the transition to the next generation of program offerings and core audience. Equally important, because they value what public radio offers today, they will financially support the system as it evolves.
The strategic driver for this audience segment is that they will provide the means to define and develop the future of public radio. Therefore, stations need to rededicate themselves to serving the current linear Core Audience by being brilliant on the basics, paying attention to the details of what and how they offer programming, being responsive to changes in audience behavior, overdelivering on expectations, and actively managing the transition that lies in the future.
As written before, service, passion, and attention to detail mean caring about every small detail as if it was the most impactful and essential component of success.
For stations, the good news is success at managing program schedules, on-air promotion, talent management, and interpreting and acting upon audience data is well-documented. PRPD has an entire library documenting more than three decades of best practices for linear broadcasting, much of which remains as relevant today as ever.
For show producers, the same spirit applies, meaning that every day includes a conversation about “How can we mix it up? Come at topics from a different angle? Introduce something new and memorable? Be more than the audience expects? Do something audacious? Find something that others miss or don’t take the time to pursue?”
Think back to the earlier three-word strategy for creatives, “Make surprising choices.” Don’t be predictable or mundane. Lean into a sense of surprise and delight, both for those making the programming as for those who hear it.
And the most important piece of advice: Have fun. Not every day gets to be a good news day, but many moments do. Fill your air with as much joy and surprise as possible.
Approach and tactics
Again, this is where you and your team come in. Given the challenges and goals for Core Audience, what are some of the specific and ambitious approaches and tactics you can undertake at your show, station, or organization to execute your strategy? What are the focused initiatives, projects, or programs at the right scale and level of ambition that would allow your organization to better serve Core Audience not five years from now, but today? In fact, make a list of specifics at least 5 items long, including some you can implement in the next month.
Write this down.
A Strategic Framework for Transformational Audience
Serving those who you do not serve today requires hearing the answers to two questions from the communities you wish to serve:
“How do I build connection?”
“How do I build trust?”
This dialogue starts not by talking, but listening.
Transformational Audience is just that, a service sector that can end up redefining public radio. As mentioned earlier, the clearest way to define them is that they have little to no connection to public radio today. You may wish to serve them in the future, and in order to do so, you must start by defining who is and isn’t in your service target and then listen. Most of public radio’s attempts to reach new audiences have focused on how to get more people in the community to listen/view/read what we already make. It becomes a marketing exercise–and those communities see it as such. To be successful at reaching and serving Transformational Audience, it is best to assume that what you create today won’t serve them. It either isn’t of interest or use to them, or is presented in a way or on a platform that doesn’t meet them where they are. Transformational Audience service requires a fresh approach; it requires humility.
There are public radio stations who have done some initial work towards reaching Transformational Audiences by holding listening sessions or outreach in the community, with encouraging results. Often, they learn that these audiences have different informational needs, different ways of accessing news and information, or different components of trust. Think back to the disconnect we discussed between Adjacent and Core Audiences, the gulf between current audiences and Transformational Audiences is significantly larger. For example, several of the station dialogues with those outside the audience have revealed that non-listeners simply don’t use radio or audio for news and information–or what they define as news and information programming is an entirely different product.
The most critical step to making progress with Transformational Audience is to define who you are targeting. Most organizations approach new service with a very broad brush: they wish to reach more “audience of color,” “younger audience,” “Black audience,” or “Latinx members of our community.” Generally speaking, the broader the segment you define, the less likely you will be in successfully and meaningfully engaging them. Any of the four examples cited above is impossibly broad. For example, the “Latinx members of our community” is almost as diverse as the whole community itself, covering a wide range of life experiences, levels of education, languages and dialects, media usage, and cultures. In choosing your targets, the level of selection needs to feel more granular, such as selecting “young college educated Black Americans” or “1st generation Americans from bi-lingual Spanish/English households.” Over time, you can expand your service to more cohorts and segments, but start by identifying an addressable and specific target.
And in conversation with these communities, don’t ask what they want. That never works. People are surprisingly bad at answering that and it is often very limiting. Instead, focus on what problems they have with getting news and information. People are very good at expressing their problems.
While making your selection and once you start conversations with them, look for data points to answer the following: “What problem exists in this community that my organization is uniquely situated to help address?”
Public radio has done a number of small projects aimed at Transformational Audience, like a single podcast, a weekly radio show, or bi-lingual coverage of a news event. These are well-intentioned, but real service means creating experiences that happen with routine and regular frequency to match the news and information needs of the target Transformational Audience. Small experiments feel good and are directionally correct, but do not constitute meaningful service to that audience.
It may feel lacking to say that a strategy for Transformational Audience is to simply listen, but this humble approach is the basis of all service: pay attention, orient towards service, and seek to help. Let the audience lead you to where you should be.
And again, be open to the fact that the answers may not seem very comfortable to a traditional public radio news and information service.
An inspiring example of identifying an opportunity to serve a Transformational Audience and build a service based on what they want, need, and value is the Sahan Journal project at Minnesota Public Radio.
Taking this approach often leads to unexpected ideas and answers–and exciting ones. Rather than trying to white board a solution to new Transformational Audience service without actually engaging with the audiences you wish to serve, starting a conversation can lead in very exciting directions with clear opportunity. Then repeat this over and over again with new targets.
Approach and tactics
Gather your team together and start to identify the addressable Transformational Audience opportunities in your community. Who are they? Get to know them. Reach out to leaders in the community or faith organizations. Just hang out and listen. “What problem exists in this community that my organization is uniquely situated to help address?” What pathways emerge? And, most importantly, how will you stress test your resulting ideas? How will you know you’ve gotten it right for the audience you wish to chose? And how will you build sustainability into this from the jump, instead of leaving this project vulnerable when these questions catch up to it in later years and budget cycles?
Finale coming in the next few days
In the final installment in this epic three-dispatch review of a framework for a public radio strategic plan, we’ll look at some suggestions I have that should be included in everyone’s strategy, and important perspectives to take in doing that work.
I’ve really enjoyed putting all this together, but am also really excited to have it all done and out to you.
See you in a few days.
[COULD WE TALK ABOUT SOMETHING ELSE, PLEASE?] This stuff gets a bit heavy and thick, I know. So here is something fun. It's a new podcast called Marfa Public Radio Puts You to Sleep, where they literally read tower regulations manuals, compliance information, policy papers, legislation, and licenses to listeners who can’t fall asleep. Here is how they describe it.
Do you lay awake wondering what FCC compliance entails? Ever wondered what NPR's code of journalistic ethics involves for the newsroom?
We may never be able to explain what it takes to operate the station, but we can put you to sleep trying to.
For this fall membership drive we bring you Marfa Public Radio Puts You to Sleep. It's a sleep podcast wherein we read you the boring documents essential to our jobs, in the hopes we might lull you into slumber.
We do actually hope that you fall asleep listening to this, but when you wake up, help us continue to read our boring documents and keep Marfa Public Radio awake by donating to the station at marfapublicradio.org/donate.
I think this is so smart. It probably started off as a joke among staff, then in a spirit of enthusiasm, it became real. The best part is it brings the listener in on the joke. The listener is part of the club, part of the fun. Will this change history? No. Will it solve all the station’s dilemmas about the future? Again, no. But it is fun. It, like all great radio, gives you a break from the day and takes you to a place you are happy to be.
I don’t think there are ever enough of these moments.
Okay, that’s it for today.
If this was forwarded to you or you read this online, would you mind subscribing?
Make great things. I’ll be listening.