Who public radio broadcasters are: members of a congregation, with our listeners

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This is the view from Martin Goldsmith, then host of NPR’s daily classical music program Performance Today, who served as announcer, producer and program director at Washington’s WETA-FM between 1974 and 1986.

Martin Goldsmith, 1995From the same thinking that has offered “seamlessness,” “affinity,” “modes” and “appeal-driven programming” as ways of capturing the public radio audience now comes “customer service.”

At first glance, this concept seems perfectly reasonable, even admirable. It conjures up images of the radio programmer as shopkeeper, hustling to fill his customers’ orders, keeping them satisfied so that they’ll continue to place their orders at that familiar stand on the dial. With customer satisfaction, so the theory goes, comes customer loyalty … translation, higher cumes and better fundraising. And, hey, who can argue with that?

Well, I’m glad you asked. It’s not that I disagree with the desired results … after all, higher cumes and booming fundraisers are important barometers of success in public broadcasting. And with federal budget cuts looming, who among us can afford not to do everything we can to harvest every possible pledge?

So it’s not the results that concern me. It’s the metaphor, the symbolism, the relationship between public radio stations and public radio listeners that the phrase “customer service” evokes.

When I walk into Sears to buy a lawnmower or a set of snow tires, I know what I want. I may not be up on the latest bells and whistles that have been developed recently, I may not have heard of the newest models, but I’ve got a good general idea of how I want my lawnmower or snow tires to perform. For his part, the salesman is there to make a sale. He stands a better chance of clinching the deal if he’s well-informed, helpful and courteous. And after I purchase my lawnmower, I’m more likely to recommend that salesman to a friend if his company reliably sharpens the blades and cleans the carburetor every spring.

That’s my idea of customer service. And it’s great to encounter it at Sears or in any business relationship. It’s also welcome in organizational relationships such as the one between National Public Radio and its member stations.

But I’m concerned here with the relationship that exists between us as public radio programmers and presenters and our listeners. Our product isn’t anything as tangible as snow tires or lawnmowers. Our product is our programming. And for our unique relationship with our audience I think we can improve on the customer metaphor.

So I’d like to offer a new metaphor: the audience as congregation.

The people who enter their church, mosque, or synagogue aren’t there for a tangible product. They come for knowledge, for the occasional glimpse of wisdom, for a hint of the mystery that lies beyond their day-to-day routine. And that, finally, is why people have always come to public broadcasting … for depth, for context and meaning, for inspiration, for the glorious revelation of the possibilities of the human spirit found in a great symphony or play, for something special … what American poet Frank O’Hara called “a real right thing.”

Now I can imagine that the congregation metaphor may make some people uncomfortable. After all, if our listeners are our congregation that makes us presenters, programmers and program directors the clergy, doesn’t it? Well, first off let me make clear that my conception of the clergy-congregation relationship — and what I’m basing this metaphor on — is mutual seeking, a striving together towards a common goal. It emphatically does not involve an all-knowing Leader who reveals Truth to the uninitiated.

If the concept of broadcasters as clergy may seem a stretch at first, listen to what the genuine article has to say. The Rev. Earl Neil of Washington’s National Cathedral says that he wants to “provide inspiration” by showing people “the best of themselves” and revealing how “people can grow” in spite of the world’s troubles. Another clergyman, Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, sees his position as one of “interacting fully with the people who choose to enter into the clergy-congregation relationship” (much as listeners choose to tune in regularly). He’s there, he says, “to impart information, insight, and guidance” and “to provide a shared aesthetic experience that builds a sense of community.”

It’s my belief that what the Reverend Neil and Rabbi Saperstein see as their jobs constitutes the most important part of our jobs. It’s what we do when we’re doing our work best, and it’s what we should always aspire to.

I realize that this metaphor represents a challenge to a lot of — if I may borrow the phrase — current thinking in public radio. It’s a lot harder to think of ways to inspire your listeners, to build your audience into a community, than it is merely to count them. The position of clergy is a higher reach than that of salesman. But programming that aims no higher than to offer pleasant background listening doesn’t provide the sort of spiritual sustenance — the “inspiration,” “information” and “insight” — our listeners come to us for. That approach fails them, and it fails us.

The times are ripe — and right — for this new metaphor. The recent explosion in the popularity of Gregorian chant, the phenomenal success of the spiritual message of Henryk Gorecki’s Third Symphony, and, as Newsweek reported in a cover story a few months back, the search many people have undertaken for meaning in their lives, is powerful evidence that Americans are searching for just the sort of spiritual sustenance that public broadcasting — at its best — has provided. After all, we’ve made our reputation on news and cultural programming that reaches people’s souls, in addition to their hearts and minds.

I’m convinced that the very rewards that those who espouse “customer service” covet so dearly — more listeners and better fundraising — will be the result if we continue to listen to the creative angels of our nature. Because it’s the programming that meets their spiritual needs that has listeners and viewers across the country so aghast at the prospect of cuts in federal funding for public broadcasting.

This time of crisis, then, is no time to fall back on lowest-common-denominator programming that is driven — rather than guided — by research. It is the time to consider — at every step in the programming and presentation process — how best we can provide our listeners — our congregation — with a daily hint of the sublime, the extra-ordinary in the ordinary, that makes life so full and so worth living.

It’s a metaphor, remember. There are, of course, profound differences between our work as broadcasters and the work of the clergy. I by no means seek to demean religion; rather I seek to uplift public radio. I think the congregation metaphor gets us closer to the best work we’ve done, what we should be doing, and what we need to do, both for the immediate future of our embattled industry and for the betterment of our times and our fellow citizens.

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