Tom Thomas and Terry Clifford stepped down in January as CEOs of the Station Resource Group, the organization they founded in 1984 to assist public radio stations with advocacy and strategic planning. In their decades at the helm, the husband-and-wife duo have had a sweeping influence on public media through their work on many initiatives, research projects and policy decisions. SRG incubated the Public Radio Exchange, now PRX, and Public Media Co., itself a major player in many of the system’s most significant mergers and acquisitions.
Independently of SRG, Thomas and Clifford participated in a task force to grow public radio’s reach, contributed to pioneering audience research and founded the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, which is still going strong today. More recently, SRG has focused on boosting philanthropic support for public radio and on strategies to further stations’ goals around diversity, equity and inclusion.
With former Southern California Public Radio CEO Bill Davis serving as SRG’s new leader, Thomas and Clifford are continuing to work as advisors to the organization on special projects and other activities. “As a result of the research and national programs they’ve conceived of and executed to the collaborations they’ve fostered, the industry is smarter and better prepared for the future,” said Dave Kansas, SRG’s board chair and president of American Public Media, in a release announcing Davis’ hiring.
In an interview with Current, Thomas and Clifford discussed their start in public radio, the founding of NFCB, SRG’s evolution and public media’s future. This transcript has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Current: How did you two meet?
Terry Clifford: We met at Grinnell College. I was a freshman, Tom was a senior.
Tom Thomas: We traveled around the state of Iowa selling our newspaper and had time for small talk as we cruised the highways between college campuses and other places.
Current: What was your newspaper?
Thomas: An underground newspaper, as they called them in the day.
Clifford: [It covered] events around the country. It was really a time of tumult, and a lot of people felt that different perspectives on whether we should be in Vietnam were not being heard. … They also felt that in terms of our whole infrastructure and system, there was ongoing racial injustice that was just horrible and had to be addressed. And that women were basically second-class citizens without all the rights the person should have in terms of controlling their body, for example, and other things like that. So those kinds of things were rampant. It was this kind of cross-discussion around the country of, where are we going? What’s going on? Why are we doing this war? All of that.
Thomas: I would add to the list the emergence of the environmental movement. The first Earth Day was happening right as we were launching this newspaper. But I think the issues Terry ticked off were the enduring major themes: feminism, anti-war, anti-racism, pro-environmentalism and, you know, a little bit of having a good time and listening to some good music, too.
Current: Tell me about how you got started in radio.
Tom Thomas: We got started in radio by starting in newspapers. We were traveling around the country thinking about starting a national news exchange among alternative newspapers — this was in 1971 — and we thought there were some possibilities there. After visiting about 20 different publications, we concluded there was no way in hell that was going to work.
Terry Clifford: And we had lice from one of our visits. [laughs]
Thomas: Along the way we discovered some of the very earliest community radio stations in the country, notably KDNA in St. Louis, where my brother, Bill Thomas, who now runs Prairie Public’s radio operation in North Dakota, was working for the summer. He said, “You should come and see what we’re doing here. It’s a lot of what you have been thinking about doing in the newspaper space, but it’s completely different in radio.” We were truly impressed with the opportunity and potential that we saw of listener-supported media, the power of radio to reach so broadly to solve the distribution issues that bedevil print to this day.
After thinking it over, we decided that’s what we wanted to do. So we showed back up on the doorstep at KDNA and said “Hire us.” In those days, hiring you meant a very modest commitment on the part of the station [laughs]. So they said yes, and we started doing it and very quickly got involved in working with a number of other organizations around the country that were interested in starting listener-supported, community-oriented radio stations. And we thought, there’s some real possibility here. What was clearly missing was the same thing that we had seen in newspapers — everything was so atomized, and what was truly needed at a variety of levels, from dealing with the FCC to building up skills, along with some sense of connection. That led us to the start of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters in 1975.
Current: How did you come to be the founders and leaders of NFCB?
Clifford: First of all, everything is much more than us being the founders. There was a group that met actually multiple times and talked about whether community radio should be more organized — looking at the vision moving forward, dealing with the FCC … having things that at that point CPB-qualified stations had but community radio was not really open to getting.
Thomas: There had been loose connections among some of the earliest listener-supported stations, following several different threads. One was the Pacifica stations, which were in their heyday in the early ’70s and very strong stations in major markets. There was a group of stations that Lorenzo Milam and Jeremy Lansman had been instrumental in helping get on the air in several locations, mostly on the West Coast. There were several colleges where what had begun as a student radio station blossomed out into a larger community presence, like WYSO at Antioch College.
So people were aware of each other. There had been a few meetings of different constellations of this group. Terry and I had met a number of these people, helping them get their applications together and into the FCC.
Clifford: Getting applications done was the initial thing that brought people together, because you couldn’t start a radio station unless you had an application that met the engineering standards, really addressed what [the station] was all about, qualified you as a noncommercial entity as opposed to being on the commercial band. Just all of those mechanics. There was a very small group of us, mostly in St. Louis, that grew larger with time, but mostly it was around the picnic table for the very small group that would help. People would come from Ohio, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.
Thomas: The formative moment for NFCB was in the summer of 1975, when Lorenzo Milam and Bill Thomas and Mike O’Connor, who was instrumental in creating WORT in Madison, put out a call like, y’all come to Madison and let’s talk about what we’re doing.
It’s interesting who all showed up for that, including some people who went on to legendary careers in media. Skip Pizzi, who’s had a terrific career as a technical guru, mostly in the commercial sector. Bruce Theriault, who rose to be a senior vice president at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, came from Connecticut, and others who went on to extended careers. And the notion there was, there’s something happening, and we are kind of on the same page, and we would benefit by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, by training each other to do our work better, to find some resources so we had more capacity.
And we made a very good move: deciding we won’t actually create this organization right here right now. Because people came to this meeting in this big gym in Madison for a whole constellation of reasons, not all of which were the same. We said, if you’re really interested in creating a national organization of community radio stations, show up in about six weeks in Columbia, Missouri. And if you’re not interested in doing that, well, just don’t come.
So six weeks later, we got together with people who were truly motivated to work together and had some sense of a shared agenda. That was the incorporation meeting of NFCB. And Terry and I went off to Washington. I think people raised about 237 dollars and some odd cents to start the national organization.
Clifford: To hire us for a year [laughs].
Thomas: My brother Bill, who had been working on a program tape exchange among these stations … geared that up with a newfound energy that became the NFCB program service. And we were off and running.
Clifford: We were very lucky because we could have had a mixed reception at a number of agencies. But at both the FCC and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, people were listening. Even if they had reservations about these community radio things, they listened and worked with us. At the FCC there were engineers and policymakers who really were excited to be able to talk about what community radio was doing at that point and really saw a place for it, on the noncommercial band in particular. The movement for media reform greeted us with open arms. We walked into an atmosphere that was receptive in general to begin with, and then we were able to build stronger relationships from there.
Current: What do you think of what community radio has become today?
Clifford: Oh, it’s so exciting. It’s amazing to me. People are really moving along and enjoying what they are in their communities and are proud of what they do. There’s a whole ton of really creative, good people. [NFCB CEO] Sally Kane has done just an amazing job of keeping the organization moving forward. That tendency to get stuck in time as some organizations do has not been the case with NFCB, which is now 46 years along.
Thomas: It’s also been exciting to see the evolution of the concept of what community radio even is. We’re about three generations in at this point in the conceptual framework. Many of the earlier stations were based in fairly large metropolitan areas where there were a lot of people that could help launch such a thing. But over time, community radio has expanded into a whole array of smaller rural areas, where they’re like the weekly newspaper that people are bemoaning the departure of. But these community stations often are the only daily local media in their community, and seeing how these stations have risen to the occasion during the pandemic, providing on-the-ground, close, and personal information that truly is life-saving, has been remarkable.
Current: Station Resource Group was started in 1984 partly out of a sense among stations, as Tom said in a 1994 Current article, that too much was happening in Washington with only token consultation with the stations. What was happening?
Clifford: A handful of stations really felt very good about what they were doing in their communities. When you’re in Washington, you don’t know that well, especially back then, what’s going on in Dallas or St. Paul or Seattle or other such places. They wanted to make their stations even stronger moving forward and to have CPB, NPR, the FCC, the federal facilities program, and others recognize the role that they were playing in their communities as they were growing.
Thomas: The mid-80s were reflective of the ongoing tension in our public media system: …balancing whatever happens on a central basis to achieve scale and efficiency with anchoring the service in local communities around the country, where the stations that are presenting the service are owned and operated and funded largely by the communities that they serve. That tension is, for the most part, a healthy one. But every now and again, it gets a little out of whack.
In 1984, we’re coming off several compounding crises. Ronald Reagan had succeeded in reducing funding for public broadcasting, one of the few times in the whole history of public broadcasting where the financial support from the federal government actually went down — although most of that was soon restored.
NPR, under the leadership of Frank Mankiewicz, had made some bold moves to put itself on the map and scale up. But unfortunately, the business side fell behind the ambitions. NPR essentially had a near-death experience on the financial front. And stations rallied to raise money, bail them out. CPB guaranteed some loans. A number of people came together to make that happen.
Meanwhile, many stations were at an inflection point where there seemed to be so much opportunity to move forward yet so little cohesion between local and national. And that really was the premise of Station Resource Group. Early pioneers in the creation of the modern public radio system such as Bill Kling at Minnesota Public Radio, Susan Harmon, whose career had jumped from WAMU in Washington to KERA in Dallas, and Wayne Roth, who had taken the lead at KUOW in Seattle, wanted to reassert a station agenda. At the same time, new content-creation capacities were beginning to emerge in the national program marketplace, led by the folks at Minnesota Public Radio, New York Public Radio, KUSC in Los Angeles and elsewhere.
So there was this emerging energy and aspiration on the station side that wanted to reengage in the national conversation at CPB, at NPR, in Congress, moving forward.
The initial agenda was very focused. Assure that a supplemental appropriation to replace the lost dollars in federal support wound up mostly going to stations — the stations who had just bailed out NPR. That happened. The satellite system that serves all of public radio was still very young and vulnerable. So safeguard that asset and assure that whatever the financial ups and downs at NPR, this fundamental glue to connect people programmatically was preserved. New policies were put in place to do so. Explore whether the public radio system would be better represented nationally outside of NPR. The consensus was not to make a change.
Current: In the late ’80s and early ’90s, SRG was a key part of the Public Radio Expansion Task Force, which was convened to strategize about growing public radio’s reach and service. A January 1990 task force report included a section about audience diversity that said, “We believe a strategy for audience diversity must be based on station diversity. Different stations that serve different kinds of listeners in a consistent fashion.”
Since then, many stations have indeed acquired additional signals and have segmented their formats across those signals. But how successful do you think public radio has been in following through on that vision the task force laid out about achieving audience diversity?
Clifford: There was not a huge amount of sophistication to the thinking behind those words. Some members [of the task force] were very committed to that. Others felt that it would be a good thing to happen but were not passionate about it. We did the writing and behind-the-scenes stuff. Tom was the person on the task force.
Thomas: At that point, public radio was in one of those inflection zones on the curve of its development programmatically. So much of the early programming concepts at stations were trying to do it all. This is the network whose first show was All Things Considered. And there was an element of that in how stations programmed their whole days. Let’s do a little news in the morning, and then let’s do some classical music for a while. Let’s have a show called Kaleidoscope somewhere in the middle of that, where people will come in and talk about all sorts of things, and we’ll go back and do some more music, and then we’ll do some more news. And the poetry lady will stop by somewhere in there, maybe on the weekend, and I’ll do some jazz overnight.
And the concept was that by doing all these different things over the course of the day and through the week, public radio would reach a diversity of audiences and different sectors of a community. The reality was, it mostly spoke very powerfully to people who liked that diversity of things themselves. But for a lot of people, they wanted to punch a button on their radio, and if they were looking for news, they expected news to come out and not the poetry lady. It became increasingly clear that by focusing a consistent, reliable service on a given channel, stations have more success in connecting with an audience, and because of that consistent connection, would be better able to attract financial support in a virtuous circle to continue the service.
But then, what about the diversity point? What about all the different kinds of services — classical music, jazz — and different parts of the community? And that’s where the notion of adding more stations to achieve that began to emerge as a fundamental strategy. As one and then another and then another station seized opportunities to acquire a second signal and divide major portions, to put the music over here and the news over there, their success exploded — in places like St. Paul, where Minnesota [Public Radio] was one of the first to do this; in Denver, where Colorado Public Radio did this; in other cities where the same organization did that or, a separate strategy, added another public radio station in the community, as people came forward to do that, and build those up. That achieved an audience success that public radio had not experienced to that point. It spurred financial success in terms of the connection with audiences to sustain that. And it empowered a wider range of services being consistently and reliably available from public radio to our communities.
What it did not do was significantly advance our service to people of color … and several other sectors where the sense of responsibility to serve the full community says we should be doing that. But this strategy did not get us there. So that has unfolded over time with two challenges, programatically, that we are wrestling with to this very day.
One is, within the format-focused services, be it news or classical music or Triple A, are there ways consistent with what the service is to embed greater diversity and better reflect the communities to which that service is being presented? That’s more journalists of color on the staff, better sourcing of who we turn to to report our stories, or even the voice and tone with which we speak to the community. So a wider range of people hear themselves in what’s being presented.
Similar challenges on the music side: What can we be doing in the classical music space to better reflect the genuine and growing diversity in the classical music space, as young musicians come forward … how do we incorporate that?
So that’s a challenge. All throughout the system, people are talking about that in different ways. Some of them are old conversations being renewed time and time again. Some of them are refreshingly new and imaginative conversations about possible new ways to pursue those avenues.
The second thing is the liberating opportunity of the digital space. Because back when the Expansion Task Force made its recommendations, the notion of being able to do more than one thing at a time was a pretty alien concept. That’s the tyranny of broadcasting. … And somewhere along the line, as we have a full stack of digital opportunities at our disposal, is the chance to be many things at one time. We have multiple HD channels, which have very uneven uptake, mostly a disappointment, sadly. We have on-demand content offerings, where you can be doing one thing on your main channel with something else on demand whenever you want it. Or multiple streams, not just the main-service linear stream as the broadcast service, but something else that goes in a different direction.
That presents huge opportunities for a diversity of service — still on the same principles that the Expansion Task Force articulated. In this channel or on that platform, be consistent, be reliable, be true to your brand and your identity. But you can actually manage multiple identities in multiple channels and platforms. That’s a huge opportunity. As Terry and I look out on the system and say, what have we accomplished and where is there so much ground to capture still, it’s to fully take that opportunity and circle back to those challenges of how to be expansive in what we do, not narrowing down — how to reach a greater diversity in multiple dimensions of what diversity may mean culturally, racially, ethnically, politically in the services we provide.
Clifford: The other element that just did not come together that I think people have been sorely disappointed in — there’s no question that public media has not performed very well just in terms of hiring a diversity of staff and making those people feel comfortable. Whether you’re talking about women, just generally, whether you’re talking about people of color … it’s just not been the priority of very many organizations to say, in the next five years, we’re going to use employment practices — especially given that so many stations were growing — that will change the way we look when we look at ourselves as a station. It’s been, “Oh, we’re making this an issue, we’re going to get there, we’re making it an issue again.” … It’s been going on since the ’70s in terms of it being an issue and not being addressed really well. We’re very hopeful that we see signs that there will be changes in the way that each station and organization looks in terms of its demographics, including not being ageist. It’s really still to be seen. … It’s only the beginning for it to happen with any real sort of determination.
Thomas: As we step up to diversity questions, it’s fundamental — we have to change who’s in the room if we expect a different outcome than what we’ve had. So that notion of being self-aware, being willing to be self-critical, but then move forward and change who’s in the room, is so fundamental to a constructive and progressive evolution of our system. And if you think about that — who’s in the room, who’s sitting around, who’s talking, who’s not, who’s being heard — it has made such a difference. And where public radio has made its best moves over the years is when there’s been a really great mix of people in the room that are able to take where we have been one step forward. We never get all the answers at one shot. But you can move forward. And I think that’s a really important part of our legacy, and I know it’s shared by many other people across the field.
Current: You and Terry collaborated with David Giovannoni on groundbreaking audience research over the years that in part urged public radio stations to focus on their core audience in order to grow. What impact do you think that advice had on diversity of the public radio audience or the lack thereof?
Clifford: Well, it certainly helps some organizations — KUSC would be an example — to really focus and grow their audience. And they have the largest Latino audience in the country. I believe they still do. When you focus on things that work, the idea that somehow not pursuing diversity goals because that will somehow disengage you from focusing on what makes radio or online or newsletters valuable to people — it shouldn’t be in conflict. I’m amazed when people think that they’re in some ways elements that are fighting each other.
Thomas: The strategy of “find your core and pursue it relentlessly” is a winning strategy in radio. It’s how radio fundamentally works and has worked, and I think will continue to work going forward — probably even more so as audio choices become more fragmented. Having an identity, understanding that identity, being true to it in pursuing it is a winning strategy. But to have that strategy, you have to decide, what’s the core that you want to pursue? And how are you defining that? And then be true to that.
An example of where that strategy was executed in a way that contributed to diversity would be Southern California Public Radio — which happens to be where the new principal of SRG [Bill Davis] spent 19 years making this happen. That organization made a pivot some years back and said, “We want to define our core in a way that is more inclusive of the Latino audience in Southern California. We think we can do that without blowing off the audience we’re currently serving, but we have to conceptualize — what is the core audience to which we will speak in a different way than where we began?”
And then with some clarity around that, decisions follow: keep doing this, but don’t do that; add this, don’t add that. And the result has been a significant success. Not an unqualified success, of course. But really tremendous things have happened in terms of bringing to the fore creative producers and hosts and announcers of a Latino background, many of whom have gone on to national careers, most notably A Martínez stepping into the hosting job at NPR, but many, many other people who passed through the doors there. By centering on who we need to be speaking to, the audience we want, these are the people we need to have, by doing outreach and engagement activities that build towards that kind of service. It achieved a significant increase in the amount and percentage of Latino listening while still preserving the major element of the core audience that had been with the station all along. That’s a good outcome.
Stations that are focused on serving the Black community where they are, the new initiative that CPB has launched and supported around an Urban Alternative service — they needed to define who their core is for that and pursue it. It’ll be very different from the core that other stations have selected in public radio. But the strategy of a core that you identify, you know and you work towards and build a loyalty, a consistent use, by being personally important to them as users is a fundamentally good thing to do. We just need more opportunities to make more choices about cores to pursue and more platforms and channels through which we can make those efforts.
Current: The 1994 Current article included an anonymously sourced tidbit that Tom had been interviewed to be president of NPR. Is that correct?
Thomas: That is.
Current: And what happened with that?
Clifford: They didn’t hire him! [laughs].
Thomas: They decided that Delano Lewis was the man to lead the organization rather than me. I think that probably worked out the best for both NPR and me, to tell the truth. It was at a moment of transition. Doug Bennett, after a nine-year tenure at NPR, had moved on. There was a question of where’s the next direction of the company? Several board members at NPR asked me to put an application in. “OK, I will.” And in the end, they went in a different direction. As I say, looking back not long after that or years after that, I think it all worked out for the best.
Current: Were there other opportunities over the years to lead stations or other national organizations?
Thomas: Yes and no, in the sense that because of the visible profile that we’ve had for all these years, people make exploratory overtures. But that experience of thinking about, pursuing and not prevailing on the NPR opportunity actually helped focus my own thinking, and Terry’s and my thinking as a team, on what was a stronger, better path for us to contribute, either for the two of us together or either of us individually.
Clifford: We also worked to think creatively about what makes organizations themselves be creative and thrive. For example, Public Radio Exchange, which was an idea that emerged in a meeting where Jay Allison and I were on a committee talking about independent producers. It was the concept of something that would, again, heighten the visibility … of what was happening both with independent producers and stations who were working with a number of producers. It’s an example of something that just happens at the right time — how you have ideas that work or don’t work.
One of the things that Tom and I did as we nurtured several initiatives inside SRG was to really think carefully: How does this organization succeed in the best way? We weren’t trying to build an empire inside SRG. We could have thought to ourselves, “Oh, it would be better to have SRG always running Brilliant on the Basics in terms of fundraising,” or “It would be really fun to be the bosses of Public Radio Exchange.” Or, “We want to be in charge of the business that has become Public Media Company because we know that, among other things, it would make our organization larger.” … But in the end, it was more satisfying and more fun to say, what thrives inside the Station Resource Group and what thrives outside the Station Resource Group? And where does SRG thrive by having partnerships — clearly SRG and another partner. I don’t know if you call it the business model, but it’s been what has guided our thinking.
Current: With such longevity as an organization, how do you feel SRG evolved over time?
Thomas: We’ve always felt that there’s an advocacy role — on behalf of the station community with national organizations within public media and on behalf of public media with external constituencies of philanthropists, the federal government and others. That’s important, to speak with an authentic, fact-based narrative of what’s happening in the field, what its needs are and what’s the best public policy for those who want to support it. The details of that advocacy — what issues we are pursuing, what venue has important opportunities — those are the things that shift from moment to moment.
We’ve always felt that there is an element in SRG’s work of strengthening the effectiveness, competency, capacity and scale of stations in situationally appropriate ways. Staying mindful that there will always be differences among stations, we have looked for common needs, transportable skills, and moments when there is a shared sense of opportunity — or risk — and urgency. By seizing those moments, by being where station leaders are engaged and moving, we have helped people move forward, not just incrementally, but in large and enduring ways.
Sometimes that’s focused on moving forward in the ability to raise money. In the mid-’90s, when Newt Gingrich was beating his chest about taking us on a glide path to zero, we felt like one of the most important things we could do was build financial strength, both at the basic membership level, but also some of the first initiatives in the field towards major gifts. But then there’s a time to hand that off, and Greater Public was beginning to rise up. So, “You guys take that, we’ll move on and work in some other areas.”
And the early days of digital — what’s this mean? How do we even know what we’re doing? Who are the right people to be listening to? … We can play a role there. Are we going to be the experts in digital forever? No, of course not. But getting around a turning point, helping people step up in that space — very important.
We’ve had probably three passes in the area of diversity, where there’s a moment in time where the wheel seems to lend itself towards that as it turns. And we say, we’ll seize that opportunity. If there’s emotion and energy around that, turn it in as constructive a way as possible and move as far as you can knowing that that moment will probably pass. We’re in such a moment now, and we have sought to seize those opportunities.
By having the flexibility to do these kinds of pivots, it keeps SRG where the issues are most important, in opportunistic places in which we can make an impact, but also have a continuity that runs through all of it of a sense of higher purpose, of serving both individuals and serving communities, of keeping the sense of integrity and trust of what we do as a field in the forefront. … We put a lot of effort into editorial integrity for several years with partners in public television and created a Public Media Code of Integrity that over 300 public media licensees have endorsed and from time to time find very helpful to pull up and say, “This is what we do here and what we don’t do here, and here’s why.” So those things are important.
Current: In recent years SRG has focused on strengthening local journalism. How well do you think public media is positioned now to scale up to meet local information needs in communities?
Thomas: This is our moment! A confluence of years of development and investment and conceptualization are coming to fruition in a growing number of places around the country. Public media is the largest distributed journalism network in the United States at a time when most journalism organizations have been shedding jobs. Public media has added over 1,150 journalists in the last nine years. We’re moving counter-direction to the destruction that’s happening in so many other places in the journalism field.
It’s happening in several different ways, and it’s important to acknowledge and think about that. We have, in a dozen or so communities, organizations that are really moving to the very front ranks of journalism. … Colorado Public Radio has the largest newsroom in Colorado. Other entities are stepping into spaces that previously were dominated by legacy newspapers … and are the go-to, reliable places for … truly important meaningful accountability reporting, insights into long-term issues, as well as the news of the day. Oregon Public Broadcasting is a terrific example.
We have collaborations among newsrooms that build on that sense of shared identity that is so fundamental to the success of public radio. So we are achieving scale not in a single place, but across multiple newsrooms who report together, who plan together, who develop resources together. Whether it’s the Texas Newsroom, which is pretty far along, anchored at four strong stations in Texas and sharing information both back and forth with maybe 20 other stations in the state — that’s a pretty impressive accomplishment. The work in the Pacific Northwest that’s over a decade, 15 years old at this point, with a similar news exchange up there, is very powerful. Things that are topically focused elsewhere in the country. That capacity is stepping up as we’ve learned how to collaborate, make it really work, do the execution behind the concept.
Then there are spectacular things like Chicago Public Media acquiring the Sun-Times. I think there will be others that follow. All of these things are hugely encouraging of how to seize this moment. … But we still have so much more to do, just to be really honest about it. I think we’re still learning in public media how to manage newsrooms of significant size. It’s a growing-pain kind of thing. It was not so long ago that the newsroom was like the news director and a couple of reporters, and that was about all there was. So building out that kind of mid-range news management capacity. That’s a hard thing to do.
Part of what’s helping us now is the growing number of people who are seasoned veterans of newspaper newsrooms who are taking leadership roles in public media organizations. I just made out a list for somebody who’s recruiting a newsroom leader, and I very quickly was able to come up with about 10 top-flight people from major newspaper organizations who are now in leadership roles in public radio. And my advice was, don’t recruit any of them. Talk to them about their buddies who are still over on the other side of the fence and who we should be bringing aboard. So managing our growth is really important.
I think the question, going back to concepts of what’s the core audience for our journalism, as what kind of people, what kinds of stories, how we define that, I think that’s still a work in progress. For a long time, the notion was, doing local journalism, the best thing you could do is try to sound as much as you could like NPR. And there were some solid notions behind that — consistent appeal, don’t sound like, “Oh, you’ve gone from the network to the local, it sounds really different. Is it even the same thing?”
But increasingly, people are saying there is a service that public media provides at the national and international level and in national newsmagazines like Morning Edition, All Things Considered, The World, Marketplace — that’s a service. But there is a local dimension that can speak in a local voice. It’s a competent local voice. It’s not like, oh, this is an inferior product with the intern doing the news. It’s seasoned, serious reporting that speaks to our community where it’s at around issues that are unique and distinctive in this community, and those are really important things to report on as well. So how to define that needs relentless attention to really get it right, to execute well and execute well every day, and that’s what I think people are working on to get better.
And then a third part of realizing the journalism opportunity is understanding what it means to do journalism in an on-demand audio environment. We’ve gotten pretty good at journalism in the curated linear stream. And we are making some progress in on-demand audio content, but a lot of it’s not journalism. So how do we excel in providing journalism that has all the hallmarks that got us here — trust, integrity, curiosity, responsibility, authentic voices — and present that in an accessible, meaningful way as on-demand audio accompanied by text? That’s the next frontier. People will get it right, but we’re not there nearly enough yet.
Current: Looking back on everything you have done, what is most gratifying about the impact that you’ve had?
Thomas: It’s amazing to think back on how small and impoverished — there are no other words to use — public radio was in the early 1970s. NPR had a few million dollars. Almost no radio station had a budget over a million. The total number of working journalists in the system was probably fewer than 100. Most cities only had one public radio station. Many stations didn’t even ask for listener support. They were funded primarily by some combination of federal and state tax-based dollars and university funds. It was such a different place. When we started what we’ve done and to think of where we are today, in the scale, the scope, the reach and the collective impact that public media has every day, tens of millions of people every week using the service, to feel like we have some role in that is immensely rewarding.
One of the things that Terry and I recognized very early on is, there’s no solo acts in this. If we were going to have an impact, it would require a lot of organizing, a lot of collaboration, a lot of partnership with others to achieve the things that we wanted to have happen. We had the opportunity to start working at the national level as young people. We were in our 20s when we started NFCB. We were able to grow ourselves professionally and personally in our own capacities as the system itself was growing, and we were aided in that by having this sense of connection and partnership with others at stations, at the national level. When we came to Washington, people would invite us into the conversation — not always agree with us, but listen. We tried to listen back. Having that sense of being part of a larger community of practice, a community of service, where we’ve been able to play our part and our role in moving things forward, but to see the grander system whole and have a sense of accomplishment in shaping that is very satisfying.
Current: Are there things that didn’t work out or ways you wish you’d had more of an impact?
Thomas: I cannot confirm or deny that anything ever didn’t work out. [Laughs]
Clifford: There are always some things that don’t work out as one would have hoped when you start the work. The main thing is just the importance of timing and a sense of shared vision about something. … Where we’ve been most often disappointed is where our vision is focused on this thing, and most people are [gestures] over there. And so we sometimes try some stuff that just doesn’t succeed, doesn’t make it, doesn’t have the impact we want. … It really goes back to what Tom talked about. You can have a lot of things happening, but it has to be happening with a group of people. It’s not a solo game.
Thomas: One of the hardest areas for us has been the music side of the house, for a variety of reasons. Part of it is getting our music leadership on the same page as to what they’re seeking to accomplish. The music stations are more idiosyncratic than the news stations, which is saying a lot [laughs]. But in terms of the respective vision of, what’s the right path for music in public media? What’s the distinctive imperative that music stations ought to be doing? And even as it’s evolving, people are in somewhat different paths of where they see themselves going. … Having the unifying characteristic of a shared national program to love or hate … is not a thing. And some of the significant players in the music space — the music labels — have not been especially hospitable to the public media impulse of what we’re trying to do. … That’s a challenging space in which we wish we had accomplished more than we have, although we’ve done some very significant things that we’re very proud of. Our Classical Music Rising initiative lifted up classical music in awareness and visibility at a time when many people had written it off. One of the great success stories through the pandemic is the stability of the classical music audience in public radio, during very troubling times when so much of radio listening fell off a cliff. That made us feel good.
So there are areas where they’re tough, but there are glimmers of light and hope, and that’s how we have always tried to move forward. Capture the ground that you can, don’t lament too long over the things that didn’t [work], and move forward.
Current: As you leave your positions leading SRG, what do you see as the biggest challenges public media needs to take on to continue to grow and thrive?
Thomas: I’ll turn to the wisdom of our members on that. Right before our annual retreat this past fall, which somehow we were able to pull off in-person in Vermont — nobody got sick.
Clifford: We lucked out.
Thomas: People were so emotionally connected to be together. It was mostly an outside event, even though it was a little chilly. But it worked. Immediately before that, we surveyed our members and said, what are the principal drivers of your strategic plans right now? You might call them your strategic imperatives, your pillars. What’s the main thing that’s really important for your organization? We heard back from almost everybody. And it was phenomenal, the degree of overlap and congruity among the members. Sometimes you ask that kind of question and everybody just scatters all over the place. This time, [it was] really coming together, sometimes maybe using slightly different words but really on the same page.
At the top of almost everybody’s list is how to really build out and become a true multiplatform service. The sense that somehow you can make it on a broadcast signal alone in the future, that’s an old thing. Exactly what the new thing is is still coming into focus, but activating the full stack of opportunities — which includes broadcasting at the center as such a powerful anchor and definer of the service and which it will be for years to come, compared to anything else. But surrounding that with the digital opportunities to reach, to engage, to diversify — everybody had that on their list and generally at the top.
Second: themes around diversity. Really, two dimensions to that, which it is important to understand are separate but related. One is diversity inside the organization — who’s in the room, who’s in the workforce, who’s making the editorial decisions, who’s deciding which donors to chase after. … Who you are as an organization inside is so important. But second, diversity in the service and the presentation and the engagement with the community in a way that reflects that community back to itself. So people of diverse backgrounds and sensibilities hear themselves included in the audience that’s being spoken to.
The third thing is local, local, local, for want of a better way to characterize it. How do we use our capacity, use the resources and revenues that we have collected to double down in being distinctive, impactful and meaningful at every turn in the local elements of what we’re doing? And that’s as true for the music stations as it is for the news stations. It will, of course, mean different things … but whether it’s WRTI and WXPN lifting up great black music in Philadelphia, or all of the newsrooms around the country [asking], how do we get out and get ahead of this next election that’s coming up … and inform people? Local, local, local in journalism, music, arts, culture — to a station.
Fourth, community engagement. The notion that we cannot prosper and thrive just by being really cool and smart inside our stations and behind the glass in our studios, that to be who we want to be as significant community institutions, we have to be actually out in the community. And as far as we are again able to open our doors, bring people from the community into our stations. If we can’t do it in person, figure out ways to do it virtually. But engagement with communities, not just us deciding and presenting — “we’ve decided, you listen” — but some sort of shared endeavor with both community leaders and ordinary folk about what matters, how to make a difference, what people need in information and in cultural celebration, civic life.
The fifth thing on everybody’s list, of course, is [that] then we need to expand and diversify the revenue to pay for all the other things that preceded it. We should not take that for granted, that we’ve had a very successful run with our basic listenership support. The growth of sustainers has been a revolutionary thing in public radio. Passport’s been a fantastic thing for public television. But our donor files are flat, even as the money that we’re raising has gone up. We need to start recruiting members again. We need to open up the pathway in, and at the same time we are steadily building our expertise in major personal philanthropy, significant growth in donations of four, five, six figures and more that were critical in getting stations through the pandemic and which will play a continuing role. Especially as stations incorporate serving the community along with serving the individual.
And that’s part of a theme that runs through all of this. The great epic kicked off by Audience 88 three decades ago was to meet the individual’s needs where they are, connect with a core audience, be personally important in the individual’s life — all of that’s true and remains evermore so today. But complemented with serving the community. The larger community that may not even be somebody in your audience, but where if you’re looking to what are the needs of the community, the challenges of the community, and both of those things go together, part of how you’re able to undertake that is with major personal philanthropy and foundations and community trust and everything else.
So that’s the package. That’s what the SRG members said. Terry and I are 100% behind it. It’s really the right stuff. It’s things that we’ve been encouraging. It’s things that our stations have been encouraging us to focus on. And if people can nail that agenda, there is no stopping them.