PITTSBURGH — Eric Nuzum, the former NPR executive who recently joined Audible to oversee original content, spoke frankly to public radio station programmers about retaining talent, growing audience and creating content at the Public Radio Program Directors conference here Tuesday.
Nuzum spoke candidly during his brief return to the public media fray. “The reason I’m so excited is I get to talk to you as me today,” he said. At previous conferences, Nuzum had attended “to sell something or promote something or advocate for something or convince you to do something,” he said.
Among his observations about the public radio system, Nuzum said that stations should stop worrying about distribution platforms and have more concern for the listener experience.
As a programmer, Nuzum said he stopped thinking of his job as just handling scheduling. He said he saw his mission as: “I create great listening experiences that stay with the audience long after they’re done listening.”
“When you start looking at things through that lens, change becomes less of a threat and more of an opportunity,” Nuzum said. “Because what we do is not changing at all. The platform we use changes, the audience can change as well, but the basic rules stay the same.”
As an example of stations focusing too much on platforms, he asked the audience whether their stations are working on podcast strategies. Many attendees raised their hands.
“I think that creating a podcast strategy is a terrible mistake,” he said.
“First reason — companies like Midroll and Audible are already thinking about what happens next and are making decisions today about what’s going to happen in three to five years as the podcast industry does whatever it’s about to do,” he said.
“The second reason is the focus is on this distribution platform, not the listening experience,” he added. “I have yet to find an example of someone who said, ‘Hey, I’m going to start a podcast for the sake of starting a podcast,’ and that podcast actually ended up working.”
Instead, he said, content shouldn’t be created with the platform in mind. “Start with what you want and work backwards from there, and the platform it belongs on will emerge,” he said.
When Nuzum was developing the humorous quiz show Ask Me Another at NPR, he said, the guiding goal was to get women in their 30s to laugh. (“If you are not airing Ask Me Another in a prominent place on your schedule, you need to get your head examined,” he said. “ . . . I don’t even get paid to say this anymore,” he added.)
Another message to programming directors: Stop complaining.
Nuzum addressed a few of the complaints he had heard in public media throughout his time in the system.
One was, as he put it, “I have no resources. I have no money. My staff is overworked.”
“. . . [P]ublic radio doesn’t have a revenue problem, it has a spending problem,” he said. “. . . You’re spending money on things that are not your future. You’re spending money on things that are your past.”
He said he would be happy to look at a station’s schedule and in 30 seconds find five programs that a station is spending too much money on. “All the sudden you have a development fund to create things,” he said.
Nuzum added that program directors have often blamed flat or declining audience trends on disruptive technology or too much competition.
“I think that’s a cop-out,” Nuzum said. “A programmer’s job is to grow audience. Period. . . . If you can’t, you shouldn’t be doing it.”
Nuzum pointed to the huge audience growth experienced by Gimlet Media, Serial and Invisibilia since last year’s PRPD conference. “I don’t know when flat and declining became acceptable, but it’s not,” he added. “And you need to change that mindset because there’s so much possibility.”
Nuzum, who has been recruiting public media workers to join Audible, also addressed the issue of talent retention.
“Just from public statements made by Gimlet, Midroll and Audible, we plan to hire 60 people this coming year,” he said. “And where do you think most of those people are going to come from? People don’t leave when they’re happy. People don’t leave when they’re challenged. People don’t leave when they see a future in what they’re doing. You can provide that for them. Make my life more difficult and keep them. There’s nothing that I have that you don’t have. . . . Give them something exciting to do.”
“There has never been a better moment to be in radio,” Nuzum said — even as the meaning of “radio” has become more ambiguous.
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