How public media can make good on its commitment to diversity

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Jacquie Fuller/Greater Public

This commentary was originally published by Greater Public.

During the past couple of years, public media as an industry has been going through another round of reckoning with our lack of audience diversity and struggles to create the kind of internal work culture based in equity and inclusion that would more easily retain and develop diverse staff. 

This is far from public media’s first racial reckoning. Recently, more has been published examining what public media failed to do at key points in its evolution. Of particular note are the deep dive that the Viewers Like Us podcast has done on public television; Laura Garbes’ research into the 1977 CPB task force on minorities in public broadcasting and NPR’s response in 1980; and Christopher Chávez’s research into the history of Latinos being overlooked in public media. 

It’s helpful to understand what didn’t happen that led us to public media’s current state of hyper-serving educated, higher income and predominantly white audiences. It’s also helpful to look at what did happen. Where did public media invest time, energy and money over the past several decades? What were the predominant strategies and how did they develop? With that perspective, it’s worth looking at the Audience 88 initiative. 

In the 1980s during the Reagan administration, CPB began to face funding cuts. At the time, NPR and many public radio stations were still very reliant on CPB funding. 

While public radio audiences had grown after the founding of CPB and NPR, by the ‘80s audience growth had come to a standstill at around 11 million weekly listeners. The number of donors was flattening as well. 

The Public Telecommunications Act of 1988, enacted in November of that year, went even further than the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 to address the needs of underserved communities. It required CPB to report to Congress on the “needs of minority and diverse audiences, including racial and ethnic minorities, new immigrants, persons for whom English is a second language, and illiterate individuals”; create plans to address those needs; and offer “projections of minority employment by the broadcasting entities.” So, at the same time Congress was recognizing that public media needed to do a better job of serving diverse audiences and employing people of color, resources to do this work had become stagnant. 

In this challenging landscape, David Giovannoni, who the New York Times later called “A brilliant analyst of public radio’s audience…quite possibly the most influential figure in shaping the sound of National Public Radio today,” joined with Tom Thomas and Terry Clifford, co-founders of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters and Station Resource Group, to secure CPB funding for an audience research study titled Audience 88. 

Audience 88 asserted that commercial stations distinguish themselves in a competitive landscape by “identifying audience segments that other stations do not serve” or “producing programming that is more appealing to a segment of the audience.” Drawing from these commercial practices, the study used new data from NPR and Arbitron to conduct a new level of audience analysis. The goal was to identify public radio’s core audience in hopes of catalyzing growth. Over the course of a year, Audience 88 released five key reports, as well as a newsletter, follow-up papers and workshops. 

Reflecting on the project in 2022, Tom Thomas pointed out that it was controversial at the time to use CPB funding to apply commercial audience tactics to public radio. He also asserted that Audience 88 did not intend to advocate for a specific strategy.  The research rather attempted to challenge the practice of programming from gut instinct and bias while creating a fact-based narrative about public radio’s service and audiences to better inform decisions. He said that by being humble and patient, a data-informed strategy won out. 

One finding of Audience 88 was that public radio listeners were more likely to be highly educated and earn a higher income, and they were predominantly white. Reports from the initiative made the case that this was because so many public radio stations were owned by colleges and universities, and key decision-makers were also more likely to be highly educated. However, the reports were quick to point out that this was not necessarily a bad thing. From Audience 88: The Picture Emerges:

“Many observers would find in public radio’s audience much about which to rejoice. Public radio is embraced by many of our society’s most informed and active citizens, people who shape the political, economic, and intellectual life of our society.  Public radio’s listeners are the same people who use and nurture the institutions that preserve and advance our society, from the literary press to the theatre, from museums to volunteer social services. That public radio is part of their lives, too, is testimony to its role in society.”

While Audience 88 may not have explicitly advocated for a specific strategy outside of using audience data to gauge the effects of programming decisions, it’s easy to understand how an industry adapting to federal funding losses and stagnant audience growth would be inclined to double down on what was working, particularly when what they were already doing well was attracting such an affluent and powerful audience. Stations that were willing to try this strategy were able to grow audience and membership revenue, which in turn inspired other stations to try the Audience 88 approach. 

Concepts that have become the gospel of public radio programmers stem from Audience 88, including using Nielsen data to define “fringe” versus “core” listeners and developing single-format stations to cultivate habitual listening. The idea that “programming leads to audience, which then leads to revenue,” spread across the system. The initiative also led to the creation of the Public Radio Expansion Task Force in 1989, which included senior leaders from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, American Public Radio, CPB, NPR and NFCB, that set the direction for public radio’s strategy in the 1990s, particularly the rise of single format stations. Whenever a station buys a new frequency to launch a new format rather than attempting to incorporate new types of programming into its existing broadcast schedule, that is the Audience 88 strategy in action more than 30 years later.  

Additionally, Audience 88 attempted to create psychographic profiles for core public radio listeners and went on to assign values to these traits. From Audience 88: Framing Audience:

“While public radio may differ in its intent, it too has a core audience brought to it by the attitude inherent in its programming. Public radio has maintained a distinct attitude about itself and its listeners for decades: being ‘intelligent’ is an attitude; being of the ‘highest quality’ is an attitude; ‘reflecting the highest achievements of our culture’ is an attitude; making lofty ideas and ideals accessible to all interested Americans is also an attitude.”

When asked about this audience description, Abby Goldstein, president of the Public Radio Programming Directors Association, remarked, “These same descriptors could be used to describe an elite private school.” 

Goldstein contrasts the notion of “distinct attitude” with a mandate of public service. “Public radio chose this audience,” she points out. “If the target audience was different, then the programming would sound different.” 

She also flags that part of the working premise of Audience 88 was to figure out how public radio could better serve its own needs. She asks if that should really be part of the goal and suggests that, while unintentional, it “smacks of white supremacy culture.”

Audience 88 did propose two solutions to improve diversity in public radio. It recommended hiring more people of color into existing public radio stations and creating and supporting “minority-owned” stations. When asked if minority-owned stations were an example of “separate but equal” for this article, Thomas said that they were not, because “ownership is power.” 

However, no people of color were part of the team that conducted Audience 88 or recommended solutions for improving diversity in public media. After reviewing the Audience 88 materials, Maxie Jackson, chief content officer at New England Public Media, said that minority-ownership is key, but only if there’s a supportive ecosystem with a national network for content development and distribution. Nothing like that has been created. 

Jackson said that diversifying the staffing of stations matters, but only if those staff “are included in editorial and decision-making positions.” Otherwise when new staff of color are hired, they are left without agency or support to navigate the culture and structure of public media organizations. As an example, he quotes Martin Luther King Jr., “I’ve come to believe we’re integrating into a burning house.” 

Audience 88 has proven to be “a strategy to super-serve a core audience that is overwhelmingly white, as opposed to creating services for emerging and underserved demographics,” Jackson added. “The investment in this approach of audience development is fundamentally at odds with the basic diversity recommendations of Audience 88” and undermines any other more meaningful solutions that people of color have made over many decades. 

That is why more than 30 years after the publication of Audience 88, public radio’s audiences remain overwhelmingly highly educated, high income and white, despite a total weekly cume that has tripled over that same period to reach more than 30 million. 

While Audience 88 is clearly a product of its time, and we cannot rewrite the past, there’s much to learn from how this initiative shaped public radio. We can recognize that our current state of hyper-serving a homogeneous core audience is not a fixed state or an accident, but the culmination of many decisions that were made and actions that were taken. Then, excitingly, if the current state is something we constructed, that means we have the power to build something even better. 

Goldstein suggested that it may be time to bring in a qualitative approach to augment our audience research. She pointed out that we are only experts at cultivating the audiences we’ve had and not future audiences. This means we need to step back from being experts with a dominating spirit and step into a place of openness and curiosity: “What does service look like to them, not to you?” Goldstein is promoting evolving the adage of “programming leads to audience, which then leads to revenue” to a new audience-first strategy of “audience drives programming, which then leads to engagement and support.” 

Jackson suggested that “CPB as the major funder of our system might consider funding projects that adapt the commercial media playbook of creating complimentary niche networks targeting the diversity within the various BIPOC communities.” He pointed out that our society is more fractured than ever and will remain so for some time. Meanwhile, old broadcast models that were created to serve white people are not sustainable. New digital ecosystems could serve a new, more diverse generation of audiences by looking for nexuses where the values and interests of different, diverse communities intersect, he said. As part of his Maynard 200 National Journalism Fellowship, Jackson developed the Emergence Project, which advocates for a digital, multimedia, Pan-African public media service emphasizing content, community engagement, affinity marketing and Black philanthropy. He cites The Takeaway as an example of this community-centered approach to content development. While public media has decades of research about the values of its highly educated, wealthy, white audience, for Jackson the opportunity lies in learning what non-traditional audiences value. 

Before we could engage new audiences enough to even conduct such research, we would need to lay down a foundation of trust, particularly with communities of color. This would mean taking accountability for how we built the current state, and truly apologizing for decades of neglect, underservice and occasionally outright harm, intentional and unintentional. Several public media organizations and commercial news outlets have demonstrated what this radical, wholehearted and deeply human process can look like, notably “An examination of The Times’ failures on race, our apology and a path forward.” While such a humbling acknowledgement can be scary, it is exactly the kind of courageous vulnerability public media needs to demonstrate if we are to repair our relationship with the communities we’ve intentionally underserved for decades. To move forward, we must do better. 

The constraints that led to the Audience 88 initiative, like the limited number of broadcast signals in any given market, are gone. There are new digital tools for audience analysis, better data and a deeper understanding of how to ensure such research is done in a way that promotes diversity, equity and inclusion. The future is wide open. Public media once again seems on the brink of audience stagnation and even donor decline. What would it look like to do an Audience 23 initiative next year? How could we evolve this approach to set the next 30 years of audience development in public media on a sustainable path that truly meets our mission and serves everyone? 

Public media is finally at the crux of trends that have been advancing on our industry for some time and have reached a tipping point sooner than predicted due to the pandemic. Digital adoption, particularly video streaming, has increased at record rates. The gap between the richest and poorest in our country has widened further, causing philanthropic giving to polarize between major gifts and mutual aid microdonations. We need comprehensive audience research to inform a critical vault forward to a new state of audience engagement, service and support in order for public media to survive and even thrive for decades to come.

Sachi Kobayashi is director of member acquisition at Oregon Public Broadcasting and a board member for the Public Radio Association of Development Officers. She has more than 15 years of experience in organizational development with a strong background in marketing, fundraising and community building working for startups, nonprofits and public media organizations.

3 thoughts on “How public media can make good on its commitment to diversity

  1. Your article, “How public media can make good on its commitment to diversity,” begins by stating a stark reality: public broadcasting is “…going through another round of reckoning with our lack of audience diversity and struggles to create the kind of internal work culture based in equity and inclusion that would more easily retain and develop diverse staff.”

    In other words, the article asserts, public broadcasting has so far failed to reach a diverse audience or develop a diverse and inclusive workplace.

    The article points out, however, that public broadcasting recognized the problem way back in 1977 with a CPB task force that concluded, “After 18 months of study and 11 years after the taxpayer subsidy began, the Task Force must conclude that the public broadcast system is asleep at the transmitter.” That was 45 years ago; almost half a century. Asleep at the transmitter.

    But wait, eleven years later, the Public Telecommunications Act of 1988 required CPB to address the needs of underserved communities. Help was on the way!

    Enter David Giovannoni, the Station Resources Group and lavish funding from CPB who together created the fabled Audience 88: CPB, acting on orders from Congress, was going to fix this problem.
    Except it didn’t. In fact, as the article points out, stations took the data provided by Audience 88 and “double(d) down on what was working, particularly when what they were already doing well was attracting such an affluent and powerful audience.”

    So, here we are, 45 years after CPB recognized it had a problem and 34 years after Audience 88 and the public broadcasting system, has still failed to reach a diverse audience or build diverse staffs.

    Ah, but the author of the article has the solution: we need “comprehensive audience research”!!!!! Why didn’t I think of that.

    So let’s bring back David Giovannoni with more massive funding from CPB. They can call it Audience 22 and in 2056, CURRENT can run another article saying that public broadcasting is “…going through another round of reckoning with our lack of audience diversity and struggles to create the kind of internal work culture based in equity and inclusion that would more easily retain and develop diverse staff.”

    The article looked back to 1977. I’d like to look back a few more years.

    I began working at WBUR in 1967. At that time the station’s programming was dominated by classical music. One day a charismatic individual by the name of Preston Webster walked into the station for a meeting with the manager, Will Lewis. Preston had an idea: Boston’s Black community didn’t have a voice on Boston TV or radio so, he suggested, why doesn’t WBUR become that voice. To his everlasting credit, Will was persuaded and the result was a program called The Drum, heard every Monday to Friday from 6 to 9 pm. That’s right, three hours a night, five days a week. The Drum had its own staff and engineers, it developed its own funding and it lived up to its motto in spectacular fashion: “The Drum: By, For and About Boston’s Black Community.” This was over 50 years ago. Can a program like this happen again? The urgency to create programs like The Drum has always been there and I would suggest that no more “audience research” is needed. What’s needed is simply the desire for public broadcasting to make it happen.

  2. I have known and admired Maxie Jackson, Abby Goldstein, Steve Robinson and Will Lewis for longer than than I care to admit. It seems to me that all of them understand that the way for public broadcasting to appeal to a more diverse audience is very simple. Don’t ASPIRE to be diverse. BE the diversity to which you say you aspire. (Or at least have the guts to admit that you don’t really want to change your appeal and audience.)

    • Yes, Jim that’s all it takes. Just be diverse. Simple as that. As for having the guts to admit
      everything is fine as is, if you believe what the article stated in very clear terms, the jury is in: nothing has changed in 45 years so while most people might not “have the guts to admit” it, the opening line of the article tells the story. I also find it interesting that so far the only two people who have commented on the article are both retired public broadcasting veterans looking on from the sidelines. I expected to hear from the writer: “You took a few lines from my article to make your own points but in so doing you distorted what I wrote.” Or from CPB: “You’re accusing us of not only disregarding a mandate from Congress but you’re saying we did exactly the opposite because Audience 88 -which we funded- served to maintain the status quo. But that’s not true because…….” Or from David Giovannoni: “Steve, great idea! You know how much I love crunching data and since Audience 88, a gazillion more petabytes of data has been generated so let the crunching begin. Plus you know how Tom loves putting together massive numbers of charts and graphs. So, CPB, if you’re reading this, we’re ready!” Oh, well. It was only posted two days ago so I’m sure a robust thread will soon unravel. PS Don’t you love the graphic? A white guy swearing an oath on an Audience 88 bible.

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