Great journalism alone won’t guarantee public radio’s survival

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(Illustration: Kelly Martin with photos by fogcat5, Flickr/Creative Commons and Bull-Doser, WikiMedia Commons)

(Illustration: Kelly Martin; photos: fogcat5, Bull-Doser)

Public Radio News Directors Inc. recognized Public Radio Exchange’s John Barth with its Leo C. Lee Award in June during its annual conference in St. Louis. The award recognizes lasting contributions to public radio news; it is named for the late founder of Western Public Radio, who shaped public radio’s sound and news values by training young journalists. 

Barth, now chief content officer at PRX, began his career as a public radio journalist at Philadelphia’s WHYY under Bill Siemering, another visionary public radio leader. Barth had a key role in developing many successful public radio programs, including Marketplace, The Moth Radio Hour and, most recently, Reveal; he also worked in senior roles at Audible and AOL.

For this commentary, Barth adapted and expanded upon the speech he delivered during the PRNDI Awards ceremony.

Bill Siemering gave me my first home in public radio. He hired me as a very green reporter, and I entered a scrappy newsroom at WHYY in Philadelphia in 1981. My career was forged in that crucible of reporting, editing, hosting and producing.

The dream job came with the astounding privilege of learning from incredible colleagues, but especially Bill. He is a beacon of inspirational leadership, public service and kind, close friendship. He is why I am standing here, and I suspect why each of you, too, was drawn to work in something called public radio.

I urge you to read Bill’s mission document for NPR. It really does explain the values of public radio in a way no one has been able to since. Bill, like many of us, believes that public radio can make the world a better, more humane place.

Bill wrote his statement defining NPR’s purpose in 1970. It has inspired a whole generation of us to make something of this amazing medium.

You can now hear the best of what Bill called for in original journalism from stations across the country: WNYC, Michigan Radio, St. Louis Public Radio, KCUR in Kansas City, WGLT in Normal, Ill., Marfa Public Radio, New Hampshire Public Radio and WBHM in Birmingham, Ala., among so many others.

Now a new generation is reshaping public radio, changing how we report and tell stories across a variety of digital platforms and legacy broadcast channels. These changes are monumental and, if you believe the Wall Street Journal , we are up against an “existential crisis.”  That’s a nice philosophical term for “the challenges are so complex, you’ll get vertigo if you think about it too much.”

I believe that great journalism alone will not be enough to guarantee public radio’s survival. The digital platforms and audiences we serve are evolving faster than our public radio culture.

We need to acknowledge: The greatest threat to public radio is not money, politics or even our competitors. It is public radio itself.

And we can boil that threat down to one question: Do we want to be the Oldsmobile of media, or the Tesla?

For now the answer rests a lot with station managers, even more than with NPR, American Public Media, Public Radio International or the Public Radio Exchange. But we all know that the audience has the final say —  because public radio is the public we serve. They vote with their ears.

I want to be riding in a Tesla. I hope you do, too.

Some of you know I worked at AOL back in the days of the dial-up modem, back when AOL was as hot as Facebook.

The people at AOL — much like those now at Google, Facebook and Amazon — were super-smart. They’d work with anyone. But there was no allegiance to what came before. The possibilities of what technology could do came first with them. They knew that nostalgia was not a strategy. Their mindset, for good or bad, was very different from Lake Wobegon.

Here’s how they looked at legacy businesses like public radio, and the mindset that’s reshaping the media business we grew up with. They considered three questions:

  1. Can we buy them? Amazon, meet the Washington Post.
  1. Can we partner with them, get data about their audience and make their customers ours? Google bought Zagat in 2011. For Google, a leader in the integration of mapping and location services, Zagat’s ratings provide a valuable piece of geo-targeted metadata.
  1. Can we crush them because, after all, our technology will outpace whatever they are doing, and in the end they will not be that relevant? Another example involving Amazon: In 2011 it acquired the U.K. DVD and streaming company LoveFilm. The service has since been absorbed into Amazon Video. DVDs, so quaint.

This world of technology is only about business, period, not the integrity of our form of journalism. Its implications for the work that we do can’t be overstated. As Yahoo News did in the 1990s, Facebook embraces algorithmic story selection over human editors. In those businesses, press releases often carry similar weight to news reported by the New York Times.

Our public radio world puts public service and respect for audience at the center. We value the human story, the context that creates memorable and meaningful listening. But in an age of 140 characters and largely editor-less media environment, it’s no wonder the Journal describes our challenge as existential.

While some of our audience (I love how we call them “our audience,” like we own them) will stick with us no matter what, the next generation of listeners — the ones really in charge — are not loyal. They want choice, they have choice and they will exercise that choice faster than you can say “Netflix.” We must give them reasons to choose what we do more often if we’re going to be relevant.

This is so much bigger than the tiresome “podcast-versus-radio” debate; I would argue the issue is listening at all versus every other awesome media choice consumers face.

Consider the audience that gathered this June on Periscope, the live streaming site owned by Twitter, to watch the sit-in by Democrats in the House of Representatives. So many people were chatting, they had to shut off all comments. Anyone who wanted to catch that historic event live had to go to a platform owned by a commercial company and a video stream controlled by the people in the event.

The professional news business itself has been in a constant existential moment since Al Gore created the internet. Now virtually anyone can define what is news and decide what is credible to share with the world. They are on an equal platform with professionals like us. We need to fight for the role that used to come with a press pass and a microphone.

In fact, as Facebook becomes the dominant news distribution site, its algorithms, its presentation and its medium controls, to some extent, your message and who sees it. And who sells it.

This is one reason PRX launched RadioPublic: We need more control over the next digital platforms that will touch listeners as public radio stations do now. This is a reason why NPR One is so important, too.

Anyone with eyes and earbuds can tell the next wave of listening is mobile, it is digital and it is here. In the most cited statistic, a Pew Research Center survey found that 21 percent of Americans over 12 have listened to a podcast in the last month. If you’ve been paying attention, this audience trend is familiar. But I’m afraid that many people in public radio give lip service to podcasting and do not see it as a transformational form of listening that public radio should welcome and fully embrace. The audience already has: The top ranks of the iTunes store are dominated by public radio offspring. With more than 300,000 podcasts, this growth shows little sign of stopping.

I’m sure some of your station managers still think, “Well that digital stuff is nice, the kids get it…but we have a radio station to run first.” Back in 1997 Newsweek thought it could dabble in digital while concentrating most of its energy on its weekly magazine. I met its publisher once back then — brilliant man in a great office with an eagle’s view of Manhattan. He’s gone. The nice office is gone. The whole building near Columbus Circle is gone. Newsweek is still around, but it is a footnote of its former self.

That is the cost of waiting too long to sell the Oldsmobile.

The existential nature of the digital transition means rethinking almost everything about what we do except our commitment to the values behind accurate and meaningful journalism and storytelling. We need to accept a new role for the listener, the future of shows and programs, and even our “sound.” This means changing our business models. The growth of sustainer memberships by stations is a sign we can embrace new forms of support and audience connection.

Working on ‘internet time’

Public radio is hair-pulling slow and bound up in its legacy way of doing things — that’s one reason why so many talented people leave to make podcasts. Who can blame them?

We need to start working on what we used to call “internet time.” When Susanne Reber, Joaquin Alvarado, Kerri Hoffman and I cranked up Reveal with The Center for Investigative Reporting, the first budget was nailed six weeks after we shook hands. The first show was created in four months.

For me this period was utterly thrilling — more Tesla than terror. My favorite tagline is the quote  that Fast Company magazine modified from Hunter S. Thompson:  “Where the thrill of speed overcomes the fear of death.”

If you produce essential, must-have-now work, you have a better chance of survival. If you produce it with an audience-first, digital mindset, you are closer to that Tesla.

More of our reporting has to be original, more inquisitive, skeptical and relevant. Context matters. Connecting the dots matters. Investigations matter.

This summer WNYC produced an incredible story on who was purged from voter roles in Brooklyn. It combined data, audio and graphics into a powerful digital-first story that uncovered apparent widespread racial targeting.

We’re all doing more with text, images, graphics and live engagement. But those new forms are still bolted-on most of the time —  silos of separate “digital units.”

The days of packaging the news in a formulaic, reasonable radio narrative is not enough. We have to develop individual voices that are genuine, credible and distinctive. Dan Rather did it in my generation.

Adam Gopnik does it today. So do Rachel Maddow, Tamara Keith, David Brancaccio, Al Letson and Ari Shapiro. Authorship —  the special quality of a trusted editorial voice informed by experience — is key to credibility. It always has been.

We need a new generation of leaders and visionary editors  — you —  to break down the walls and get our journalism everywhere, faster and more accessible. Public Radio News Directors, Inc., is pushing this message hard.

So how do we get on with actually doing this? Well, NPR, Transom, the Center for Documentary Studies, PRX and Third Coast are all trying to up the game in storytelling innovation. That is fantastic.

As public radio news directors, you know what “good” is. You do the impossible on deadline every day. That sort of gutsy, confident newsroom spirit needs to infect every station at every level.

Overcoming fear of failure

The other way we can win is to stop thinking small and start taking risks.

Here’s a story: Before The Moth came to PRX, they met with at least one other network. And the reason PRX created that show and not that other network is that PRX found — get this — $5,000 for a pilot. Now it took a lot more than $5,000 to build the show, but someone had to say “yes” first and do so quickly.

We did not hesitate to act. It has paid off for stations, paid off for The Moth and paid off for listeners.

The thrill of speed overcame the fear of failure.

We talk a lot about the D-word — not digital, but diversity. But we’re not making enough progress, despite strong efforts by NPR’s Keith Woods, Doug Mitchell, CPB, the Association of Independents in Radio and within some stations.

Like any difficult story you have reported, you have to throw yourself into this and look for people who are not like you.Our newsrooms are too white, too male, too straight, too English-only and too homogenous of both class and education to keep our commitment to journalism.

The people and organizations currently providing leadership on diversity cannot solve this problem alone. Each station will have to engage on this task.

How? Hire more diverse talent. How hard is that? Hard.

A talent search is a daily exercise, a daily opportunity. We can’t keep hiring from within public radio  —  open up your circle. Like any difficult story you have reported, you have to throw yourself into this and look for people who are not like you.

The long-term goal is to create a new pipeline of talent that will change the stories we cover, and how we tell those stories, to reach the audiences we must serve. New talent is the atomic unit of our future.

This is part of what it means to be transformative.

Beyond beats

We in public radio are in the fact business. Reality is our beat.

We cover stories about institutional accountability in Congress, in statehouses and on school boards, but our role is larger than this. Reporting stories that explore who we are as humans is equally important.

This side of public radio  includes StoryCorps; Snap Judgment; On Being; The Moth Radio Hour; Death, Sex & Money; Kind World at WBUR; Us & Them Podcast from Trey Kay; and the Otherhood podcast from PRI, among others . Their stories are  as important as your very best journalism because they explain what motivates us to behave irrationally, or as members of a humane, connected society.

Finally, I want to talk about courage. If journalism can claim a cardinal virtue, it is courage.

The deaths of David Gilkey and Zabihullah Tamanna remind us of the high costs of doing this work. I am humbled by all the global reporters at NPR, APM, the BBC and PRI, as well as the independents.

It takes courage to report in the face of danger. It takes courage to stand up at your stations, and to hostile sources or in your communities. You each make personal sacrifices, big and small. And all I can say is “thank you,” and that each of you needs a long vacation.

Barth

Barth

We have each experienced that dark night, alone with difficult facts, up against a relentless deadline and our own doubts. Is the story right? Am I up to telling it? Will anyone listen? Will anyone care? Will it even matter? How many times have you asked those very questions?

We come back to the existential.

You help others find meaning with verifiable facts in a confusing world. You explain life as it is lived.

To paraphrase Edward R. Murrow, there is a lot of courage in this room.

The challenge for each of us is to move our journalism and public radio into the future, to meet audiences hungry for more. I urge you to do that with guts — and with the speed of a Tesla.