Changing the conversation: Embracing ‘Local That Works’

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Texas Standard host David Brown listens back to a show segment The weekday statewide newsmagazine is a collaborative effort among four producing stations. (Photo: KUT, Austin)

Texas Standard host David Brown listens back to a show segment. The weekday statewide newsmagazine is a collaborative effort among four producing stations. (Photo: KUT, Austin)

Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” — Mark Twain

For well over a year, observers have been sounding the death knell for public radio. It seems we are too old and too white, lack creativity, and are crippled by a business model that limits our capacity to compete. As some of our best-known hosts retire, we face an “existential crisis,” in which public radio will be decimated by the same forces that humbled daily newspapers and the recording industry.

However compelling these arguments may sound, they fail to reflect the true picture of an industry in transition. Armed with strong revenue growth and targeted funding from CPB for collaboration and journalism, many public radio stations are playing ever larger roles in their local communities, through journalism, support for live music, and new forms of community engagement. Despite the real threats and mounting competition, our system is changing and adapting. Most important, stations are learning to “be more local.”

This isn’t some new shift. In 2001, the Station Resource Group, in their Charting the Territory project, found, “There is a powerful and broadly shared impulse toward community-focused and station-originated content that extends public radio’s core values, gives richer meaning to our ambitions for significant programming, and reinforces our importance to our audiences.”

Indications of change surfaced in the fourth Futures Forum, which we presented at the initial Super Regional Conference in 2012 in New Orleans. The Futures Forums is a “thought leadership” project supported by the Wyncote Foundation in Philadelphia to analyze strategic issues facing public media decision-makers as they guide their organizations from mass media to multiplatform digital service.

Leading up to that session, I contacted more than a hundred radio managers. They told me their stations were (1) expanding their investments in journalism (2) investing in online/digital service, and (3) beginning to go more local. The aspiration to “be more local” was cited by 82 percent of managers I interviewed.

With that in mind, at the twenty-first Futures Forum that opens the Super Regional Radio Conference in Pittsburgh Tuesday, our session will focus on five examples of how stations are realizing their aspirations to take that turn in the road and “go local.”

As we examined the five examples, I realized that the path forward is likely to be a cycle of “create, copy, improve.” One station or producer will discover some breakthrough. Over time, other stations will copy that idea, adapt it, refine and improve it. It’s a process that smaller and mid-sized stations will need to apply, again and again, to remain relevant and sustainable in the decade ahead.

Background

In the late spring of 2016, the GM corps in public radio was unusually pessimistic.

For more than a year, public radio had been taking punches from producers, journalists and media critics who — often for good reason — viewed public radio as a system in decline. Widely read online posts characterized public radio as a tired legacy medium.

Speaking on Here and Now in November 2015, Nick Quah, author of the podcasting newsletter Hot Pod, put it this way:

When organizations get as big as NPR, they become less nimble, dynamic, and able to take on large-scale shifts in conditions — which is perfectly natural and totally something to be expected.

… Their original monopoly is no longer viable. It is no longer the strongest player in the market to produce news that’s good for the community, to produce material that’s being sold to own an audience.

The coup de grace came in mid-June, when The Wall Street Journal weighed in with a declaration of “Public Radio’s Existential Crisis.”

Laura Walker, CEO of New York Public Radio, pushed back. You’ve got it all wrong, she said, inviting stations — and the people who were leading the criticism — to “join the creative disruption.” For Laura:

[O]ne person’s existential crisis is another’s opportunity. … From where I sit, at the helm of New York Public Radio, the news is overwhelmingly positive and the terrain is open for anyone bold enough to embrace what is undoubtedly radio’s next incarnation.

The next day, Jarl Mohn weighed in with a powerful defense of the NPR system, citing many of the facts, conditions and opportunities I have included below.

These conflicting assessments were the backdrop as I negotiated with the regional groups to develop a session for the Pittsburgh conference that will take place Oct. 25. Given the dour mood, my advice was, emphatically, “You need to change the conversation.” Shift attention away from the problems that stations cannot control and focus on the service opportunities that managers can control.

A few weeks later, I started to design a session titled “Where Are We Going? How Do We Get There?” As I gathered information, I settled on something less presumptuous and more concrete: the path forward for most stations will be “Local That Works.”

That is the topic we will discuss Oct. 25.

Digital disruption, but …

Much of the doomsday analysis we heard and read within the past year assumes a linear model of digital disruption, in which legacy companies (like NPR, I gather), faced with the dilemma of innovation, just can’t let go of their shrinking, formerly profitable customer base (that must be the 30 million people who listen to public radio each week). Over time, their business model collapses under the pressure of insurgent “disruptors.” (That role, I think, was assigned to podcasters.) All of this leads to some dramatic unraveling, as we saw in the collapse of newspapers and disintegration of the record business.

The question I kept asking is: Does this model accurately describe what we see in public radio?

We can agree that public radio has serious problems and weaknesses. Average–quarter-hour listening has been slipping. The average age of our radio audience is rising. Stations are struggling to reach younger and more diverse listeners. Diversity efforts have fallen far short. Programs that fill our weekends need replacement or renewal. Our digital efforts are, let’s say, underperforming. And practices that sustained public radio for decades, such as seasonal pledge drives, are in desperate need of an overhaul.

But other evidence points in the opposite direction: to stability, even growth.

… our death is greatly exaggerated

So far there are no signs of a “financial Achilles heel” for public radio, such as newspapers’ dependence on classified ad income that was lost to online competitors. In contrast, the economy of public radio remains solid. Gross system revenues have risen, almost uninterrupted, for twenty years, and a large portion of revenue gains have been invested in program and production spending.

screen-shot-2016-10-21-at-2-27-11-pmStaffing is up, especially in journalism, supported by CPB investments, the expansion of sustaining membership programs and major gift efforts. Each of those private-dollar revenue streams are on track to generate $100 million dollars more, annually, compared with 2005.

Investigative journalism, one of the most expensive and hard-to-sustain news functions, has been expanding in public radio, through station initiatives; collaborative efforts, like Reveal; and leadership from NPR, American Public Media and Public Radio Exchange.

Our music franchises, especially Triple A, are holding up surprisingly well considering the explosion of competition. Classical music stations, which recently launched the “Classical Rising” project sponsored by Station Resource Group, are showing even greater resilience. According to an SRG analysis of Nielsen data, 14 Triple A stations in the top 50 markets saw AQH listening rise 7.8 percent from Spring 2015 to Spring 2016. In the same period, 32 classical stations in these markets saw 9.2 percent growth.

Even when it comes to podcasting, which many critics see as the “disruptor,” NPR, WNYC, WBEZ, WBUR, PRX and public radio–based companies are major players, rather than crippled victims of change. This cohort of producers, networks and stations is dominating the measured podcast ratings.

On the question of aging weekend programs, critics rarely consider true quarter-hour contributions of standalone programs, a key measure of programming importance. Examining the schedule of a large-market East Coast station (with data provided by Steve Olson of Audience Research Analysis), we found that:

  • newsmagazines contributed 68 percent of total weekly QHs;
  • local and national talk pulled in another 22 percent; and
  • all the one- and two-hour stand-alone shows combined accounted for 10 percent, with Prairie Home and Wait Wait leading that list with 2 percent each.

Where news/talk is generating 90 percent of QHs, the free-standing weekend shows — which do need attention — are unlikely to trigger a full-scale “existential crisis.”

And there are other reasons to think public radio might not fit a simple model of industry disruption. The relative cost structure of radio has distinct advantages versus newsprint or even TV (one reason public TV has not followed radio deeper into news).

Our legacy audience, so often the subject of derision, has its upside: College-educated listeners have been willing to pay for media long before the advent of Netflix and Amazon Prime. Millions of them are becoming sustainers; tens of thousands are providing major and planned gifts. If you’re going to be “stuck” with a legacy audience, this is one of the better ones to have.

And finally, we should listen to the advice offered by the person who first drew attention to the cycle of digital disruption, Clayton Christensen. He tells clients to ask this fundamental question: “What job is your customer hiring you to do?” It seems that millions of public radio supporters are hiring public radio stations to provide high-quality, carefully crafted journalism. Stations that deliver on that “job” have flourished.

Big opportunity in local journalism

Those facts are especially relevant when it comes to local news.

Just a year ago, Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Lab, observed that:

… 2015 has felt like a turning point for the most threatened sector of the American news ecosystem. And I’m worried that some of what hopefulness remains in the system is being wrung out by changes in the larger digital world.

In February, NPR News VP Mike Oreskes pointed to one piece of a solution to the crisis in local journalism. Speaking to the Harvard Club, Oreskes noted that “in many cities, the second newspaper is now the public radio station.”

Oreskes sees — but many critics do not — that NPR stations have the capacity and capital required to pick up some pieces of the shattered state of local newsgathering. Supported by round after round of CPB investments in local and regional journalism, we now have stations with scale, experienced editorial staff, and the executive leadership needed to manage change.

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Zanaria Banks and Warren Griffin-Yates rehearse for “Precious Lives: The Live Show” at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, Wis. (Photo: Titus Wamai)

Here’s the rub: What I just described is a view from the top. The growth is concentrated in the top-tier large stations and state networks that seem to be pulling away from “all the rest.” In my view, this is the Achilles heel, because public radio is a national service, a shared national asset. To be sustainable, the system needs strong mid-sized and small stations, especially in rural areas, to preserve an integrated national, regional and local service.

Those small and mid-sized stations must also find their way to “be more local,” especially in news.

The Forum in Pittsburgh will start a new leg of the Futures Forums, focused on this issue. Over the next year, we will spend a majority of our time identifying “Local That Works,” meaning projects, features and activities that help stations build local civic value. In Pittsburgh, we will present our first five examples:

  • Precious Lives, an extraordinary multiplatform collaboration that united WUWM, a black-oriented commercial station, the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and independent media center 371 Productions to create feature stories about the damaging effects of gun violence in Milwaukee.
  • Texas Standard, a breakthrough model for local/regional news, in which Texas’ four largest radio stations have joined to create a weekday newsmagazine that meets the core-values standard for public radio excellence. That show now airs on 20 other smaller Texas stations.
  • WXPN’s “doubling down” on local music, our only music-oriented case but one with clear results. Emerging from the recession, WXPN fused broadcast, online and “live” (performances and community engagement) into a service program that lifted its local membership file to 30,000 donors, 70 percent of whom are sustainers.
  • Hearken, the breakthrough Localore project, is changing newsroom practice and attracting outsized online attention (measured by pageviews) at more than a dozen stations.

To complement these examples of emerging practices, we will also present one project with a 20-year track record and deep implications for small rural stations:

  • CoastAlaska, a collaboration among five small stations in Southeast Alaska that has allowed each of the stations to preserve a high level of local decision-making while gaining efficiency and scale through a shared backroom operations center in Juneau. Individual stations have been able to concentrate on producing local news and community information.

In researching CoastAlaska and five other “Collaborations that Worked” for the Forum we presented at the 2016 Public Media Business Association Conference, we heard the same refrain from senior staff: “We would never be able to do what we are doing today if we hadn’t changed.”

In the coming months, we will stay focused on this topic, collecting and analyzing more examples and sharing stories and lessons through conference sessions, webinars, podcasts and online through our upcoming website, publicmediafutures.org.

Replicable programs that work

The examples we selected share three key features. They are:

  • Widely applicable to stations of all sizes;
  • Repeatable, in that they create content or services day after day; and, they provide
  • Multiplatform outputs — broadcast, podcast, online, mobile and in-person engagement.

Precious Lives demonstrates the power of cross-industry collaboration, which can surface in a market of any size. Texas Standard, created by major market stations, feeds daily to 20 smaller licensees. Hearken costs $400 a month (you supply the staffing); it’s affordable for every station. The CoastAlaska model, or variations of that approach, can emerge among any cohort of smaller and mid-sized stations — but you need the leadership and the will.

Regarding “repeatability” — a Free at Noon concert takes place every week at the WXPN building on Walnut Street in Philadelphia; every July thousands of fans flock to the XPoNential Music Festival in Camden. Hearken generates an endless stream of questions and story ideas, while Texas Standard fills a major daytime hour every weekday, every week, all year.

Roger LaMay, g.m. of WXPN, talks in front of a mural created with the Instagram images of WXPN music festivalgoers. (Photo: AlexanderMackle/Wikimedia Commons)

Roger LaMay, g.m. of WXPN, talks in front of a mural created with the Instagram images of WXPN music festivalgoers. (Photo: AlexanderMackle/Wikimedia Commons)

All five examples create multiplatform content, supported by social media, and often include direct, in-person community engagement, a major new tool in the service portfolio of many leading stations.

Each project has revenue potential, from expanding memberships to creating major gift targets and grant opportunities for regional foundations. Texas Standard provides statewide underwriting avails for corporate and public service ad budgets. Subaru sponsors XPN’s Music Festival, and the festival itself is now a powerful member-recruitment tool (half-price admission for members, a savings of $75).

Work in all of these areas has already started. Since 2010, the Association of Independents in Radio has been building an R&D infrastructure that connects independent producers with select radio and TV incubators across the country with a mandate to “go outside.” That process created Hearken, iSeeChange and the Austin Music Map. When I asked for examples of Local that Works among SRG members, I got 25 excellent examples, three involving Hearken.

Commenting on this approach, Sue Schardt, AIR Executive Director, observed: “One thing we’re discovering is the primacy of — not social media platforms — but social platforms: Bible study groups, circle dances, food pantries, hot dog wagons … places where people share their stories of joy and grief, their dancing, cooking, celebration, mourning. These are the places we will build a new public media.”

Lessons drawn

Looking at these five examples, I developed three rules that might help stations identify sustainable, effective and competitive service in the decade ahead.

1. The best projects are both “more local” and more national.

Dennis Haarsager made this point, applied to PBS, in a prescient commentary he developed for the very first Futures Forum in February 2012. Integrated local/national service with a local tilt is stronger than local only.

Matthew Hindman, in his 2004 report to the FCC titled “Less of the Same: The Lack of Local News on the Internet,” examined comScore reports for 1,074 “local news” websites and found:

Local news is a tiny part of Web usage; collectively, local news outlets receive less than half of a percent of all page views in a typical market. … Are these grim numbers for the local news audience because of low news consumption overall, or because local news outlets are losing out to national news sources? The comScore data shows that the answer is “both.”

I doubt this has changed in the last 12 years.

Here’s what I see in Hindman’s analysis: Local news is a tough row to hoe. It’s hard to attract attention; it’s expensive to produce. But it’s important, and that makes it a ripe opportunity for subsidized, noncommercial development.

The limitation of local-only is a real barrier for the business model of online-only local news startups that surfaced in the wake of newspaper contraction. In contrast, NPR affiliates, which seamlessly combine local, regional and national news, provide a solid platform for maintaining some local journalism.

That’s what I see in Texas Standard and deep vertical feature series like Precious Lives in Milwaukee. They extend and complement the NPR/APM/Public Radio International news franchise. GM Dave Edwards put it this way, “WUWM covers Southeast Wisconsin the way NPR covers the world.” To my ear, that’s on target.

2. Collaborations give you more than capacity — they can give you reach into your community.

Precious Lives is the leading example on this point. By partnering with a black-oriented commercial station, a major newspaper, independent producers and an investigative journalism center, WUWM reached far beyond the ordinary boundaries of public radio. Using a CPB Localore grant, they brought that wide, diverse community together for a story-sharing event in a way few stations have been able to do in any American city.

3. The innovation cycle for Local That Works is “invent, copy, improve.”

At this historic period of transition, public radio needs both creativity and innovation.

New ideas will often surface first at major-market stations or state networks. Some new ideas will come from independent producers, like Brad Lichtenstein, who launched Precious Lives, and Jennifer Brandel, who created Hearken. But the heavy lifting, the hard work of innovation, will take place over time at scores of stations, large and small, as PDs and front-line staff copy the new programs, features and community-engagement methods and adapt them, refine them, improve them.

This is the way radio survived and thrived for, now, a hundred years. Few stations at any time, anywhere ever invented anything. We moved forward by stealing ideas and applying those ideas in new ways. That’s how we developed basic formats, dayparts, newsmagazine clocks, song rotations, optimal effective scheduling, sustainer membership plans and pretty much every other practice that keeps stations afloat.

That process of “invent, copy, improve,” applied to Local That Works, will take at least half a decade to identify a portfolio of applications for mid-sized and smaller stations.

The time to start is now.

Long-term sustainability of public radio, as a national system, will come only when and if we see new, locally focused service models (that work) firmly established in dozens of mid-sized stations, smaller markets and rural stations all across the country.