‘For listeners, we’re not the alternative, we’re the ideal’

CPB broke format in May 2001, giving its top radio honor, the Edward R. Murrow Award, to one of its own employees, Rick Madden, its v.p., radio. Madden delivered this acceptance speech during the opening session of the Public Radio Conference in Seattle on May 17. This edited version was published in Current, May 28, 2001.

By Richard H. Madden

I first walked into noncommercial radio at the University of Notre Dame as a freshman and never walked out. That was in 1963, four years before the Carnegie Commission labeled us public radio. My radio passions ran contrary to my father's notions of what my interests should be. In my sophomore year, he wrote with a different view:

"I'm not overly happy about what seems to me, mistakenly I hope, a changing attitude you have towards school, classes and grades. Also, I'm distinctly under the impression that your radio work consumes a disproportionate amount of time and, even worse, attention."

It was nearly 20 years later that I joined CPB. My father had recovered from his dissent, with my wife and I having provided his first two grandchildren no doubt playing a considerable role. This was the early 1980s, a time when public radio was just emerging from its "smaller is better" mindset. Even on the verge of bankruptcy, NPR was becoming a significant force in American life. And CPB was poised to create a Program Fund, a Future Fund, minority and rural incentives and an office titled Vice President, Radio.

Each of us has a similar story to tell of our own careers in public radio. And each of us has many people to thank for the opportunities they've given us. My list is long, and time allows me to mention only a few.

The CPB Board deserves recognition for their willingness to set broad direction and priorities and then entrust management to work hard to attain then. Of course, that's how it's supposed to work. This award suggests that it has indeed worked out that way.

Bob Coonrod and Fred DeMarco also deserve recognition. Under their leadership, CPB has helped public radio shed its "smaller is better" mindset and begin to realize its full potential. Their confidence in me has contributed to my professional growth and allowed me to contribute to an industry that I both value and respect.

Today's occasion also marks the celebration of something they did, which is extraordinary for a bureaucracy like CPB. They broke a decades long precedent for both the Murrow award and the TV equivalent, the Lowell award, and encouraged the advancement of a current CPB employee through the nominating process, after what I'm told, was the insistent advice of many in the public radio industry. So I thank many of you as well. I could say that this is CPB at its most responsive. But I would have to add that if this was an easy thing to do, you can be confident this would have happened more than once over the past quarter-century.

Before moving to the core of my remarks, I must mention, indeed introduce you to three other individuals. It may well be that one definition of a family is a team. If so, then I am happily part of a family and a team that has earned a considerable part of this award by tolerating a phenomenal number of trips over the past 18 years while at CPB as well as more than their fair share of evenings looking at the back of my head while I work on the computer. Finally, as many of you know, my health recently has not been what I prefer. But their special brand of support has made this period as bearable as it possibly could be. I would like to introduce my wife of 30 years, Cathy, and my daughters Erin and Kate.

I have learned a lot working with Murrow honorees. Perhaps the most important is this: while an individual's legacy is most likely the premise of most nominations, virtually all of the winners continue their careers and renew their challenge to themselves, their colleagues, and the rest of us to reach higher, go farther, do more, and, ultimately, realize the potential that has always existed within this enterprise and each of us.

Look at this list--you'll see it's true of the

Like Murrow himself, this award is about inspiration, about looking forward, about applying well-reasoned values to raise our enterprise to its next level of significance.

As Nelson Mandela told his countrymen at his 1994 inauguration to the presidency, "Playing small does not serve the world." We're not a "smaller is better" enterprise anymore, and none of us can think with that type of mindset. But somehow such notions linger.

Here are three cases that illustrate why this concerns me. I call them the "definitional case," the "Sirius digital direct satellite case," and "the sky-is-falling case." Let me look at each in short order.

First, the definitional case. When we define ourselves as "the alternative," we "play small." We define ourselves by what we are not. For our 22 million listeners, however, we are not the "alternative, " we are the ideal.

Second, the Sirius digital direct satellite case. The subject of a recent discussion in [the Pubradio online mailing list] was the amount of harm and--from some writers' perspective--near total damage to station listening to be derived from NPR providing programming for two digital satellite channels on Sirius, even though member stations have some control over NPR. No one wrote about the other 198 channels on Sirius and XM that are also seeking listeners. Stations in this room have zero control over them. Many in the subsequent conversation apparently assumed that local stations would not or could not compete. I couldn't disagree more. Why is it that NPR's potential success frightens us more than its potential failure? Shouldn't it be the other way around?

Third, the sky-is-falling case. I have heard some say, "It's over for stations, and most aren't smart enough to know it."

Little in this industry disappoints me more than the kind of wrong-headed thinking demonstrated in each of these cases. It can only generate negative energy and, ultimately, negative outcomes.

Let's think with a bit more positive energy.

To make this happen will require more energy than we have collectively applied over the past decade, further development of public radio's remarkable capacity to change, more partnering and risk-taking than perhaps we are accustomed, and, of course, our continued commitment to excellence, creativity and experimentation.

I'll concede that none of us can do it alone. Our position of significance today is the result of the hard work and years of dedication by everyone in this room--and countless more before us. Don't think for a minute that any one of us can take a significant step to into the future by going it alone.

I stand here today certainly to accept this honor. But I also rise to guarantee that CPB, as we have over the years, will continue to be your partner as we secure the future that we know is there. Sometimes it will be with funding. Other times it will be with encouragement. Maybe, it will be by setting standards that help us realize our full potential.

Everyone thinks about the CPB-station relationship in financial and bureaucratic terms. In large measure, I understand why many say this is so. Since 1980, stations have received something on the order of $1 billion from the American taxpayer in the form of [Community Service Grants and National Program Production and Acquisition Grants through CPB]. Assuming over the next decade that the appropriations grow about 4 or 5 percent per year, stations will receive another $1 billion from the American taxpayer.

That doesn't sound like an industry that is on its last legs. But it does remind us about how high the priority is to sustain a coordinated and successful legislative strategy.

This conversation yields to a profound public policy question. Assuming our success, how do we best use that next $1 billion to optimize our individual and collective public-service outcomes? If we are to achieve this conference's ambition To Expand our Reach, what might some of CPB's and the industry's objectives be?

We must acknowledge, embrace, strengthen and protect our most valuable assets.

But, CPB leverages more than just money. It also leverages ideas, asks questions and issues challenges. Here are several I want to leave with you.

Public radio was founded on the Carnegie Commission's notion of the "bedrock of localism." We work today in an environment where web designers seek to reach the entire country, world or galaxy, but rarely, if at all, local geographic communities or public radio's communities of interest. As about the last locally owned and operated (and what a huge competitive advantage this is!) broadcast outlets in your communities, we have a collective challenge of determining what localism means in a media environment in which geography is becoming less and less relevant?

When you get home from this conference, go back five years, as I have done, and look at your own station's audience growth rate from local programming versus the audience growth rate from national programming. At least half will find a lower growth or negative growth for their local programming. We recently surveyed stations about their local programming. Half of those stations that replied that their local programming is "strong" or "very strong" had decreasing listener-hours over the period under study.

For an industry whose overall audience is growing year after year, for an enterprise that was founded on the Carnegie Commission's definition of localism, this is an outcome we should neither welcome nor embrace. Thus, many of you have a second challenge of shaping the steps you will you take to rectify this.

To me, responses to these two challenges result in incredible prospects for building audience while redefining "localism" in contemporary terms, as well as our values, without losing their essential public-service character.

We have become increasingly and successfully competitive over the past decade Local voices and local issues need to become more dominant on our air and local web sites. My experience and intuition tells me that a wonderfully bright future awaits. But, in modifying again Mandela's inauguration address to fit our circumstance today, a third challenge results. He suggests that we will succeed

Such a proposition may be an editorial and an essential one between stations and your listeners. It is just as imperative that we seek to achieve such values in our relationships among one another in this great enterprise.

And that is the final challenge I leave with you today.

In summary, it's a great time to be in public radio. Thank you again for the award, the gracious welcome, and have a wonderful conference.

Web page created Feb. 27, 2002
Copyright 2001 by Current Publishing Committee

Rick Madden

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As Mandela told his countrymen, 'Playing small does not serve the world.' We're not a 'smaller is better' enterprise anymore, and none of us can think with that type of mindset.

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