This article is a companion to a presentation given by the author Tuesday at the 2023 Public Radio Content Conference in Philadelphia.
A few years ago a post to the Public Radio Program Directors’ Facebook group suggested it was time to curb usage of the PRPD Core Values and start over again.
The station programmer who proposed the idea said too much time had passed since the original research that, starting in 2000, identified, defined and reinforced those values. The media landscape and public radio had changed, he said. There was a new generation of listeners in the audience. He felt public radio should invest time and money into identifying a new set of core values for a new time.
I replied to the post that values are things that rarely, if ever, change. Sure, everything around values can change just as he identified, but the values themselves remain the same.
Turns out we were both wrong.
The Millennial Listener Insight Study recently tested public radio’s core values through interviews with a group of Millennials who are core listeners and regular givers to their stations. MLIS was created and funded by Giving Agency through a collaboration with Edison Research and my company, Magnificent Noise. We learned a ton from the interviews, including the contemporary validity of public radio’s identified values and the new values that younger listeners see in their local stations. The idea for this project came one evening while I was catching-up with Mike Wallace of CARS/Giving Agency. Mike shared frustrations he was hearing from stations about on-air fundraising, especially their challenges with younger listeners. We also talked about concerns about listening patterns and engagement with younger audiences.
I told Mike that these could be symptoms of one large problem, rather than a series of different ones. Stations were talking to their legacy listeners in much the same way as previous generations, without evolving their messages and ideas to match the times. And I theorized that this was where there may be a disconnect.
Good mission and values don’t need to change
An important part of stating the values and mission of an organization or group is that it signals both commitment to and longevity of those values. The mission statement that you’ll currently find on the walls of NPR’s lobby hasn’t been altered since at least 1991 (and a shout out to NPR’s Research, Archives, and Data Strategy Team for verifying this). Very little else in public radio has stayed the same over the past 30+ years.
PRPD’s Core Values of Public Radio isn’t quite that old, but it has guided programmers for a generation. PRPD co-founder and then-President Marcia Alvar unveiled the first Core Values report during the organization’s annual conference 23 years ago. Alvar championed a lot of the organization’s milestone work in articulating the language of public radio programming that also grew to become the core messages of fundraising appeals, station promotion and branding.
For MLIS, we set out to answer this central question: Are Public Radio Core Values relevant to younger listeners today?
To find out, Edison Research conducted in-depth, one-on-one interviews with 11 listeners of WUNC in Raleigh/Durham, N.C., and Idaho’s Boise State Public Radio. All participants were committed listeners and regular givers between the ages of 27 and 41.
It’s important to emphasize this project was designed to collect the thoughts and opinions of a limited group of participants. The results do not represent a definitive POV of all young listeners and givers. A study that would produce that kind of certainty can only be accomplished with a much larger (and more expensive) study.
With that caveat aside, all of us on the project were taken with the level of clarity and consistency across the interviews.
One finding that surprised me the most was how deeply these listeners love public radio. They express deep affection for and belief in public radio, but their public radio is different from the public radio of the past. It reaches beyond just FM broadcasting and includes national and local podcasts, newsletters, websites and community events. All of these, together, are what public radio means to them. Given today’s narrative about diminished listening and the competition for attention, I was expecting a less fervent love. But they value public radio just as much as previous generations of listeners.
Participants described listening to public radio in surprisingly warm, familial and intimate ways. Here are some examples:
It’s like having a friend who can tell you about local news, but also how that relates to what’s going on on a broader scale and what’s happening in the world.Crystina, WUNC listener
I think WUNC is kind of the perfect, I don’t know, I feel like it’s a good friend.
MODERATOR: Finish this sentence for me: “Listening to WUNC is like …”
… leaving a really good dinner party.Hilary, WUNC listener
This is gonna sound trite, but, listening to KBSX is like listening or hearing about news from somebody that you know.Adrean, Boise State/KBSX listener
What is still relevant today?
When PRPD began its core values research, commercial news and talk radio was dominated by Rush Limbaugh and other personalities who leaned into opinions over facts. PRPD set out to define public radio values within that context, drawing a bold contrast between the editorial clarity of public radio’s fact-based news programming and the prevalence of hyperbole and exaggeration of news/talk on commercial radio. Public radio used its core values as Exhibit 1 in making its case for distinction.
When we think about how much has changed since then, this context is important. Some of the historical core values that resonated the strongest with MLIS carried different meanings to participants.
That said, among Millennial listeners in our study, the historical core values that resonate strongest are “honesty,” “uniquely human voice,” “attention to detail”* and “credibility.”* The last two have an asterisk next to them because those are the values that MLIS participants interpret in new ways.
In the original 2000 Core Values report, “attention to detail” was defined as “the smallest elements and microformatics: music, sound, language, a word. We know that all of those can have tremendous power, especially when those elements are put together.” In other words, the fussy details of craft make us different.
The Millennial listeners we spoke to agreed that “attention to detail” is still a core value of public radio. But to these listeners, the phrase is associated with factual accuracy and thorough follow-ups. Some participants linked “attention to detail” to providing context and avoiding misinterpretation; others connected it to fact-checking processes and correcting mistakes. Only one participant defined “attention to detail” as it was originally expressed in 2000.
Here are some of their comments:
Just that fact-checking and saying somebody’s names or pronouns correctly, getting their title right. And especially when it comes to facts and statistics, just noting the details of that and not just saying things without having the evidence, I suppose.Crystina, WUNC listener
In terms of “Do I value attention to detail?” Of course. … It means that you’re gonna get a more complete picture for sure.Jordan, Boise State/KBSX listener
The original Core Values report defined “credibility” in this way: “Our listeners believe and the producers’ intent is to give people straight, unvarnished information. The approach is not manipulative. We’re not selling anything. We’re not sensationalizing, and we’re not hyping. It has to do with a very special place we’ve created on the media landscape, and … as we’ve heard over time, our listeners value and like us for that and are deeply concerned that we are losing it.”
The Millennial listeners we spoke to largely agreed with the definition but added a few new elements to it. Many associated credibility with trustworthiness, accuracy, honest reporting and relying on credible sources. Some listeners linked credibility to professionalism, fact-checking and transparency. A few listeners defined credibility as being free from bias or agenda.
Several participants tied credibility to representing diverse perspectives and community accountability. Some participants challenge stations by expecting them to tell stories beyond staged news events and what other news sources share, yet at the same time holding central their roles as fact-checkers and watchdogs over those in government and positions of power.
Which core values don’t resonate as well with listeners?
When asked about “civility” and “respect for the intelligence of the listener,” most participants tepidly agreed that they were important values for public radio. They didn’t discount the importance of these values, yet just didn’t consider them front of mind. They understand and define these concepts in very similar terms as the original project. One of the original core values stumped a lot of MLIS participants — “idealism.” The 2000 report defined idealism as public radio’s belief in its power to find solutions and its commitment to higher aspiration for society.
The Millennial listeners did not see a strong connection between public radio and idealism. Few understood the concept or saw it as an important value for public radio. Those who did tended to tie it to social justice issues rather than problem-solving. Some were unsure how to define “idealism” or viewed it skeptically. Others interpreted it as setting aspirational standards for integrity in journalism.
New core values
In the interviews, we also asked participants about the values that they aspire to themselves, seek in others and admire in other nonprofit and service organizations beyond public radio.
Towards the end of the conversations, we asked participants if there were other core values of public radio that we hadn’t discussed. We heard a lot of interesting ideas surrounding “innovation,” “balance,” “diversity,” “inclusion” and “consistency.” One “new” core value stood out among all, including many of the historical core values — “community.”
Many listeners highlighted “community” both as an important editorial lens and an ideal for a station’s local presence and role. These listeners want to feel connected to their city and region through local stories. Some noted that public radio introduces them to new dimensions of their local communities. Listeners appreciate public radio’s involvement with local events and nonprofits. Some said that public radio even creates a sense of community among its own listeners.
Local news and on-air voices
We walked away with additional insights about how Millennial listeners view stations’ local news efforts and talent. Many echo findings of recent audience studies, such as those compiled in the “Public Radio Meta-Analysis” for Station Resource Group, PRPD and Greater Public. But some of what we heard from MLIS participants felt new to us, even contradicting previous findings on station voices.
Our participants, like those in other recent audience studies, value depth over breadth when it comes to local news stories. They appreciate local coverage that helps them understand what’s happening in their specific community. But they place less value on news that appears in other sources.
Participants in our study enjoy stories that highlight local people, events, schools and businesses and help them feel connected. But they expect public radio to provide accountability reporting and coverage of political leaders from their city and state. Many also expect local coverage to be at the same level of editorial excellence as national and international reporting from NPR.
Participants told us they want to know more about local talent than just their names. This preference goes against legacy best practices of keeping public radio hosts and on-air voices relatively devoid of personality. It also conflicts with the concepts of “credibility” and “generosity” identified as public radio core values and the recommendation in the original report that discourages local hosts from inserting themselves except at the most basic level.
Many of the listeners in our study said they feel personal connections and familiarity with the local hosts they hear regularly. They value these connections and see them as an important component of transparency, trust and authenticity. Listeners appreciate learning tidbits about local hosts’ personalities and lives and see local reporters and hosts as more relatable than hosts of national news shows. These participants also see local hosts as passionate about the community they report on.
Here are some examples of what participants had to say:
Because of the work that KBSX does, I feel I know them, right? Like I feel like I know Gemma Gaudette, I feel like I know George Prentis, right? Because not only do they deliver news, but then they also do, “This is kind of who I am,” right? … I feel like I know them a little bit and also they’re very Idahoan, they’re very local, and so I trust them in a way that I don’t Anderson Cooper or some of those national people that seem very detached from where I live.Adrean, Boise State/KBSX listener
That goes back to authenticity. I’ve really loved that the NPR voice is going away a little bit and that people are really speaking in their true voices rather than changing their voice to fit a certain kind of voice. And so I really appreciate that.Ellie, WUNC listener
Another finding related to local content stems from diversity and inclusion. It’s important to participants to hear multiple viewpoints in news reporting. Several listeners valued public radio’s efforts to bring in diverse perspectives, including voices not typically heard in reporting from other outlets. They said it provides a more complete, well-rounded view of complex issues and introduces them to stories and voices outside their experience. Many participants said a diversity of voices prevents coverage that reflects only one dominant narrative or perpetuates societal polarization and information bubbles. Some participants said that the balance of perspectives allows listeners to draw their own conclusions.
In the words of the participants:
Every once in a while you learn something, you’re like, oh, maybe I wasn’t right about that. Or maybe I didn’t have all the facts. Or when I hear it from somebody else’s perspective, I understand why they think this way. And if I had had their own experiences, then I probably would think that way as well. So this sort of concept of continuing to learn, and being willing to change your mind, is something that’s really important to me. And it’s something that I try to remind myself every once in a while — I am being open to changing my mind about a subject if I learn something new.Jimmy, Boise State/KBSX listener
Trying to bring to light different perspectives and not relying on, okay, this one person said this thing and therefore, that is the story. But really trying to delve deeper and bring to light multiple perspectives around different issues.Hilary, WUNC listener
To me, the biggest takeaway from this work has been a renewed sense of optimism about the potential for public radio to build its relationship with this generation of listeners. Public radio has been wringing its hands about younger listeners for as long as I can remember. It’s satisfying to see that Millennial listeners care about public radio just as much as previous generations.
However, there is more work to do. In the coming months, Giving Agency will share additional information about its plans to extend and continue this project. It will also offer the interview questionnaire we used so that stations can conduct their own interviews.
Listening to the interviews, it is palpable how deeply these listeners believe in the importance of public radio and how much they want it to continue to grow, thrive and serve their communities. Undoubtedly, the platforms and connection points to this audience will continue to change. It’s up to public radio to meet audience where they are and meet their expectations and values in ways that feel genuine and not performative.
The best part is, they are waiting — and excited — to hear what you have to share.
Eric Nuzum (email@example.com) 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. For more information about the Millennial Listener Insight Study, sign up for updates at givingagency.org.