This commentary by the chairman of the NPR Board’s Strategic Planning and Technology Committee was prepared for Current. Jon Schwartz is also general manager of Wyoming Public Radio, Laramie, and a recipient of the 1999 Public Radio Regional Organizations Award.
Originally published in Current, May 10, 1999
Is public radio a mature enterprise? Or has it yet to hit its stride? One way or another, the answer will shape not only our own professional futures but will also have a significant impact on America’s future. I believe the answer is that public radio must envision itself as a powerful force working to make America a better country for all citizens.
As chair of the NPR Board’s Strategic Planning & Technology Committee the past two years, I’ve had ample opportunity to think with committee colleagues about the long view. I do not pretend to speak for them or the rest of the board, although I am indebted to them and many of you for helping me think through issues we’ll face down the road.
The assertion that public radio must have a much larger role in the future may seem to presume a rather inflated view of our importance. But if we take seriously the values upon which we’ve based our careers and the various technological, economic and demographic analyses we’ve seen year after year, you may agree with me that we are truly at a momentous cusp.
The signs of a mature, some may say “graying,” medium have been increasingly remarked upon during the ‘90s. The lifetimes of our major shows are often measured in decades. Program directors and others complain that those shows sound tired and lack the zest of youth. Developing future on-air talent is a more pressing issue than ever, and the same may be said for management talent. A number of stations report that although their membership revenues are up, membership growth has flattened. Many hope that this does not foreshadow similar public TV membership and financial trends. And there are few large unserved markets where the system can continue signal expansion—a major source of its recent audience growth.
Regardless of whether public radio is a mature medium or not, strengthening programming for our core audience is critical. This is especially true as competition looms on all fronts from both heritage and new media. The NPR Board recognized this last summer when it made strengthening NPR core programming its No. 1 goal in an important policy statement charting NPR’s future direction. However, the board also acknowledged public radio’s potential for a far-reaching future. It envisioned one in which public radio would play a significant and vital role in the daily lives of not only today’s listeners, but in the lives of much more of the American public, the vast majority of whom are not today served by public radio.
Within the field, most of our discussion about “streams” of programming, or what many call “formats,” has been about selecting and shaping the single stream that will best serve a station’s existing core audience. But now we are also talking about how we can use emerging forms of distribution to reach out and embrace new audiences in the nation’s changing population.
For those of us who believe that public radio has only just begun to achieve its mission, this is an exciting prospect.
The context is turbulent change, in any case. A milli-channel future threatens to dramatically erode traditional radio listening in much the same way that cable and other new media ripped away audience share from the traditional Big Three commercial TV networks.
Indeed, public radio faces a far greater proliferation of competing audio channels than cable brought to TV. Even before the recent explosion of consumer Internet use, the average time spent listening to radio (TSL) was declining, according to a report during last year’s Public Radio Conference by Mike Henry, managing partner of Paragon Research. Arbitron recently updated its benchmark Internet listening study to reflect a doubling of online radio listening from 6 percent to 13 percent in the past six months, according to the Gavin Report.
Radio listening is likely to drop further as Internet connectivity is improved and the satellite radio companies CD Radio and XM launch their 200-channel direct-to-listener services (initially commercial-free), and satellite television also expands.
Lest any of us think public radio need not concern itself with arcane measurements and trends in new media, note that TSL is inextricably linked to membership contributions. Stations reporting higher average pledges but fewer new members are particularly at risk if the TSL of their core declines. Public radio listeners are often people with the innate curiosity, the education, and the financial means that suggest they may well be early adopters of new media.
Where does all this leave us? If we cannot maintain the status quo, and we do not wish to fall back, then we must seize the opportunities that always accompany large-scale upheavals and change. We must offer more choices to our current listeners and to those who never listen. We might then prevent a repeat of the trends that have depressed network TV and flattened membership growth for public TV.
As NPR and public radio generally consider their options for this future, the stations do have understandable concerns about any national network’s plans to grow beyond the traditional distribution channels that stations control absolutely. They have a right by virtue of their longtime investment in the networks not to have to compete against those same networks for their own listeners. At the same time, the networks must be able to move ahead for the common good in order to accomplish that which stations cannot do individually.
There is plenty of maneuvering room left in the intersection of these two needs. Protecting our current service may require not only internal program adjustments but also extending current listeners’ use of public radio and attracting new segments of the public.
Is it possible for public radio to serve more Americans without selling its soul? I believe we not only can but must extend our audience in order to serve the very same values upon which we base our broadcasts. Ultimately all of our options are about program content, and not everyone wants the same. Radio is a segmented medium, like magazines, that reflects diverse audiences and their tastes, needs and sensibilities. No radio station, except in the most rural areas, ever gets a 100 percent cume rating. Public radio reaches only about 10 percent of the public. It does not even reach all of the Actualizer and Fulfilled populations as defined in the VALS psychographics typology, which are most prominent in our audience.
Regardless of what public radio does or does not do, media audiences will continue to grow more diverse and fragment. The America of tomorrow will be a far more diverse nation than it was when most of us were born. The demographics today of California, of Florida and Texas in many ways are a preview of the future. Does “public” radio’s audience reflect this changing public?
I believe that respect for diversity is one of public radio’s fundamental values that add to our listeners’ quality of life and benefit American life in general. We spend precious little time discussing our shared values in this profession, but they are the underpinnings for our many other debates on policy and technology.
Here are some values I would name:
You would undoubtedly add other important values or modify these. But a set of attributes much like these does fire the passion of public radio’s producers and listeners, regardless of radio format. These ideals are not always achieved, but they do reflect significantly the bases upon which our society reinvents Americans, generation after generation. There is little doubt that the current crop of public radio listeners, distinguished most clearly by their education, understand public radio’s values and principles and hear their own reinforced daily. We speak their language.
Imagine if public radio also spoke the language of other groups of Americans. If its voice reflected their sensibilities, yet still embodied the fundamental values that identify public radio. Would that public radio make a greater difference in the America of the future? Would it help citizens in their process of self-governance? Would it help them enjoy stimulating, culturally enriched lives? That is a future for public radio that is worth working and fighting for. It’s one worth asking current and future staff members to make the sacrifices we know they make in order to work in public radio.
Until we embrace diversity in fact as well as in philosophy, public radio will not be able to extend its fundamental benefits and communicate its values beyond the current segment—some European observers might say “class”—of the American public.
In an eloquent “Statement of Principles” in 1980, the NPR Board of Directors said:
“Public radio recognizes and affirms its responsibility to the enduring values and rights embodied in our national life. ... To fulfill its charge, public radio seeks to provide significant educational, informational and cultural services that reflect the tastes, concerns and creativity of all citizens.”
To address all citizens, public radio will require multiple program streams on a multiplicity of channels to speak clearly and with respect to the unserved 90 percent of America. In an increasingly segmented medium, there is no other way to reflect the tastes, concerns and creativity of all citizens to the entire public.
How could public radio be transformed into such a powerful force for change?
What can we do now to progress through these steps?
Will these explorations and expansions damage existing stations? They already face increased competition from giant corporate groups owning up to eight stations in each market, along with other competition for listeners’ time. A station that today finds itself one of 20 or 30 radio signals, may next year be one of 220 or 230 choices as XM and CD Radio launch their satellite services
Like many things, the status quo is not what it used to be. Here are some ways that aiming for a bigger public radio role in America could benefit stations:
There certainly are risks on all sides. But we do not have the choice of a risk-free future. We must strengthen our national programming, our station and independent-based production capabilities. But to what end? More money? More listeners? Individual survival is certainly important, but it is a far cry from the vision upon which public radio was founded. Alignment towards mutually beneficial goals is a critical issue among diverse stations and the national networks.
I truly believe that many good minds have brought public radio this far by giving flesh to ideals and values that are fundamentally important for all citizens, not just its present listeners. I believe that given the opportunity we were given through access to public funds, public channels and facilities, many more good minds might extend those ideals and valuesto others more like themselves than like me. And I truly believe America would be a better country if those ideals and values were more widely shared. That’s why I believe we are not close to having achieved our mission yet, why we are at the beginning, not the end, of public radio’s effort to make this a better country, in all of its diversity.
Web page created July 5, 1999
Copyright 1999, Current Publishing Committee