This commentary was first published on Paragon’s website and is republished here with permission.
Much has been published this summer about recent audience losses at public media news stations. Analyses (by Tim Eby, Fred Jacobs, Dave Sullivan and Station Resource Group/ Public Radio Program Directors Association/Greater Public) rightfully have programmers concerned, managers nervous and revenue teams worried. But recovering our public service potential is under our control, and now is the time to act.
What follows are thoughts and suggestions on taking action — on doing something. We have to respond — today and through campaign 2024 — because audiences are counting on us. Nothing about this is sexy or innovative. It is a call to be brilliant on the basics of live radio in every daypart and every day.
Little of what follows is about new audiences, but some of it is. If we get sharper about serving the audiences we have and used to have, new audiences will find us more compelling and consistent when they sample what we offer. Stations keep the audiences they earn.
You control what stories your stations cover. Is your newsroom starting each day working on the stories your audiences need to hear and understand, or are reporters simply sharing what they’re working on? Ideally, those two things line up and speak to the live listening audiences you have right now, those that used to listen and then the audience you aspire to have.
Stations have less control over the editorial mix on national shows, but each has an outsized voice about that mix and should use it. When a story runs too long, is boring or speaks to an audience you don’t serve, tell the network or show that made it. When they surprise you with a “special” series (that might be mostly a promo for their new podcast or newsletter), make a call. Network shows want to be responsive, and they don’t want to guess about what you want and need.
Tell stories about who’s listening
Make sure the newsroom, hosts and the teams making shows know who listens to your station, how long they listen and how their habits are changing. Spend time with your audience data and make it transparent to others. Anyone who makes or presents audio must understand who’s listening today, when they’re listening and how. So must the boss. Plans about future audiences should be grounded in understanding audience behavior now.
News fatigue is real and audiences need to know they can count on you when the news has stakes. Those are conflicting ideas we need to own at the same time. Hearing about and understanding war and climate disasters is hard — it’s also what audiences rely on us for. Stakes won’t get much higher than the 2024 presidential election. Set audience expectations now for how they can rely on you tomorrow and in the months ahead. If your station is “Anytown’s NPR News Station,” live into that news brand.
Work with your news department on solution-oriented stories. NPR has mentioned this in webinars and you may be hearing it from listeners. It’s not every story or every day, but if you’ve reported on something where a solution was found or a problem solved, include that in your journalism.
Manage your messages
You control the messaging on your station. Stay laser-focused on building daily live listening habits and occasions. Invite listeners back tomorrow, to the next daypart, to the weekend. Welcome listeners to the air and thank them for listening. NPR hosts have gotten really good at this. How can you amplify it locally? Copy and spots should be written and rewritten to focus on benefits to the audience. You made a cool neighborhood guide. Now, explain to listeners how it will expand their idea of home.
Focus on-air promotion on your top five shows, plus what’s on in 15 minutes. Stop everything else. As Arvid Hokanson at Seattle’s KUOW wisely says, “The air does not have to do everything.” Focus is key (see Al Ries and Jack Trout’s “Law #5”). We all work at or run multiplatform organizations. Use all your platforms to focus and maximize your messages. What is the air best suited to now — promoting one of your pods or listening every morning?
Support and coach your people
How hosts sound is under your control. They want feedback to know how they can be better communicators and guides to your journalism. Aircheck (monthly ideally, quarterly at minimum) like your success depends on it, because it does. Right now — block time in Outlook. Does the station sound like “the radio station you run in your head?” If not, what’s the 30-, 60- or 90-day plan to get you there? Small steps matter. Begin where you can. Conversations with your hosts are a pretty great place to start.
If you believe radio is dead, that the fight is done, so will your people. Don’t let that happen. Also — have you scheduled some airchecks yet?
Aircheck pledge like you aircheck Morning Edition
The listening loss caused by pledge drives is under your control. Make time to listen with membership and sharpen up the giving case. If you can recite a station’s pledge break by heart, it’s time to update. Are you offering reasons to give right now, or in 1994? Yes, independent journalism needs community support. Now tell me why and what you’ll do with those resources now and ahead of the election. If you haven’t listened to NPR’s fundraising spots in a while, you should. They’re really good. If the GM/CEO pitches, help them sound as good as members of the airstaff. Don’t drop newer voices into the midday to “give them experience.” Train them off-air like you’d train anyone else.
Work the day sheet and rundowns
The NPR Day Sheet and E-rundowns (now on NPR Studio) are powerful tools to help guide listeners through the day and build habits. They also typically benefit from the personal touch. Rewrite promo copy and DACS lines into conversational language. When something is unclear or dense, check to see how the New York Times or Washington Post are framing the same story.
Include habit-building language in promotion copy — listen again tomorrow/later, start the weekend here, etc. Place the experience of live listening into someone’s day (“Ask your smart speaker to play WXYZ while you fix dinner tonight”). See a particularly joyful or quirky story? Help listeners find it. Always be specific. “Listen again at 4:40” is always better than “Listen again later.”
Ask for help
You know none of this is new. What is new (again) and what will help reverse audience loss is the need for a relentless focus on every element of the air. Audiences simply have too many other options when you disappoint them. When you get stuck, ask for help. NPR programmers Tayla Burney and Sal LoCurto, Public Radio Program Directors Association, Radio Research Consortium, Audience Research Analysis and Greater Public are standing by. At Paragon, so are Mike Henry and I. If you’re a PRPD member, your peers are there and happy to brainstorm on Slack.
Thanks for reading. Now, what will you work on first?
Izzi Smith works with public radio news organizations at stations across the country to grow audiences and impact. Based in Chicago, he provides insights and analysis fueled by close listening, audience data and a bias toward action. A former director of programming at NPR and local programming at WBEZ in Chicago, he currently is director of live listening at WBUR in Boston. He also advises several other stations as the president of Listen Again Tomorrow, LLC, and as Paragon’s news stations consultant.