To serve diverse audiences, you can’t walk the walk until you know where you stand

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Yunyi Dai

Almost a year ago, I attended a Zoom meeting for those who signed the Public Media Anti-Racist Partnership’s call to action for creating an anti-racist future for public media. 

The conversation was about changes that the attendees saw as necessary towards a more inclusive and equitable public service. During the call, someone stopped the conversation and asked, “Is this system worth saving?”

For many on the call, including myself, the question was like a punch to the chest. There were a few moments of contemplative silence.

Like many elements of the media industry, public radio has a complicated history with diversity and inclusion in the people it hires, the topics it covers and the audiences it chooses to serve.

Talking about race, equity and inclusion is hard for traditionally white-led organizations. It’s hard for people of color, too, but for different reasons. However, despite the gravity and importance of addressing the systemic inequalities in public radio’s public service, hiring and audience, the steps for making public radio more inclusive are not as perplexing as most assume.

It is important to remember that changing those dynamics involves a series of choices: You choose who to hire, which topics to cover and the audience you serve with the programming you create. And with each of these choices, you can change your mind if you want to.

The key to making effective strategic decisions as you move forward is to understand where we are and how we got here. For most of public radio’s history, its diversity efforts have focused on how to draw diverse listeners to what public radio already makes, rather than asking how to make content that includes audiences of color and serves them as listeners. It is not a question of marketing; it is about making public radio a place where they authentically belong.

Public radio has made an industry-wide effort to hire a broader cross-section of people to serve in powerful positions in its institutions. That’s great, but hiring isn’t enough. The programming, the approach of the programming and the audience you choose to serve needs to evolve as well.

Now what?

Knowing where you stand

Before answering questions about future programming, topical coverage and audience, it is very important to have a clear-eyed view of data from our history.

Since the summer of 2020, a number of my friends and clients have quietly brought up their organization’s AudiGraphics and Nielsen data, and pointed to an uptick in Black listeners and Hispanic listeners. On first blush, I get it; the numbers appear to grow on a healthy trajectory.

One client said to me, “I see these numbers going up, but why doesn’t it feel like a win?”

It doesn’t feel like a win because it isn’t one.

Looking at the national data, you see the same trend over the past generation.

Numbers up — good, right? Not really. There are two factors behind the upward trajectory of Black and Hispanic listeners that make this apparent growth less than satisfying.

First, a basic historic truth of public radio’s news and information public service is the relationship between listening and education levels. The earliest analysis of public radio’s audience data clearly showed that the more educated someone is, the more likely they are to listen. Over the past generation, college and postgraduate degrees awarded to persons of color have skyrocketed, especially among Latinx students (especially impressive given the concerns about equity in educational access for students of color).

The reason why generational audience data on Black and Hispanic listeners doesn’t feel like a win is because it may actually be a loss.

These changes in educational achievement alone explain away almost all of the increased listening by Black and Hispanic audiences since 1995. Once you couple the correlation between educational achievement and listening with the larger demographic changes at play in the U.S. (younger generations are inherently browner than older generations), the “growth” in this chart becomes completely moot. At best, all of public radio’s efforts to date have simply maintained the status quo. And considering these factors, public radio’s service to listeners of color may have even fallen further behind.

To be absolutely clear about this: The reason why generational audience data on Black and Hispanic listeners doesn’t feel like a win is because it may actually be a loss.

Just like millennial and Gen Z listeners in the public radio audience, Black and Hispanic audiences spend less of their radio listening time with public radio than those from other demographic groups. For example, as of the most recent National AudiGraphics, listeners identified as Black or Hispanic were 40% loyal to NPR News & Information. Other NPR News & Information listeners were 50% loyal to the service, though we should be careful to not attribute this as more than a correlation. For some station data I’ve reviewed, listening by Black and Hispanic audiences is half of the station average.

The reason is not a mystery: As with younger generations, people of color don’t listen as much because the programming doesn’t speak to them, even to the point of feeling somewhat hostile. Thus, it isn’t as valuable to them.

Foothills and mountains

The listening data shows that all the tactics used over the past generation — hiring hosts of color, diversifying newsrooms and production teams, creating bespoke one-hour shows, etc. — haven’t created any noticeable net effect. Can we accept that simply repeating those tactics over and over again without refinement, significantly increased scale or adding new approaches is not enough for the future either?

If you want different results — and public radio leadership and staff are saying that they do — then you cannot be satisfied with disproven actions or levels of commitment.

So what should public radio do instead? Frankly, I believe that question overwhelms everyone on all sides of these conversations.

I think of it as a “foothills and mountains” issue. A friend of mine once visited Nepal and commented to his host about the huge mountains visible from Kathmandu’s airport.

“Those aren’t mountains, those are foothills,” the host responded. “You can’t even see the big mountain from here. You have to climb the foothills first.”

Diversity in programming is similar to those foothills and mountains: You can’t see the immensity of the required solutions from the ground; you have to scale a few foothills first.

Good examples of some foothills to be climbed are found in the Public Media Anti-Racist Partnership’s call to action and vision statement. Veteran public radio host and journalist Celeste Headlee led the group as it wrote the open letter, which was published on Medium and in Current. What struck me in reading it was how simple and clear the actions are relative to the weight of the problems they address. The actions called for are solid first steps that hopefully clear the view for ascending the next foothill.

I’d like to suggest another small but important step that you can take right away — as in right now: setting editorial intentions.

Setting intentions

If your newsroom, program or network does not have a clearly defined statement of editorial intention (and most likely it doesn’t), then your coverage is guided by biases.

When a story is pitched around an editorial table, it is greeted with a slew of instinctual reactions about its merits. Many have pointed out the systemic issues that manifest in those instant gut reactions, which can disadvantage any effort to address bias, representation and inclusion.

Shared language — an assemblage of references, experiences, understanding of history and principles — is an important foundation for all efforts to address biases in editorial decisions. I am constantly surprised at how few newsrooms and program teams have a shared language. When asked the question “Why do you do things the way you do?”, people within a single organization or team rarely give answers that everyone agrees on. A framework that would provide answers has never been written down. New staffers are just supposed to magically figure it out on their own over time. That lack of clarity ends up reinforcing biases and systemic ways of working.

In those situations, everyone works from their own specific ideas about how public radio’s mission is expressed through action, which means newsrooms and program staff bring conflicting visions and intentions to their work. Rather than work together around a shared vision, they compete, managing to produce only what they all can agree with or what those in power agree with. This creates a lot of frustration over wasted effort and energy.

In absence of strategic clarity, many newsrooms turn to their ethics policies or network ethics policies as substitutes. This only illustrates the limitations of these policies, which are designed to guide the practice of journalism. The policies do not provide much in the way of a statement on the organization’s perspective on its journalism.

I’d like to suggest you, as a station leader or content executive, along with your entire program or station staff, set aside some time to unpack those instincts, agree on priorities and state your shared intentions through shared language.

For public radio journalists, it means answering three simple questions:

  • What stories does your newsroom or program cover?
  • How does it cover these stories?
  • Why do you do things this way?

The answers you come up with should be debatable, disputable and revisable. Let’s look at each of these.

What stories does your newsroom or program cover?

Over the past few years, I’ve helped a few programs and stations through strategic planning processes. I ask this question often: How do you know that Story X is your story to report and cover?

The initial answers are often broad and vague: “We cover matters of interest and impact in our community.” “We cover environmental news and issues.” “We explore issues concerning health care.” “We cover neighborhoods ignored by other media outlets.”

When someone pitches a different type of story, a different perspective on a story or one featuring different voices, it’s often shot down. If there is an explanation for rejecting the idea, if one is given, it’s something like, “That isn’t right for us.” The definition of what is “right” isn’t written down. If it were, it would be ripe for conversation and revision.

In all fairness, journalists are rarely asked to be more specific. For pretty much the entire history of journalism, the vague and unspoken versions of these answers have been good enough.

I don’t think that works anymore. The times we are working in and the problems we’re trying to fix require specifics. By identifying what you do cover, you give yourself and your colleagues permission to step away from things you don’t cover. You often tell more by what you say “no” to than by what you say “yes” to.

How does it cover these stories?

Going beyond the “what” to exploring the “how” — something public radio journalism has long prided itself on — has to turn inward. If you are covering a story, how are you going to cover it? What is your approach? Let’s say you are talking about a housing issue. Are you going to talk to lawmakers and policy experts, or the affected citizens? What is your point of view? What angle are you taking to tell the story? And, further, what checks and balances can be established to guard against implicit bias? What is the process for improvement when you feel a story could have done better?

Why do you do things this way?

Great leaders do not just come down from the mountain with a vision for their staff to execute. Great leaders create a vision of what they and their staff want to accomplish together, then let the best thinking rise up from the group on how to do it. The key to achieving this is answering why you do what you do.

Writer Simon Sinek argues that the greatest gift leaders can give to their staff is a clear “why.” Employees are often told what to do, but not why. By focusing on “why,” you make the conversation much more inclusive and tap into staffers’ own thoughts and ideas of new ways to achieve “why.”

It is imperative that conversations to answer these three questions be led by people who create a safe space for participants to speak and be heard. In this safe space, there can be no repercussions for expressing unpopular or different ideas.

As I was working out some of the ideas I included in my book Make Noise, I wrote a series of columns that Current graciously shared with you, including this one on the concept of strategy mantras. This thinking applies here as well. Why are you doing this? What is the intended outcome? Why does this matter to our audience?

It is imperative that conversations to answer these three questions be led by people who create a safe space for participants to speak and be heard. In this safe space, there can be no repercussions for expressing unpopular or different ideas. Participants must be acknowledged and rewarded for out-of-the-box new thinking. Leaders must also recognize that this is not an easy exercise for every staff person and provide ways to document their ideas and feelings besides a memo or written thesis.

This is something you can and should do now. Schedule the first conversation today. I mentioned earlier that it is important that these principles be debatable, disputable and revisable. You have to mean that and make it clear from day one.

You will build a lot of good will and trust by telling your staff that you will convene conversations, synthesize the outcomes in a draft document and share it with them for comment and feedback before it is finalized and implemented. And go further by promising that you will convene a conversation to revise the document every six months (this is the debatable part). It is inevitable that you will get things wrong — you need to own and embrace that. It is a living process guided by a growth mindset.

Having facilitated these conversations for program teams and stations, I can tell you that the first conversations will be hard. As their leader, you should let your staff know to expect that. They will be resistant to and skeptical of this process at first. The conversations will be awkward, somewhat vague and frustrating. But after a fair bit of listening and talking among your group, consensus ideas will emerge.

And speaking of setting expectations, it is important to say that answering these three questions will not be enough to solve the equity and inclusion problems of a station or show. The answers aren’t magic bullets, nor are they intended to make the hard stuff easy. Instead, they make things clear. Once you have shared language and editorial intention, your conversation switches from a battle of conflicting ideologies to a focus on what daily decisions your newsroom and program can take towards your shared vision. “We said we were going to do X,” you will say. “Let’s not get distracted by Y. Now let’s hear everyone’s best ideas on how to do X well.”

Attracting a more diverse audience

Beyond the work that needs to be done to improve representation in a station or organization’s content creation, many organizations aspire to serve a broader cross section of their communities.

With its mission to serve the “American people,” public radio has an almost impossible task of accomplishing that with one frequency per market. The idea that one signal can serve everyone is ridiculous. In those markets that are fortunate enough to have multiple public radio signals, the stations either duplicate a large amount of programming or their collective format offerings are not nearly as diverse as their communities.

Even in the United Kingdom, where in many communities multiple signals carry a variety of BBC program formats, the BBC still can’t serve everyone all the time.

Just because your station can’t serve everyone on one frequency, that doesn’t absolve you from trying to serve more listeners than you do now.

As I discussed in my previous column about younger listeners, there are only two solutions to serving a different audience than your current audience. You either expand the number of signals or change the primary audience your station serves.

An unspoken truth of public radio right now — one that shocks and befuddles me — is the intellectual and emotional abandonment of FM broadcast. Stations treat broadcast as a strategic afterthought. It’s viewed as “the past.” For anyone who is reading this, broadcast will be part of the mix for the rest of your career. It will lack dominance, but it will be a significant platform for service. So the option of expanding signals is not a crazy idea; it is worth exploring in another column.

The default audience profile for public radio is white baby boomers. As I’ve also discussed before, they are no longer the majority of listeners, but they still have a stranglehold on public radio’s programming. If a station is committed to a more representative and inclusive future, and wishes to reach new audiences, that stranglehold needs to be broken.

Any commitment to serving a different primary audience means that some legacy audience will listen less or not at all. Stations and national organizations, which tend to be obsessed with big and growing Cume and Share numbers, need to accept that this change may cause some instability before any new growth can happen.

The most effective means to attract a more diverse audience is to put a microphone in front of the people who you want to speak to.

Many stations are familiar with this process from previous waves of format focusing, when they stopped airing secondary or tertiary formats to focus on news and information programming. Every time a station reduced the number of formats it offered on one signal, it rode through a period when listenership and listener-generated revenues got smaller before they grew. The risks entailed by those changes eventually caused public radio’s reach, influence and financial support to grow explosively, FYI.

In those times, much like now, it can be difficult to imagine what’s possible when confronting temporary instability.

If this scale of change is too overwhelming for you right now, there’s a much simpler way to think about it. I feel you — I’m a person who likes things to be simple so I can fully understand them.

Here’s what I tell people who ask for my advice: The most effective means to attract a more diverse audience is to put a microphone in front of the people who you want to speak to. In other words, if you want to understand the audience your programming will attract, look at who is behind the microphone.

For clarity, I don’t think that having a host of color means that only people of color will listen, but you can’t expect new audiences to have a sense of belonging unless they hear themselves in such high-profile positions. This advice applies to everyone behind mics — hosts, guests, reporters and sources who are interviewed for stories. Look at everyone in those groups. Are they the people whom you want to reach? If not, step one to climbing the foothill is to put different people behind those mics. Otherwise, your station or program will lack authenticity in speaking to the new audience you wish to serve. If you want to attract a younger audience, a browner audience or an audience from a different part of your community, people who fit those profiles need to be behind those mics.

The talent who can authentically speak to the audiences you want to reach must also be in positions of authority to answer some of the intentional questions involved in creating a shared language. Those who speak represent the listeners your programming will attract, so challenge yourself to make other choices than what’s comfortable and familiar.

It’s not as difficult as people make it out to be. A lot of people choose to not embrace the answers because they require making real changes.

Worth saving

So back to the Zoom call: “Is this system worth saving?”

It was heartbreaking to hear that question. Like many of you reading this column, I was one of many people in public radio who had great intentions and believed that those of us who have been in decision-making roles (and note: most of those people were white) thought that our actions were making space at the table for others. Over the past two years, we’ve had to come to terms with how off mark we were. Now is the time to do better.

I believe the public radio system is worth saving. But for that to happen, public radio needs to want to save itself. The way to do that is for everyone who agrees it’s worth saving to embrace and advocate for change. Remember, the people you hire, the topics you cover and the audience you serve are all choices. Choices can be changed.

The work of creating new space involves some risk and uncertainty. While the journey up the mountain leads towards a more diverse, equitable and inclusive future, we know that the pathway of inaction and sticking to the status quo will get us nowhere. In fact, things will go backwards.

Public radio’s future audience is looking to you and the decisions that you are making today. What do you want your legacy to be?

Good luck. I’ll be listening.

Eric Nuzum ([email protected]) is the co-founder of Magnificent Noise, a podcast production and consulting company. He also provides strategic advice to public radio programs and stations, and writes about radio and digital audio in his newsletter The Audio Insurgent.

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