NPR rallies system to jointly build ‘trusted space’

New Realities process yields far-reaching plan to fuse newsrooms, engage audiences

By Mike Janssen

NPR launched the next phase of public radio’s New Realities process last week, releasing an ambitious plan to strengthen ties with listeners and foster better collaboration within the system.

In its 12-page Blueprint for Growth, released to general managers July 12, NPR said it will work with stations and other system partners to develop a “News Network of the Future,” a web-based music service and an infrastructure to support distribution of digital content. The network will also lead efforts to raise major gifts to support these ventures.

But the blueprint goes further by asking stakeholders in public radio to reconsider their relationships with their audiences and each other. Members of the public radio community must shift their focus from competing with each other to uniting against competition from other media, the blueprint says.

The blueprint builds on recommendations from organizational consultant Robert Paterson, who led NPR and the system through the nine-month New Realities planning process. In reports released earlier this month, Paterson urged public radio to become a true network by embracing openness, pooling resources and brainpower, and inviting listeners to become active participants in creating and sharing content.

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Dana Davis Rehm is overseeing the planning process for NPR. She’s pictured accepting applause at New Realities meeting in May. (Photo: Current)

“In the past, it’s been essentially CPB funding that’s tied together the system,” said Dana Davis Rehm, NPR’s v.p. of member and station services and a leader of the New Realities effort. “That’s not sufficient for the future as the thing that binds us together.”

As the blueprint makes clear, NPR realizes that it must adopt this collaborative spirit to encourage it in others.

“For the past 30 years, NPR’s competitive actions have been directed internally—focused on ensuring our position as public radio’s primary program producer and earning the lion’s share of station revenues,” the document says. “NPR’s product development, speed to market, plans and programmatic focus were shaped by this finite public radio marketplace. This competitive perspective is no longer appropriate.”

Restating its strategic plan in light of New Realities, NPR says it will help public radio grow a “trusted space” for its listeners by putting the audience experience first in importance, investing in the system’s health and restructuring internally when needed to support those goals.

“This is stretching the conventions of the public radio system in ways that no one has really even considered before,” says Dan DeVany, g.m. of WETA-FM in Washington, D.C.

“I think one of the things we found in our New Realities sessions all along was that NPR was challenged to step up to the plate and take a leadership role,” says DeVany, who reviewed earlier drafts of the blueprint at NPR’s request. “And I think they’re trying to do that.”

Initiatives and “expeditions”

The blueprint builds on an appetite for greater collaboration and collective problem-solving that the New Realities process found widespread throughout the system. From October to May, system leaders came together in a half-dozen regional retreats to consider pubradio’s future in a fragmented and unpredictable media marketplace.

Retreat participants welcomed an opportunity to think big, but until recently few could say what all the strategizing would lead to, if anything. NPR’s Blueprint for Growth now seeks to focus the system’s attention on concrete projects while recommending new relationships that will foster the work.

It presents three initiatives—projects for which NPR is taking a leading role—and five “expeditions” that may be led by others in public radio, with NPR stepping in when needed. More nascent than the initiatives, the expeditions grew out of desires expressed at New Realities meetings.

Two of the initiatives, the News Network of the Future and the digital distribution infrastructure, are already under development. The News Network combines and builds on NPR’s Local News Initiative, now getting off the ground, and something called the Newsroom of the Future.

The Local News Initiative aims to strengthen reporting and news gathering at stations. Led by Marcia Alvar, longtime president of the Public Radio Program Directors, the initiative debuts next month with a training program focused on news presentation during local broadcasts of Morning Edition. The NPR Board last week approved spending $600,000 on the initiative in next year’s budget.

NPR is also developing its Newsroom of the Future project. Senior network execs are considering ways to restructure NPR’s newsroom that would speed delivery of news to NPR.org, Rehm says, and weave the development of online content more tightly with story planning. (News chief Bill Marimow discusses these projects.)

The News Network of the Future will unite these projects to “develop, produce and share high quality local, regional, national and international content across the system so that stations and producers can better serve and engage their communities and all participants can attain higher return on investment,” the blueprint says.

“It’s about achieving an integration of content and production across public radio—not just NPR—and about connecting NPR to the rest of the system, and the rest of system to each other, in a more powerful way,” Rehm says.

The second initiative, an infrastructure to facilitate digital distribution, is also under development. Ken Stern, NPR’s executive v.p., created a Digital Distribution Consortium of six system representatives who began meeting last month to develop a business plan for such a service (Current, May 15, 2006). They expect to finish their work next month.

As an example of what the digital distribution setup might enable, NPR execs are planning a multi-genre digital music service that “will make it easy for the audience to find, audition, explore, share, store and purchase music in all its forms,” the blueprint says. NPR and partners will design the service this year and launch it early next year.

Finally, NPR plans to work with stations and leading donors to fund the news network and digital distribution service. The network says it will also “undertake an analysis of public radio’s revenue potential to inform a system revenue capacity plan.”

The blueprint’s five “expeditions” would:

  • create “a set of goals, principles and performance standards” to guide the system’s collaborative efforts;
  • develop ways stations could work together based on geography or common interests and “charter a pilot to develop this approach in one geographic market”;
  • build multimedia experiences around “one or more topics of strong public interest,” an undertaking that sounds similar to the defunct Public Radio Collaboration (Current, May 15, 2006);
  • seek funding for a standardized, networked emergency management system that would help keep public radio stations on the air during natural disasters; and
  • invest in systemwide training initiatives and attract “young, diverse, multimedia savvy talent and management” to public radio.
Building trust with listeners and peers

These projects would be ambitious enough on their own. But the blueprint also aims to give NPR and member stations a bolder and clearer mission statement centered on engaging audiences in new ways.

The plan aims to turn public radio into a “trusted space” for listeners to visit and have a hand in creating. Throughout New Realities, Paterson says, system leaders told him that to guarantee healthy financial support in the future, they needed to rally their communities around shared concerns.

“We have an opportunity to embrace, promote and encourage connections among the audience around shared civic goals based on our mission,” the blueprint says. “To accomplish this, we will need to curate content and provide tools that enable individuals to engage in making the world a better place.”

Like much of the Blueprint for Growth, this trusted space is a work in progress, Rehm says. “We don’t know all the characteristics of a trusted space,” she says. “It’s more of an ideal we’re trying to achieve.”

Yet public radio is uniquely poised for the challenge, says Paterson, who is optimistic that it can be done. “Because public radio is probably the most trusted voice in the media in America, that gives you the ability to play the ‘trusted space’ card,” he says.

Rehm and Paterson acknowledge that if public radio tries to create a trusted space, it will need to develop ways to measure its successes and failures. Traditional audience metrics such as cume and average-quarter-hour ratings will not be adequate to gauge audience trust and the added value of online participation.

“We’re going to have to look at impact,” Paterson says.

It also remains to be seen how stations, producers and other entities within public radio will act on their desires to collaborate. The blueprint sets out a vision: “Our system alliances will be based on a shared set of values and a mutual commitment to public service. This entails a deliberate shift from isolated positions to partnerships built on an enduring and shared purpose. By leveraging core competencies within the system, we will become more efficient and attract more resources.”

Until now, however, organizational competition and bypass fears have hobbled team efforts.

“I don’t think that we’ve yet come to grips with the right way to bring the stations and the networks together in a unified service,” says Mark Fuerst, executive director of the Integrated Media Association and an advocate for a collaborative web presence for public radio. “It always feels like a tug of war.”

Public radio’s relationship with its audience has traditionally relied on point-to-point contact, says Fuerst, who gave NPR feedback on earlier drafts of the Blueprint for Growth. Stations, as listeners’ gateways to pubradio content, he says, have focused on narrowly defined concerns such as establishing individual brands and maintaining audience loyalty.

These preoccupations will be challenged as technology broadens audiences’ choices of content, providers, channels and listening platforms. Public radio will have to determine how to share income appropriately as the audience’s attention fragments, says Fuerst. NPR’s podcast project as an example of such revenue-sharing, he says.

These are thorny subjects, but Fuerst says the ongoing enthusiasm about New Realities is reason for optimism.

“It wasn’t at all obvious that you could get everyone to go as far as we have today,” Fuerst says. “. . . But the harder part still lies ahead.”

 Questions, comments, tips? mike@mikejanssen.net

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