Tough times aren’t new for public radio. When I started in this industry in 2008, an economic downturn was causing layoffs and leading to difficult decisions about where to put resources — what shows to keep on the air, which beats to prioritize, what platforms to staff.
Fifteen years later, the headlines are just as dire, but the details have changed. Times are tough, and there’s more competition for listeners.
It doesn’t quite add up, though. Yes, competition has increased, but so has the potential audience. More people than ever are listening to spoken-word audio. Americans spend half of their waking hours with entertainment. And the wearable technology revolution has long been realized when it comes to listening devices. (When was the last time you went outside and didn’t see someone wearing headphones?)
Yet somehow everyone — from radio stations to podcast networks — is cutting back. Instead of flourishing in an age of infinite listening, instead of going all out to make something new and exciting to push through those ubiquitous earbuds, the industry is cutting shows, laying off staff and struggling to bring expenses under a bottom line that seems to always be dropping.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this, and it didn’t have to be. Even in those lean years of the Great Recession, public radio seemed safer than commercial news. We had the business model, we said over and over in pledge drives. I repeated it hundreds of times myself: Your support keeps us insulated from fluctuations in advertising. Corporate support is important, but you are our most valuable source of funding. As the economy slowly recovered, we emerged into a world of promise — the proliferation of smartphones put millions of new listeners before us. The rise of podcasting made a new generation interested in audio. We had more people to reach and the tools and talent to reach them. It would be a golden age.
But we didn’t get a golden age. Instead we got Content.
“Wait,” you might think, “I work in content.” That’s probably true if you’re reading this column in this publication. But is that truly what you do, or is it a title that’s based on the department you work in at your station? Maybe you’re a news reporter. Maybe you’re a DJ who plays music. Maybe you host a podcast about sports. That all fits a dictionary definition of “content,” but I’m talking about the corporate concept of Content, capital C.
The term is harmless in and of itself. Sometimes it’s even necessary. But in the corporate context, Content represents a lot of what’s going wrong right now — the turning of specific, valuable work into a generic product that must be managed by highly paid specialists in order to return a profit in a specific way.
I don’t like using the word “content” in any sense because I was trained as a journalist to be precise with my language and avoid catchall terms. If a word describes everything, it describes nothing, and “nothing” is exactly what comes to mind when I hear the word “content.” “Content” today is used to describe anything that meets the general idea of sensory stimulus. The expanding use of this word as the descriptor for the work we do is a sign of the devaluing of that work by the people and institutions that manage it. Public radio is journalism, shows, music, culture. Content is an inexact blob that people in a boardroom can cut to a convenient and profitable size.
We can trace debates over the homogenization and devaluation of work back centuries, but this isn’t about economic theory, this is about Content. And for the sake of my word count, let’s just trace the particular devaluation we’re in right now to that emergence from the Great Recession. As online news proliferated and we published across different platforms, and as professional and independent creators began to compete for attention on those platforms, we needed a term for all the stuff we were making — a term that could encompass the newscast spot, the investigative podcast, the photo slideshow, the recipe blog, the YouTube video and the Twitter thread. Enter “content.”
Then, as it became clear that anyone could make anything for any platform — a newspaper could make a podcast and a radio station could make a newsletter — we needed to restructure ourselves to make sure that all of a station’s output made sense and that the left hand knew what the right hand was posting. Enter Content.
With Content came new officers with six-figure salaries who drafted Content strategies — plans that laid out how everything we made would compete with other people’s Content, no matter what that Content actually was. In The New York Times, critic Jason Bailey compared the word “content” to the way “widgets” is used in business classes — a meaningless term that obscures the actual product in order to compare companies solely on profitability. Treating the output as generic is a strategy that focuses on executives, investors and profits rather than workers and customers. Content is a one-size-fits-all strategy.
This type of business-first approach is where things started going wrong, for public radio and for anyone making journalism. We gave our work a generic name and then expected it to compete with everything else that fit that generic description, and it had to compete on the same terms. A news report was compared to both a streaming movie and to aimless scrolling on TikTok. Sure, there’s some truth to the idea that we’re all competing for the audience’s time and attention, but the average person knows the difference between Netflix and news and has an appetite for both. Content sees the audience as drones who simply want to consume — it doesn’t invite a meaningful relationship with the audience beyond fast, forgettable consumption.
This is clear in the words used to describe Content. Content, we’re told, should be “snackable.” That word, “snackable,” is consistently presented as a positive, as if potato chips are the thing every chef aspires to make and the only product anyone buys at the grocery store. Anyone who has shared a workspace with me knows I love chips, but I also eat three meals a day. The synonym for snacks is junk food. When did we decide that our goal is to make the junk someone tides themselves over with instead of the staple of their diet?
Content doesn’t compete on subject or impact or ideas, it competes on convenience to consume. The substance doesn’t matter, just the shape and the method of delivery. Success is measured in key performance indicators — generic metrics like clicks that measure the most basic interaction with Content. Meeting KPIs became the job of everyone involved with Content. It was now an editor’s job to promote a story. An idea might not be greenlit if a journalist can’t moonlight as a marketer and come up with a plan for not only making a show, but attracting listeners. If something didn’t fit into a pitch deck, it couldn’t become part of a Content strategy. The path to profitability for Content was the same across Content companies. Instead of innovating with a business model the way we had on air, we copied what everyone else was doing, competing for the same ads on the same platforms to middling results.
The embrace of Content makes our work generic. It makes our jobs vague yet overwhelming. It makes the market we’re supposed to compete in impossibly large. It makes our organizations top-heavy and sluggish. I was there for this shift. I was a reporter, then an editor, then a manager. I worked my way up the ladder and dreaded the day “Content” would be added to my job title (it happened in 2018). In that time, the institutional scrappiness I knew from my early days slowly vanished. It was washed away by what seemed at the time like professionalism but was truly corporatization and homogenization. Nothing could be done in a day. Good ideas fell apart as more and more stakeholders hosted scrums that did little but justify the need for more stakeholders. Journalism is made by journalists; Content is made by committee.
Some great stories and shows have made it through at stations across the country, but many of those shows and beats are on the chopping block now. Even in cutting, public radio is copying others. In a petition against layoffs at WNYC, employees pointed out the phenomenon of “copycat layoffs,” in which the idea of cutting staff to cut costs spreads through an industry, despite evidence that other means of reducing costs might be healthier for the organization in the long term. Those other means might also better serve the audience. Content cancels a show about the Supreme Court in one of the most consequential times for that body. A mindset that compares work to between-meal snacks doesn’t invite much contemplation about the future.
When Content doesn’t meet its KPIs, it’s often the people who make the Content who have to take the hit. There’s an expectation that someone who can come up with a creative idea for a show or story should also be able to figure out a way to make money from it. That’s asking a lot, but this is what Content does. When our work is described in generic terms, it’s easy to take the individual roles that create it for granted; specialized skills and talent don’t matter because the output isn’t specific. Only KPIs matter. Content sees product as cost and aims to make as much as possible for as little as possible. Content blames creative when profits don’t come in. Content is an executive with a business degree telling a writer they’re not entrepreneurial enough to make it in this business. Content protects itself at the top and cuts from the bottom.
The Hollywood strikes are a lesson here. The studios and streamers treated the work of the writers and actors as Content while the writers and actors treated it as their art, their craft, their work, their livelihood. Bosses devalue it at their own risk.
The rounds of layoffs across media, public and private, aren’t bound to go well in the long term. In public radio, the problem we risk by following others in the Content industry is perhaps even more dire. Much of public radio’s money still comes from the broadcast side. That was the case before the Content mindset took over at stations, and it remains so in spite of whatever Content strategies have come and gone in the last fifteen years.
It won’t be the case forever. Broadcast revenue can’t give cover to copycat Content strategies indefinitely. As those dollars continue to recede, it will become clear how well modern Content strategies fare: What innovations are these strategies making that secure the future? What connection do we have to an audience we’ve tried to sate with snacks for so long? What will we offer besides whatever remains after a few more rounds of cuts?
With energy and mission and creativity, we might be able to answer those questions. But one question stands above all of these: Who will stations find to make this stuff after repeatedly firing talented people who have been trying to stand out for so long? Fifteen years ago, if someone wanted to make audio that was experimental, impactful, exciting, and different from anything else out there, they very often found their way to public radio. There were other places to make audio, but public radio was unique.
Is that still the case, or are the stations that once led the way becoming another of the many Content shops out there? Not everyone wants to make content for a living. And when the next generation of journalists who want to tell stories with sound and do community-focused work start looking for jobs, what is going to make them come to public radio? What willingness for risk are we showing when a program must be cut the minute a budget looks tight? What support for new ideas do we demonstrate when we measure success with the same KPIs? What capacity for creativity do we show with layoffs and cancellations?
I know that budgets are tight. I know hard decisions need to be made. After all, tough times aren’t new for public radio. But do we want to weather these tough times as public radio, or do we want to drift in the winds of the Content industry?
Gabe Bullard is a journalist and editor who has worked at Louisville Public Media, National Geographic, WAMU and WBUR. He is now an independent journalist. He is also a consultant with Yellow Armadillo Studios. gabebullard.com