How book clubs help stations build new audiences and community connections

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Public media outlets have a long tradition of building audiences and community connections around books and the people who love them. 

From book reviews that air regularly on NPR’s newsmagazines and Fresh Air, to PBS Kids shows that are created from popular book series, interviews with authors on talk shows or in documentary films, and adaptations of literary classics by PBS Masterpiece, there’s a wealth of content that engages and excites avid readers. 

On digital platforms, book lovers can get recommendations on what to read and new insights on authors from NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour; It’s Lit, the video essay series from PBS Digital Studios; and the list of 100 “most loved” fiction titles selected through PBS’ 2018 Great American Read initiative. 

For public media stations, initiatives to engage the bookish — and to foster a love of reading in young people — can work on multiple levels to support their educational missions, build audiences and foster a sense of community.

Book clubs are one popular model. They can be adapted for virtual or in-person settings and tailored to foster discussion around broad or specific community needs or interests. In addition to creating new paths for audience development, book-focused content and engagement can help build partnerships with other local institutions and make public media accessible for readers to learn, discover and discuss new perspectives. 

Current interviewed hosts, engagement specialists and producers who have created book-focused initiatives in a variety of formats to learn how and why they’ve done it, and how their audiences have responded. Here are five lessons we learned from their different approaches. 

1. Draw on the natural affinity between books and public broadcasting 

Coverage of books and authors is ubiquitous on public media. For book lovers looking for good reads and teachers looking for classroom resources, there’s an embarrassment of riches to be found on broadcast and digital platforms. 

Audience demographics — especially high levels of education among listeners and viewers — are also a factor in public media’s bookish focus. National Public Media, which specializes in corporate sponsorship sales, points to the cultural and civic engagement of the NPR audience. Listeners are highly likely to frequent art galleries, museums and theatrical performances, according to research on NPR News listeners  published by NPM. They also seek out educational experiences and opportunities for community-building. The Sponsorship Group for Public Television, a sponsorship sales group based at GBH in Boston, cites research that shows PBS’ prime-time viewers are 71% more likely to have a doctorate degree than the general population.

These affinities are unique and shouldn’t be taken for granted, said Erin O’Neill, a former newspaper journalist and self-described lifelong reader, who now works for New England Public Media. 

O’Neill

Years ago, O’Neill was inspired by the popularity of her local library’s book club, which regularly filled venues with people eager to discuss books. Throughout her career as a print journalist, she pitched an idea to start book clubs at the newspapers where she worked. It wasn’t until 2020, when she became social media manager at NEPM, that her idea gained some traction, she said. 

At NEPM, the book club involved the kind of deep engagement that the public media organization wanted to create with its listeners and viewers in western Massachusetts, O’Neill said. 

The NEPM Book Club, which officially launched last year, is a quarterly virtual event hosted by O’Neill. Her primary goal for the club is to create connections with book lovers through “really fun, really nerdy discussion,” she said.

2. Expand the conversation for readers who want to dig deeper and learn more

Since retiring in 2016 as host of her NPR-distributed eponymous talk show, Diane Rehm has launched a book club for WAMU in Washington, D.C., the station where she began her public radio career as a volunteer. Meetings of the Diane Rehm Book Club are virtual events that include conversations with panelists who have connections with the book choice or interviews with the author. Throughout her book club events, Rehm expertly moderates discussions between panelists, contextualizing the material and giving readers entirely new ways to think about fiction. 

Laura Durham, director of programming and community engagement for PBS Utah had similar goals to foster conversations and encourage learning when she created Book Club in a Box, a program that combines a book, a documentary film and learning materials that help book clubs guide their own discussions. 

Durham

Book Club in a Box sprang from Durham’s goal to empower book clubs to discuss difficult topics that participants learn about through the materials. Since launching in 2018, the program has addressed topics such as civil rights and refugees in Utah, as well as Utah’s brewing history and Zion National Park.

In creating the box on civil rights in Utah, Durham said she was intimidated about leading a discussion on an issue she hadn’t directly experienced. The solution was to hire a scholar “who’s already an expert on that topic” to craft questions for the discussion guide, she said. 

Every summer, Durham creates three book club boxes to be distributed throughout the next year. Durham tries to pick a book that compliments an original PBS Utah documentary. A recent example is Beehive Spirits, a 2012 film about the history of alcohol in the state of Utah. Since the documentary doesn’t address the role of women brewers, Durham selected The Lager Queen of Minnesota as the book to be included in the box. 

3. Serve children and families in a different way

PBS Utah also runs an annual reading marathon for children from preschool through six elementary grades, providing a way for youngsters to develop the habit of reading — and to enjoy new adventures with their families, said Annie Frazier, education program manager. The station’s annual Reading Marathon is preparing for its 30th anniversary reading challenge in November. 

The program encourages children to read 20 minutes a day for that month, or 600 minutes total, before December 1, when parents can report their child’s age and reading minutes on the marathon’s website. 

Those who hit the reading goals receive an adventure pass that provides free books and access to community events and learning experiences. Children with an adventure pass can visit the zoo, natural history museum or botanical garden. Providing free entry helps make the visits affordable for young readers and their families.

PBS Utah secures the passes and books through partnerships with local organizations that share its goal to help children find “joy of learning and curiosity and discovery,” Frazier said. “We’ve found partners that … are also looking for ways to serve the community and get the word out that learning is fun and spending time together with family is fun.”

Frazier saw a difference in her own child’s reading habits when he participated in the marathon. Her son “really needed that external reward, and I was motivated because I was thinking about all these great memories we can make together through the events on the pass.”

Frazier noticed that her son tends to read much longer than 20 minutes, often aloud to their dogs. He also likes to draw what he reads about in a sketchbook. His favorite adventure pass activity is the zoo, Frazier said.

“We want the reading marathon to support literacy, but also, the goal is to strengthen connections around story time and then family memories by enjoying the adventure pass,” Frazier wrote in an email. 

4. Build partnerships with local bookstores

Maeve Conran, managing editor for Rocky Mountain Community Radio, created the monthly program Radio Book Club at KGNU in 2015 through a collaboration with the Boulder Book Store. At the time, Conran directed news for the station in Boulder, Colo. 

“We had a longstanding relationship with the bookstore,” Conran said. “… [We] always heard from … the bookstore that people wanted to talk about books. …That’s where the idea sprang from.” Conran continues to co-host the show with Arsen Kashkashian, head buyer for the bookstore, even though she left the KGNU staff in 2020.

Kashkashian selects books for the club to read, prioritizing local authors. With each selection, he explains his choice and why he thinks readers will like it. The store also promotes each monthly selection. 

Arsen Kashkashian, left, author Peter Heller and Maeve Conran talk books during a 2021 taping of “After Hours at the Radio Book Club.”

The production began as in-person discussions recorded in front of audiences at the store. During the pandemic, the format changed to the co-hosts’ interviews with authors. Taking audience questions during the radio show was too difficult to manage, Conran said, so they decided to create a podcast, After Hours at the Radio Book Club.  The show is recorded live before an audience, and attendees are encouraged to ask questions. 

“We’re reaching an audience that potentially didn’t know about the radio station,” Conran said. “… It’s been just a huge benefit, good content and a real connection with the community and a … well-respected and loved local cultural institution, which is the bookstore.”

Book lovers within the community feel connected within the physical space of the store, Conran said. “I think having the radio elements connected even further deepens that community connection.”

The NEPM Book Club also formed partnerships with local bookstores that stock its selected books and promote them in their stores or on their websites. One of the stores sponsors the book club.

O’Neill said the club has allowed NEPM to create relationships with booksellers. 

5. Prioritize accessibility to attract new audiences and members

WAMU’s membership staff recently told producers of the Diane Rehm Book Club that they are succeeding in attracting new supporters to the station. Over the past two years, the club has brought in the highest percentage of new members to WAMU than any other source, according to producer Alison Brody. 

The club’s events are free to everyone, but participants are invited to consider making donations. In fiscal year 2020-2021, the book club generated more than $67,000 in contributions, Brody said. 

Participation rates are also strong. More than 2,300 people registered for the club’s January 2021 discussion of The Dutch House by Ann Patchett. About 1,400 of them attended the virtual event. 

The club’s book selections also aim for accessibility, eschewing recently released titles for books that often are available in paperback. In June, the club discussed The Book Thief, the 2005 novel by Markus Zusak, for example. 

In a similar focus on accessibility, all films included in PBS Utah’s Book Club in a Box are available to stream for free through PBS Utah’s website. Durham began selecting freely accessible films after learning from feedback that not everyone was watching the films. One of the biggest benefits of Book Club in a Box is that it breathes new life into PBS Utah’s older documentaries, Durham said.

At least 60% of the book clubs that request the boxes report that their members had never seen the films before, Durham said. “We’re introducing people to our content who wouldn’t have experienced it any other way.” Many book club participants aren’t members of the station, she said. “There’s just this exponential reach here that I think is really valuable.”

O’Neill launched NEPM’s book club in 2021, when in-person events weren’t possible, and created a process for engaging participants in selecting which books to read. Every quarter she develops a shortlist of books for the club. She tries to include local authors and a diverse selection of genres. At each meeting, members vote on which short-listed book they want to read. The selection process helps to ensure that the club appeals to a wide range of tastes and interests, O’Neill said. 

“We’re really looking to attract people who may or may not be deeply engaged with public media, and may only be a casual listener,” O’Neill said. Readers register for the virtual meetings on NEPM’s website. Book store partners can provide links to the registration page through their own websites, she said.  

O’Neill runs the meetings herself on Zoom. Guests use the hand-raising feature to ask questions, and O’Neill pays close attention to conversations going on simultaneously in the chat. She tries to engage as many participants as possible in the conversation. 

The meetings last for an hour and the discussions can usually cover about eight questions, O’Neill said. 

“We’re going to get into the weeds of literary devices, and why the author did something the way they did,” she said. “… I hope people get to touch that really intense joy of reading that they might have had as a child and are too busy to connect with nowadays as adults.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported details about NEPM’s bookstore partners. Book club participants register for the events through NEPM’s website; the partners may provide links to the registration page but they don’t collect registrations through their own websites. One of the partners sponsors the club; the earlier version erroneously reported that none of them do. 

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