Program directors challenged to think about audience, not formats

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“You’re spending money on things that are not your future,” Nuzum told programmers. “You’re spending money on things that are your past.” (Photo: Rich Orris)

“You’re spending money on things that are not your future,” Nuzum told programmers. “You’re spending money on things that are your past.” (Photo: Rich Orris/PRPD)

PITTSBURGH — Eric Nuzum, the former NPR executive who recently joined Audible to oversee original content, spoke frankly to public radio station programmers about retaining talent, growing audience and creating content at the Public Radio Program Directors conference here Tuesday.

Nuzum spoke candidly during his brief return to the public media fray. “The reason I’m so excited is I get to talk to you as me today,” he said. At previous conferences, Nuzum had attended “to sell something or promote something or advocate for something or convince you to do something,” he said.

Among his observations about the public radio system, Nuzum said that stations should stop worrying about distribution platforms and have more concern for the listener experience.

As a programmer, Nuzum said he stopped thinking of his job as just handling scheduling. He said he saw his mission as: “I create great listening experiences that stay with the audience long after they’re done listening.”

“When you start looking at things through that lens, change becomes less of a threat and more of an opportunity,” Nuzum said. “Because what we do is not changing at all. The platform we use changes, the audience can change as well, but the basic rules stay the same.”

As an example of stations focusing too much on platforms, he asked the audience whether their stations are working on podcast strategies. Many attendees raised their hands.

“I think that creating a podcast strategy is a terrible mistake,” he said.

“First reason — companies like Midroll and Audible are already thinking about what happens next and are making decisions today about what’s going to happen in three to five years as the podcast industry does whatever it’s about to do,” he said.

“The second reason is the focus is on this distribution platform, not the listening experience,” he added. “I have yet to find an example of someone who said, ‘Hey, I’m going to start a podcast for the sake of starting a podcast,’ and that podcast actually ended up working.”

Instead, he said, content shouldn’t be created with the platform in mind. “Start with what you want and work backwards from there, and the platform it belongs on will emerge,” he said.

When Nuzum was developing the humorous quiz show Ask Me Another at NPR, he said, the guiding goal was to get women in their 30s to laugh. (“If you are not airing Ask Me Another in a prominent place on your schedule, you need to get your head examined,” he said. “ . . . I don’t even get paid to say this anymore,” he added.)

Another message to programming directors: Stop complaining.

Nuzum addressed a few of the complaints he had heard in public media throughout his time in the system.

One was, as he put it, “I have no resources. I have no money. My staff is overworked.”

“. . . [P]ublic radio doesn’t have a revenue problem, it has a spending problem,” he said. “. . . You’re spending money on things that are not your future. You’re spending money on things that are your past.”

He said he would be happy to look at a station’s schedule and in 30 seconds find five programs that a station is spending too much money on. “All the sudden you have a development fund to create things,” he said.

Nuzum added that program directors have often blamed flat or declining audience trends on disruptive technology or too much competition.

“I think that’s a cop-out,” Nuzum said. “A programmer’s job is to grow audience. Period. . . . If you can’t, you shouldn’t be doing it.”

Nuzum pointed to the huge audience growth experienced by Gimlet Media, Serial and Invisibilia since last year’s PRPD conference. “I don’t know when flat and declining became acceptable, but it’s not,” he added. “And you need to change that mindset because there’s so much possibility.”

Nuzum, who has been recruiting public media workers to join Audible, also addressed the issue of talent retention.

“Just from public statements made by Gimlet, Midroll and Audible, we plan to hire 60 people this coming year,” he said. “And where do you think most of those people are going to come from? People don’t leave when they’re happy. People don’t leave when they’re challenged. People don’t leave when they see a future in what they’re doing. You can provide that for them. Make my life more difficult and keep them. There’s nothing that I have that you don’t have. . . . Give them something exciting to do.”

“There has never been a better moment to be in radio,” Nuzum said — even as the meaning of “radio” has become more ambiguous.

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  • Sky Daniels

    Mr. Nuzum made several credible comments, but one was incredibly unacceptable. He chastised Program Directors for complaining “’I have no resources. I have no money. My staff is overworked.”

    “. . . [P]ublic radio doesn’t have a revenue problem, it has a spending problem,” he said. “. . . You’re spending money on things that are not your future. You’re spending money on things that are your past.”

    Then he has the audacity to proclaim, “Just from public statements made by Gimlet, Midroll and Audible, we plan to hire 60 people this coming year,” he said.
    Mr. Nuzum, I invite you to review my $110,000 annual operating budget and find me development funds to compete in Los Angeles. Better yet, I will trade my operating budget with his and see who fares better in the coming year.

    • enuzum

      What a ridiculous and pointless thing to say. I honestly do think many public radio organizations and stations spend a lot money on meritless projects that have no possibility of having meaningful impact. If they can’t find the room to fund innovation or make real impact, perhaps they shouldn’t exist at all. Its just throwing away good money. It’s a shame. I’m sorry if you don’t see it that way. And I don’t understand why you need to take a shot at me because you have a small budget–that’s a tough situation, I’ve been there. But just because I’m hiring a staff doesn’t mean my work is easy or that I don’t deserve the opportunities I’ve worked hard to make happen. Good luck.

      • John Sutton

        Such a small world. It just so happens that Eric was quoting me when he said “public radio doesn’t have a fundraising problem, it has a spending problem.” And it just so happens that my colleague Sonja Lee and I did the consulting work that set Sky’s station, KCSN, on the path of being a full time AAA station. That was back in the day when KCSN didn’t even have a budget for a program director, Sky’s first position at KCSN.

        Oddly enough, Sky’s success at KCSN proves the point Eric was making.

        Setting KCSN on its current path did require a major change in spending… of time, money, and other resources. The station was a mix of Classical, student news, Americana, and Triple-A rounded out with an eclectic mix of volunteer hosted shows on weekends including Opera. It had virtually no audience on the radio or online. It was tough to raise membership dollars.

        It took about a year of automated AAA, no live hosts on weekdays, to generate enough audience and membership dollars to hire a program director. That’s when Sky took over.

        Quite frankly, Sky has accomplished amazing things with a tiny radio signal. He’s brought legendary LA DJs to KCSN and set up a benefit concert series for the station that has included performers such as Tom Petty and Jackson Browne, among others.

        True enough, a tiny signal and a tiny budget makes it hard to compete anywhere let alone LA. But all of these great accomplishments (read about them on Wikipedia!) occurred by spending available time and resources on the right things.

    • Aaron Read

      Mr. Nuzum is not incorrect that public radio has a spending problem. However, an awful lot of the spending on the stations’ end is coming from sources that stations’ cannot control…specifically, NPR. Program fees are not cheap. Or more precisely, the fees for the shows we cannot realistically cut (namely ME & ATC) are pretty expensive. Yes, fees for weekend and midday shows are much cheaper but making changes there tends to be “nibbling around the edges” rather than making the hefty changes Nuzum seems to be exhorting.

      Another example is web content: NPR committed member stations to a potentially very expensive project…without their consent…in the whole Apple iTunesRadio project. Ditto for NPR One. And also with NPR Digital Services website hosting which, AFAIK, all member stations have to pay for even if they use another web hosting company/platform.

      Some of these things are good. Some are inexcusable debacles, IMHO. But all of them are things stations are, directly or indirectly, paying for whether we like it or not.

  • LuvPubMedia

    Eric also negates the fact that Invisibilia, Serial and Gimlet were launched from HUGE pub media outlets, which means much more likely to reach same/substantial audience. Too bad he didn’t (or couldn’t) cite success stories that don’t come from privilege and power.

    • enuzum

      Lime Town, one of the top podcasts in iTunes today, is attached to nothing and was started by two completely unattached and unconnected young people with a great idea and the drive to make it happen. Welcome to Nightvale. Criminal. Lore. Shall I go on?

      • LuvPubMedia

        I guess it would be tough for a Facebook creative producer/filmmaker/Pinterest brand strategist (one of Limetown’s creators) to build an audience. If only guys like that had the resources of small public radio stations.

        • enuzum

          That’s a weird argument, that because they are entrepreneurs and somewhat successful that their success as a new venture in podcasting has less value? You have way more resources and experience than they do. Kinda weird that you think a radio station full of audio people has less potential to create great content than two guys working off laptops in their apartments.

      • Dave Hunter

        Yes, more please! I didn’t know about Lime Town. The other three are pretty awesome.

        However, there’s a stark difference in content in your suggestions. Two are fiction and one is historical. Criminal is somewhere between historical and original journalism of the kind seen in Invisibilia, This American Life, etc.

        Original journalism requires fact-checking, interviews, etc. and costs a lot more than 3/4 of your examples. I don’t say this to belittle those shows – their creators work hard, and I very much enjoy them.

        Ira Glass talked on the podcast Longform about the early days of TAL, when it was “four people,” and he said they basically worked nonstop, meaning it was really, really hard to get a show of that type and quality produced with so few people. Granted, this was 1995.

        I don’t think it’s outrageous to say that a lot of stations believe their mission is to produce or air original journalism, and it’s expensive to produce those types of programs. They might balk at the idea of investing donors’ money into producing a radio drama, or a historical story program. Would they be wrong? Certainly, they’d have to acknowledge Car Talk, Prairie Home, the quiz shows, and other non-journalism programs.

        Would you suggest public radio stations move more toward entertainment programming?

        Or do you disagree with my premise–do you know of examples of great original reporting in podcasts that didn’t come from a well-funded media outlet? Or that they’re expensive to produce?

        • enuzum

          Here Be Monsters is an example of that. So is Love & Radio and The Theory of Everything, while part of Radiotopia now, they operated independently (and successfully) for years beforehand making really high quality shows.

          • Aaron Read

            FWIW, I knew Ben Walker a little bit back when he was doing TOE (and its predecessors) on WZBC in Boston. He’s an excellent producer but it always seemed like he was killing himself to put out that show every week. Heck, I tried to produce a weekly half-hour tech news show back in 2001 and lasted six weeks before giving up. I was spending 20+ hours a week on it and nearly got fired from my day job. I don’t know how Ben did what he did (which was a lot better than my efforts).

            Especially on effectively a volunteer, unpaid basis, it is POSSIBLE to produce quality radio by yourself…but it’s an unrealistic and unsustainable amount of work. It also introduces unstable variables since a person has got to be more than a little crazy to work that hard under those conditions. :-)

            I don’t know if that really impacts the current discussion (pun intended) but it’s something to keep in mind.

            Also worth noting is that Ben DID have WZBC to hone his craft on. While it’s a tiny station by most pubradio standards, and was primarily a “college radio” station (a format that doesn’t often have a lot of overlap with NPR audiences), it’s still a 1000 watt FM in the middle of Boston, which is Market #10 in the ratings. They most definitely had a real audience. So you can’t really say that Ben never had the benefit of a radio station to launch his product on. Although IIRC he left Boston for NYC and went web-only years before it was a particular easy platform to distribute audio to an audience on.

  • Aaron Read

    Drat. There was a story I read somewhere recently…possibly on Current and possibly quoting Mr. Nuzum but darned if I can find it. But it said something to the effect that both NPR and member stations need stop saying “we can’t do that” and start saying “how can we try that” when it comes to growing audience, finding new programming, etc etc etc.

    I thought I commented on the story, but maybe I just did it in my head, that a statement like that misses the point. What we need more is a level of trust between NPR and its member stations (one we STILL don’t currently have) that NPR can say, and is willing to say, “let us help you (the member stations) try that”…and the stations are willing to believe it.

  • Chris Hershberger

    “… You came all the way out here to tell me something I already knew, in answer to a question I never asked, and you want me to pay you for it. Now give me my dog back.”