I love All Things Considered. It always has been, and remains, my favorite public radio program.
All Things Considered was the first public radio program I ever heard driving around in the back seat of my parents’ car. My first real job was as a board operator at WKSU in Kent, Ohio, during the local broadcasts of ATC. I had just turned 20 years old.
I still believe in ATC’s staying power and its future. I believe it still has the capacity to grow its audience, public service and revenue. Despite conventional wisdom that broadcast’s best days are done, when I look at the audience data for All Things Considered, all I see is potential — unrealized potential.
I believe that ATC, on radio and linear streaming, has tremendous opportunity to create more listening opportunities today. All it needs is a public radio system that gives the newsmagazine the direction, flexibility, trust and support to achieve its full potential for audience service.
This is more than an aspiration — ATC needs to thrive in 2022. The program is a foundational tentpole of public radio’s listening and economy. It needs to be treated like the mission-critical asset it is.
My advocacy for reconsidering All Things Considered is not an effort to swim against the tide of digital transition. It has taken years — arguably decades — to get most public radio leaders to understand that the future of their public service is digital. Jumping forward to today, the opposite appears true. Leaders now seem so focused on building digital capacity and services that they’re giving very little thought to broadcast and linear services. That’s both a missed opportunity and dangerous.
While many consider “digital versus broadcast” an “either/or” scenario in which broadcast fades away while digital rises, the data doesn’t support that. It is instead a “both/and” scenario. Broadcast is declining. It’s actually been in decline since the mid-’80s. But public radio’s audiences, listening and revenue haven’t nose-dived like other media sectors experiencing digital disruption.
Once again, as has happened numerous times in past decades, public radio has bucked the trends seen in commercial broadcasting. Broadcast will remain a critical and central part of public radio’s service for at least another decade, and there is still ample room to grow and expand both audience and revenue in that interim. I’d argue this point with anyone — and I’d win.
Let’s swing back to the implications for All Things Considered. Why focus on ATC and not other programs? Its format and clock have remained basically the same for a generation. Meanwhile, there’s been considerable swirl and change in media consumption and audio competition. The show has instituted changes during that time by adding hosts, making the program bicoastal, producing more live content and fresh hours, and working to be more on top of the news.
Have all those changes objectively worked? Were they enough to allow ATC to meet the changed times?
To be even more existential about it, what does it mean to be an afternoon radio newsmagazine in 2022? Who answers that question, and what information are they using in making those choices? What are the format, length, editorial choices and trade-offs that come from their answers? How do they evaluate those decisions?
Why isn’t a conversation about these issues happening today, with the new competitive emergence of The Daily as well as Today, Explained and 2.8 million other podcasts vying for listener attention?
The lack of focus on these questions is undermining public radio’s public service — and with it the basic engines of its economy and business models.
One story versus all things
I started my journey of asking these questions shortly after I overheard a friend, a veteran staffer of weekday All Things Considered, defend the program in a comparison to The Daily from the New York Times.
“Of course The Daily can produce the kind of episodes they do,” they said. “The Daily only has 20 minutes to fill. ATC has two hours.”
I found this statement really thought-provoking, as well as a bit puzzling.
The comparison makes sense on the surface. Both shows have roughly the same staff size. Both produce programs every weekday. Both draw from a large newsroom for many of their contributors and talent. That’s where the similarities end.
The Daily is having a great run, both as a podcast and a radio program. It is almost indulgently produced: a single story, meticulously constructed and sound-rich, often with use of location sound and music as a scoring element. To almost any trained ear, you can tell a lot of attention to detail and fussiness goes into every minute of every episode. It’s impressive.
It’s almost ironic that The Daily’s production style and attention to detail in audio news reporting was pioneered by All Things Considered. Yet over the decades since ATC expanded to two hours, the pressure (both internally and from the system) has been to make stories shorter and include more of them over the course of a program.
As a result, All Things Considered lives its name; it considers all things. It covers a broad range of subjects, from dozens of beats, from around the world. While The Daily examines only one story, All Things Considered usually covers more than a dozen — plus newscasts, plus live updates for the later feeds. ATC doesn’t often utilize The Daily’s style of production because, frankly, how could it have time to? The way it is produced often favors breadth over depth. Given all the news that it is trying to tackle on any given day, there aren’t time or resources to produce many things that sound like The Daily, let alone have the space within the program to go that deep.
I’m curious if that’s still the right choice in 2022.
Before we go further, I want to say something emphatically. All Things Considered is an amazing program, created by incredibly talented hosts, journalists and audio makers. The show team consistently amazes us with their agility and finesse at producing a timely, fresh and surprisingly live program across the country. It has been, is now and will continue to be the gold standard for audio newsmagazines. Period.
If you’ve ever had the privilege of watching the staff produce the show, you’d be in awe of their efforts. It takes an incredible amount of talent, skill, trust and coordination. Staffers work hard to fulfill the program’s mission, and they’re breathtakingly masterful at manipulating ATC’s format and length to bring forward a fresh, continuously updated program that’s on top of the day’s news. They deserve a lot of praise for their ninja-like skills.
My questions aren’t about how well they do what they do everyday. My questions center on whether it is better to manipulate a dated format and structure for the program — or to put that energy into reimagining the program for a new era. I believe that a refreshed set of formatic marching orders from news management and stations to ATC’s talented staff might unlock more listening, public service and revenues that can support expanded public service.
I think it is important for the system to consider whether all the resources and talent that go into producing ATC locally and nationally meet the needs and interests of today’s listeners or, to be more precise, a diverse audience with contemporary tastes and habits for media consumption.
This gets at a far more basic question: Why is All Things Considered two hours long? Given that most listeners don’t hear even a quarter of the program, why stick with that length and the resulting editorial and aesthetic restrictions it creates? Why not one (continuously updated) hour? Why not six live hours?
What makes sense today?
Search for solid answers
Format and clock are articulations of programming strategy designed to reach a desired audience. While there’s now an ongoing and overdue conversation about expanding public radio’s understanding of its audience, how have those conversations been applied to changing the strategy, i.e., the format and clock of the program?
Given the ways that contemporary audiences are consuming news, it’s time to evaluate what listeners want in an afternoon newsmagazine and whether current practices are on track. Are we missing opportunities by sticking to the way things are?
I’ve discussed these questions with a number of station leaders, and all agreed with the urgent need to address these questions. They weren’t even sure who to talk to about them or who should be speaking on behalf of the system.
The truth is, I haven’t found anyone with a solid answer to any of my questions.
I made several requests to talk with someone from NPR on the record about their strategic thinking about All Things Considered. They declined to make anyone available. Instead, NPR provided a statement that concluded: “While the number of minutes in the broadcast show may not have changed in some time, ATC is constantly adapting to better serve the audience and be timely and relevant.”
If that’s true, with listening occasions and time spent listening to the program flat or down, what are the results from all that “adapting”? How do the show’s producers or NPR stations evaluate and learn from their decisions and investments? Did they make a measurable difference? It’s hard to have a meaningful conversation about seizing opportunities without a way to honestly evaluate and pay attention to what is and isn’t working.
I’m not trying to fault NPR or news management; I believe they are flying as blind on these questions as the people who did talk to me. NPR has come out of a pandemic and delivered some of the most impactful years of news coverage we’ve ever seen. But now is the time to look at the future and imagine what’s possible for a new era.
The need for distinction and agility
Every program, regardless of when it airs, should regularly ask itself two questions:
- How do we remain distinct?
- How do we meet the listeners where they are?
These are both subjective questions, meaning the answers will constantly change. However, the results should be objectively measured.
Distinction is in flux, and probably always will be. External competitive forces — from radio, podcasts, newspapers, television, digital news sites and so on — are constantly emerging and changing. As the competitive mix changes, so should public radio and its programs.
When All Things Considered first launched, its start time was seen as a competitive advantage. Five o’clock (later moved up to 4 p.m. based on station guidance and competitive pressures) meant it could deliver the day’s news before the television networks’ evening newscasts. Listeners tuned in to catch up on everything important that had happened in the world that day.
That was a great operating construct at the time. Now almost every component of that paradigm has changed. When ATC expanded from 90 minutes to two hours in 1995, the goal was to capture more and longer listening occasions from the audience. But that isn’t what happened. In fact, the opposite happened.
Over the past 20 years, during an era of disruption and general decline across most FM broadcasting, All Things Considered’s audience has actually grown larger. But during the past 12 years of PPM measurement, the average quarter-hour and time spent listening to ATC have essentially been flat to slightly down. More people are listening, but unfortunately they’re not listening more, nor are they listening more often. Yet buried in that stubborn trend is an opportunity.
Public radio’s ecosystem is built around value. When more audiences listen, and listen more, more revenue comes into the system. The ties between listening and listener support, as well as between listening and underwriting, are proven. In a values-based ecosystem, “doing more things” isn’t as important as “doing things with more distinction.”
Audiences express value by spending more of their time listening. That value isn’t based on their attitudes or perceptions of quality. They don’t listen because there is a lot of something; they listen because the programming they hear adds real value to their lives — and distinctly more value than the #2, #3 or #4 options that compete for their listening time.
Whenever I speak to public radio staffers about how they can better meet listeners where they are, the answers are, almost universally, via digital, not broadcast or linear formats. I couldn’t be a bigger advocate for expanding digital public service, but there are more than 27 million public radio news listeners today who cannot be taken for granted.
The people who answer “digital-only” tend to ignore the fact that, currently, all these digital offerings depend on NPR’s core newsmagazines and its news division to be healthy and vibrant. There is no Consider This without All Things Considered. That may not always be the case, but it is today. Even though there are significant business-model issues around FM broadcast, it is still providing a significant amount of public service. And that translates into the support NPR and stations need to propel any version of the future.
This would be upsetting if there wasn’t ample evidence, in your audience data, that there is opportunity to drive more listening by adjusting the program to match what listeners need in 2022. Whatever actions you take to address questions about ATC’s distinction and agility, make sure you’re doing it in ways that are objective and measurable. This has been missing from changes that have been made over the past several years (such as adding hosts and live hours, or making the program bicoastal). Tremendous amounts of resources and time have been invested in ATC by NPR and stations without identifying clear ways to measure their impact or analyze the outcomes of those decisions. To my knowledge there is no data that shows these investments have resulted in increased listening — and we can’t settle for that.
What were the objectives for these changes? Going forward, it’s important to define the objective for any change; otherwise, it could end up being an investment of energy and resources just to stay in the same place. The only way to learn from any change is to agree on how to evaluate whether it’s been effective. That creates space for conversation and objective analysis that can inform decisions about what changes need to be made next.
Longer ≠ better
When NPR expanded All Things Considered to two hours in 1995, it was a defensive move. Marketplace was rooting itself in station schedules, and The World was launching as a co-production among Public Radio International, GBH in Boston and the BBC. Both programs were founded to address perceived soft spots in NPR programming. Both aimed at the afternoon drive hours that stations traditionally filled with All Things Considered.
I became a station programmer shortly after The World launched and didn’t add it to my station’s schedule. I didn’t want a new show; I wanted All Things Considered to change and make the new show unnecessary.
Now, in the age of podcasting, that opportunity and encroachment from competitors is happening again with distribution of The Daily and now Vox’s Today, Explained to public radio stations. Both aim for afternoon drive time and attempt to augment what is currently available during that daypart. They both take the exact opposite approach from the afternoon flagship, rejecting the need to cover everything and instead going deep on one story.
How have listeners reacted to The Daily’s presence on stations’ air and its entirely opposite approach to public radio’s afternoon drive-time flagship? According to AudiGraphics Power Perspectives, apparently very well, especially when the show airs adjacent to All Things Considered. That said, station programmers who added The Daily thinking it might attract new listeners are probably disappointed. The show seems to do a great job of attracting listeners who are already core to the station yet value The Daily’s different approach.
Most of the conversation within the system about The Daily’s presence on public radio has focused on competitive concerns: Stations wonder out loud if it is “smart” to give airtime to a radio adaptation of a podcast when podcasting is perceived as a competitive threat. Few people are talking about what can be learned from The Daily and how those lessons can be applied to production of public radio’s programs and local news offerings. If there are perceived soft spots in public radio’s signature newsmagazine, why not focus on fixing those?
Why can’t All Things Considered be all the things we see in other programs?
The truth is, it can be. And it can be even more. But NPR and its member stations have to shed their resistance to change and agree to evaluate whether the paradigm that ATC’s show team continues to work under still works for today’s listeners.
As stations produce more local content, the acrobatics required to fit their reporting into ATC and make it feel like anything more than a strap-on experience is already getting harder. There is a clear wrestling match going on between NPR’s vision for the show, stations’ individual and collective visions for the show, and what listeners need.
And yet none of these groups seem to be talking to each other.
How things change
So what can you, an individual working somewhere in the public radio station system, do? Well, first I would stop assuming that the networks or national program producers are going to solve this problem for you. You can’t expect NPR or any other program producer to respond to 280 opinions about their programs when those opinions are not clearly or collectively expressed or correlated. As I’ve pointed out in the past, when public radio stations unite around a listener-focused idea to improve public service, things change.
If you think that All Things Considered lacks something that you find in another program or podcast to fill, speak up. If you look at your AudiGraphics or Nielsen ratings and see things that need to change, advocate for that specific change. If you want a cleaner, more intentional way to integrate local material alongside the stellar national and international coverage, say so. Start a conversation that will lead to the change you need to succeed.
Ask questions like: How can the public radio system make change? In times of disruption, how can the system be agile enough to make adjustments in response? Faced with declining use of a program, even by a larger audience, how can the system allow flagship programs to experiment, find new ways to serve and evolve? How do you empower creative program staffers to innovate in ways that benefit everyone?
Ironically, part of the answer may lie in letting All Things Considered be free from the mantle of considering all things. Let the program take a different form, perhaps focusing deeper on fewer things. Let it explore and answer questions like, What makes ATC distinctive in 2022? What will draw listeners to the program and draw them back? What will draw new people? What will make people regret missing any day’s program? How can we make sure more people hear our best stuff? How do we make it all the best stuff?
Continuing to ignore this will prevent ATC from reaching its potential to serve more listeners more often and deepen the importance of public radio in American life. Fixing it requires stations to come forward with a clear-eyed expression of what’s going on with the audience — and then trusting the program to answer the moment.
Good luck. I’ll be listening.
Eric Nuzum (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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. His latest book, Make Noise: A Creator’s Guide to Podcasting and Great Audio Storytelling, was published in December 2020.