Deep chat: ‘Kudos to NPR for the 11 percent. My focus is serving the other 89 percent’

Produced and moderated by Mark Fuerst

For more than 20 years, public radio has followed a winning formula that is often summarized as “super-serve the core.” That is, a station will be most successful with listeners if it picks a specific type of listener — the core audience — and plans its schedule to attract and hold that type throughout the day and the week.Critics of the core audience strategy object that public radio ends up serving only a well-educated and middle-aged slice of the public — recently a cume audience of 11 percent of the population within a week, which is still a large audience by many measures.At a recent NPR Board meeting, Sue Schardt, executive director of the Association of Independents in Radio, made an eloquent plea for public radio leaders to think beyond the current set of program strategies [edited remarks].

To pick up where Schardt left off, Current contributing editor Mark Fuerst pulled together this phone chat among noted producers and programmers who have done their bit to expand the public radio audience. This is an edited transcript.

MARK: I’m going to start with one fact, drawn from the headline on Sue’s piece from the March 7 [2011] edition of Current: Public radio is reaching 11 percent of the audience, the American public. That’s a record high. But there’s ambivalence in her tone because we’re not reaching more. Max, let me start with you, because you were working to expand the audience in Los Angeles. How have you thought about that?

MAX BENAVIDEZ: When I read Sue Schardt’s brave comments in Current, I was surprised that only 11 percent of all Americans listen to NPR.

What we were trying to do at LAPM was to expand that audience. And one of the reasons we were doing that is that so many people — in particular 25 to 40, predominantly Latino — were telling us that they don’t listen to NPR here in Southern California. We were trying to create public media programming that could reach and resonate with this [new] audience.

Benevidez

First of all, it’s not easy. Second, I talked to the people who run the major stations here in Southern California and — they’re very smart, innovative people, working successfully in the current public radio model — but they’re not prepared to disturb that “super-core” audience.

Sue put her finger on the main issue. When people are talking about public funding in a time of federal deficits, and they see the small percentage of people who are listening and the profile [of those listeners] — even though it has grown, and NPR is a national treasure — they wonder why aren’t more Latinos and African Americans listening?

Well, it’s because [these minority audience members] are not involved in the editorial decisions, they’re on the sidelines, and not part of the day-to-day decision-making.

MARK: John, I have to assume you’ve been thinking about this in your many roles in public radio.

Barth

JOHN BARTH: I was struck by the mixture of passion and mission that Sue addressed because it reminded me very much of Bill Siemering’s voice in the founding documents for why public radio was created. I give Sue tremendous credit for not just speaking up, but resonating points of view that go back to the talisman of why we’re here.

We’ve achieved this 11 percent, but some of [the growth] is intentional and some of it is simply organic. One of the things that we can see from social networking is that the power of organic can rule over the power of intentionality every day. [So we need to ask,] what are the things that we can do in public radio that will organically drive appeal and interest and resonance with audience? What are the barriers in legacy organizations keeping the audience from finding us?

We‘ve all sat in discussions where we hear that marketing of public radio is not all that great. But we live in an era where marketing is not as much the issue as helping listeners find value in us. That burden falls back on us, whether we’re doing our job (as producers). Are we relevant to the new audiences that we want to have? At PRX we’ve really worked hard to lower the barriers to entry for more diverse voices and I think that’s one of the first steps.

MARK: Peggy, you’ve thought about this from the point of view of a producer. You’ve put many hours in service to what we call “underserved audiences,” serving Native populations or trying to break through to mainstream audiences with a Native perspective. How do you see Sue’s comments and that 11 percent figure?

Berryhill

PEGGY BERRYHILL: I’ve been thinking about this a lot. John said something that was really right on: Are we relevant to the audiences that we want to serve? That’s a conversation that I’ve been trying to have for many years — and have had with several of you. With regard to the 11 percent . . . It’s a tough one: Are we relevant to the Native audience? Are we relevant to rural audiences?

[In the Mendocino County area] I’m going to try to serve an audience stretching about 43 miles along the coast, including two Pomo reservations. On the south end, I’ve got a wealthy, second-home community [Sea Ranch, an eco-sensitive development of about 1,800 homes] that’s probably the NPR demographic. Then on the other side of the Gualala River is the community that provides service to the Sea Ranch, and we have some Hispanics . . . hardly any black people. This coastal community doesn’t have a voice — we’re not reflected in that 11 percent.

The issue for me is keeping the public in public broadcasting.
KQED covers the coast. And there’s no point in having a small local community service rebroadcasting what KQED does. Where do we find our local voice? How do we put this all together?

I watched the hearings on H.R. 1076 [the “defund NPR” bill]. Over and over the lady from Tennessee just pounded into Congress the NPR demographics. Many people here are NPR listeners, but they don’t fit the NPR demographic.

Well, the growth of public broadcasting has been focused on the core audience and the core programming principles. But if you want to reach new audience . . . there has to be a new way of programming.

[And] there has been elitism. I’ve heard people talking about Native audiences or Latino audiences, “Well, once they’re educated, they’ll come to us.” That’s very disheartening to hear, to be polite about it, if you’re someone in my position.

MARK: Paul, what do you think about the 11 percent figure: good, bad, your thoughts?

Marszalak

PAUL MARSZALAK: From my perspective, 11 percent is a really big number. At the same time, one can’t help but feel that the system is underachieving. It’s like the brilliant kid who’s found a comfort zone is now mailing it in. You want that kid to go to the next level, and he or she is not inspired to do it — to do the extra work or take the risk to do the really hard stuff. It’s part of a love-hate thing I have going on with public radio.

Public radio has got itself into a trap that faces almost every business: the risk of concentrating on serving your best customers. You can look at General Motors or Kohler making faucets. If you want to look at a compressed timeline and see how this happened (in public radio), you have to go back to, I think, a very small group of researchers and consultants — David Giovannoni and George Bailey to a large degree. They correctly identified that you could goose your ratings by bringing in more professional content. They were nailing it. They had identified the best customers. They identified what the best customers wanted. So in came more from NPR and Minnesota Public Radio and PRI. And sure enough, the numbers went up. There was significant audience growth. It works great for a while. Eventually it tops out. And in our case, the money came into the local stations who were no longer investing that money in local content or in program development. It went to the national producers.

What [NPR] will do, just by nature — and this is not banging on NPR, this is how businesses work — they end up trying to serve their best customer. And what you get is Day-to-Day, which is like Morning Edition . . . but it starts at 11 o’clock. You get the same show over and over again, with tweaks in the margins. You could argue that some of the breakout shows today are really This American Life spinoffs. These are not bad things. I’m just saying that this is where you end up when you are constantly concentrating on best customers.

Now take that timeline one step further and you have affiliates that won’t move. You have a network of repeaters for this one type of programming. This is the trick bag that you’re in.

You hear people trying to make moves on the margin, with very mixed results. An example of that is reviewing rock records on Morning Edition . . . “This is how we’re going to get the young people. We’re going to do a Sonic Youth review.” It just sounds so out of place, so inappropriate. It’s really tough to have Scott Simon throw it to an album review of something that just happened at South by Southwest. It doesn’t feel right.

What are the solutions? Do you build a whole new different system, like they are talking about at LA Public Media? [For LAPM], it’s like we’ve got to do our own thing, start from scratch and go elsewhere, because we can’t work our magic from within a system that was built to hyper-serve this core audience.

My point is: The system is trapped. If you want to move that 11 percent, it may not be able to happen on the same system. You have to start looking at other things.

When you look at public radio [you also see] massive duplication of the same show in markets — to me, that’s where the squandered resource is now. That’s where the opportunity lies.

When they used to preach that having Morning Edition on two stations in the same market as a good idea . . . Well, that’s not a good idea. People need to get over this duplication idea. It’s a waste of resources, and that’s where the new stuff has to crop up. Younger, more urban, more Latino . . .

MAX: Last week the Census Bureau released its 2010 numbers, and we learned that over 50 million Americans are Latino — one in six. What’s even more telling about the future audience for public media is that one in four children are Latino.

So, many people often wonder why we have two stations in Los Angeles, perhaps the largest radio market in the world, and we hear Morning Edition and All Things Considered at exactly the same time on the two stations. It’s redundant. They’re both successful by addressing the core 11 percent. But in what I call the Latino capital of the United States, you do not hear any Latino coverage by Latinos on these publically funded stations. A massive audience — we counted it to be as high as 1 million potential listeners in Southern California — is invisible. If demographics are destiny, I really think we can see the writing on the wall, and something has to happen in terms of public funding. We’re talking about a lot of taxpayers.

What is it going to take [for one station to say to another]: ‘You have Morning Edition, I’m going to have something else.’ Until that’s done and you’re not just experimenting on the weekends or at times when the audience is low, public media will not change. As Paul says, we may need another system that serves more of the people.

But the numbers are good. If you look at cable numbers, the highest rated show is Bill O’Reilly — 3 million viewers. On National Public Radio, we’re talking about 13 million listeners. In many ways public radio is doing well.

JOHN: Sue [Schardt in her speech reprinted in Current] brings up the whole notion of mindset. I think we’ve all been part of conversations in which public radio is set inside a commercial broadcast mindset, where we’re talking about maximizing the audience and carriage of specific programs.

You can argue that one measure of public service is the size of your audience. “Are we pulling in as many people as we hoped to serve?” And [we found] . . . “Oh my goodness, they really like what we do.”

The other mindset that is unique to public radio is that we are not under the commercial imperatives that our commercial cousins are facing. Market size is not an imperative as much as service is. I get concerned when [people in] program development meetings … talk about reaching a broader audience without first taking the step to actually listen to those audiences. It’s a top-down approach that’s concerning me.

The second thing is that we may need to re-think is our role, as not necessarily broadcasters but as people who serve communities of interest and serving [them] wherever they encounter us. That may be antithetical to the whole notion of “broad,” but it may get us to more creative programming, more creative content and the new voices that will help us serve these communities. How do these communities develop? Where do they develop? Over what systems, broadcast or mobile or iPads? We’re going to have to make sure our mindset and our service mission are aligned.

As we all know, there are economic imperatives to make really big shows affordable. I’m suggesting that we may need to flip that and change the economics — because that’s going to get us closer to serving communities of interest.

PEGGY: Everyone is talking about “How do you diversify your programming?” and I’m here in this little rural community. The people here don’t necessarily fit the public radio profile. They want a station that will be a community resource. They want a station that will be one of their anchor institutions. We do have a small commercial station that does its best, but it is nowhere near the quality we could do in public radio.

Over the years one thing that hasn’t changed much [in public radio] is the workforce of people who have become part of the editorial process and the management decision-making process. On the other hand, if you’re only looking for people with the same mindset, it doesn’t matter who you hire.

I don’t want this interpreted as dissing NPR, I’m interested in serving other audiences. NPR does a fine job of what it does. I agree that adding an African American show or a Native story dropped in here and there is not going to bring in a Native or African American audience.

NPR serves 11 percent of the potential public broadcasting audience, it works. Kudos to them for the 11 percent. My focus is serving the other 89 percent and keeping their funding intact. The NPR model will not work in much of rural America.

If you can really do the deep listening and shift the mindset, really listen to the critics, there may be room for funding some alternatives. If, however, there is concern for the other 89 percent — you really have to do deep listening and not be paternalistic. You need to be led by “the other 89 percent.”

If the decision is “if it’s not broke don’t fix it,” then that’s a legitimate business decision.

The reality is that most people are still going to be listening to the radio especially in rural communities. When you need local information, radio is where people are going to go. Many of KGUA’s potential audience is still on dial-up [Internet connections], and cell phone service is limited. Radio will continue to be a very important medium, a place to hear their information, their voices. My concern is that the rest of us may lose funding due to the focus on the 11 percent.

MARK: In preparing for this call, I noticed that Morning Edition is the fourth most-listened-to program on all radio in the U.S. — after American Top 40, Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hannity. That’s a real accomplishment. [All Things Considered is fifth.] So, I feel that the 11 percent figure is pretty good. And any attempt to break out of this range needs to happen in a powerful way. It’s not necessarily a program-by-program issue.

PAUL: Morning Edition is the No. 1 program for 25- to 54-year-olds in many of the top markets. So, I think you’re correct — attempting to diversify the audience by pushing [different] content onto this existing and well-run affiliate network could upset the apple cart to the benefit of no one.

This is not news. We’ve talked to minority groups and they tell us: We respect NPR but, “they are just not talking to me.” So, even if you tweak and do things at the margin, or put a show here or there . . . it’s not going to work.

There is another lesson . . . It wasn’t so long ago that PBS was thinking: “Should we do a cable channel?” They hemmed and hawed. And the question wasn’t should we do a cable channel. It was should we do 12 cable channels. Much of the cable universe was basically built on content developed or originated on PBS: National Geographic or Discovery or History or the Food Channel or home and gardens, just go down the up and down the line — it’s all stuff that you can trace back to PBS, done in narrowcast fashion. I think the radio side of public broadcasting is making that same mistake right now.

To touch on what John was saying: You may have to stop thinking that whatever you come up with is going to be a radio service — because it might not be. It might be an iPad magazine with multimedia content.

I just think that the system, overall, is going to be so risk-averse, that [this diversification discussion] is a non-starter. So we have to think of an alternative universe. and [it] doesn’t have to be a sister network to NPR . . . because we have many different options . . . with multimedia.

JOHN: Let me give you another view of how you can look at the 11 percent. When you look at the radio news options, which is the dominant format that public radio uses, who’s left [in the competition]? Look at the context in which we succeeded. CBS used to be the giant of radio news — not so much anymore. Are we “the last man standing” with this kind of format? Are our numbers great because there’s nobody else left? Peggy had this right: it’s listening to listeners. What are they telling us? What are they interested in. And it’s not just formats — which is a programming notion — it’s new stories and sounds that make you think about public radio in a whole different way.

MAX: With regard to whether the 11 percent is good number because we’re the last man standing. . . . I’m going to say no. . . . For this system to grow — when everyone else is really taking their lumps . . . I’m going to stick with: You’ve got something spectacular here.

PEGGY: I’m not going to argue about the 11 percent. I think it’s great. But . . . my concern is the many communities that haven’t even been heard yet. How do we move into that discussion?

I agree that you can’t just drop in the black show or the Indian show or throw in a Sonic Youth feature and think that will work. Dropping in those occasional stories is not going to do much.

But there are all these other listeners from other communities who feel strongly and passionately about community and public radio. They’re not being served. And this is going to come up when I speak to the Rotary Club on Friday. I’m sure [they will ask], “Why should we give you-guys taxpayers’ money?” I can argue forever on the quality of our programs and the strengths of the journalism. I can support NPR and all that. But how can I convince the [Rotary Club] that it’s important to give us taxpayer money to serve this community . . . people who still don’t have a voice.

MAX: When I was at LAPM we listened . . . very carefully to these audiences. We worked with Mike Henry and his team, including Paul. First of all, [many of the younger listeners] don’t think that they are underserved because they are not geared toward public media. It’s not even on their radar — that’s not how they see media. They don’t listen to it very much. They think it’s boring. It’s the medium of their parents. They want something new and different. That’s the challenge.

[The solution] is going to have to be something organic that comes out of these communities. . . . I think it’s going to have to be more of an organic thing that evolves out of media desires of the new audiences and with content produced by people who know the audience and are from the audience.

It’s going to have to sound different. It can’t sound like NPR — because young people are not going to listen to that. They didn’t grow up with it. They don’t read the newspaper. They get news alerts on their smartphones. They don’t even know who the alert is from. It could be the Washington Post or it could be some outlier news organizations. It doesn’t matter.

People have to come to terms with what this audience is saying. And as Mike Henry puts it: they are talking a whole new game.

JOHN: Can I add something? . . . In this current funding phase, the whole [debate about funding] thing has been characterized inaccurately as funding for NPR.

It goes back to the notion of a singular brand. But we live in a world where the audience is defining the brand. If you’re smart about it, you understand that you share a brand with the people you serve. They own it and you own it. As you go forward, they help shape it. It’s not like an airline, where you get on the plane, and I fly you in one direction, and then I let you out. We are in communication, a sharing business. We look at the world together, and we share these perceptions. Our job is to be smart about connecting those perceptions to people who want to understand certain things. That’s a shared brand.

Right now, we’re not yet in a position where stations share [their local brand] with their audience. We talk about transparency and connection and communication — but we need to do a lot better job about that if we’re going to get beyond the 11 percent.

PAUL: As I said at the start of the conversation, this is not a new phenomenon. [This is what] companies to go through. You super-serve your best customer. . . your business takes off . . . and then what?

To use an example of Toyota, . . . the average age of a Toyota buyer is 59. And that’s why they came out with Scion. The younger demographic said: Yeah, I’m fine with Toyota. I respect it — but I’m not going to drive one. And that’s the same thing we hear about public radio from ethnic audiences and from younger audiences.

When you get to that stage — I don’t care whether you’re rolling out faucets, tires or cars — you need to roll out a new product line.

MARK: John, don’t you think the NPR or public radio brand serves you very well [as PRX] because it gives you a start that you wouldn’t have if you where just out there podcasting?

JOHN: Let’s look at podcasting. If you look at the [podcast] list that’s on iTunes any give week, who’s showing up there? What you see is not just NPR — [you see] something called This American Life with Ira Glass.

Ira Glass has a complete, total identity and relevance to a younger audience. They are not thinking Robert Siegel and Cokie. They are thinking This American Life. And one of the things that we pay a lot of attention to is The Moth. The Moth podcast is showing up in the iTunes top 20 and sometimes in the top 10. That shows us that there is a massive audience, sending a signal there is a quality of storytelling that they want to hear more of, and we could help listeners find more stories like that.

[Take] Al Letson or Glynn Washington [two of the three winners of the Public Radio Talent Quest]. Here are guys that came out of an open call for new talent, and they are getting a very powerful response. These are guys, who, the way [public radio] is structured, [ordinarily] would not be able to get their foot in the door.

PRX is trying to lower the barrier to entry, get some new voices in here and let more people play. In the course of that, I think, over time, that’s going to change the course of public radio.

PAUL: The car analogies are awesome . . . Ford and GM serve their best customer; they drop the low-end piece, because there’s more money in bigger cars and trucks. So then Toyota and Honda get in the game, and 30 years later GM and Ford are staring down Acura and Lexus, Honda and Toyota. Now, that Toyota is where it is, they’re looking at Hyundai as a problem. It’s a never-ending problem of people coming up. And maybe that’s where PRX is — it’s going to get the down-market and that might be the play.

JOHN: I would also argue that our ability to change and innovate is tied up with the size of our legacy structures. For better or worse, newsgathering costs a tremendous amount of money. But what we are seeing now in a networked environment that actually the cost of connection, exchange, distribution, sharing stories and ideas — that doesn’t cost a lot of money. As an industry, we have structures in place that we’re still paying for. At PRX, we’re not faced with similar cost burdens that hurt other program developers, distributors or innovators.

PAUL: The cost of newsgathering? I’m with you on that. But there are still opportunities sitting on the table. I’m working with U.S. international broadcasting. We bring things into a central newsroom and crank it back out in 59 languages. We’re not even doing Spanish in the public radio system. Am I missing something? Is there an NPR Español?

MAX: There is Radio Bilingue, funded by CPB, all in Spanish, in the Central Valley [of California], and now it has stations in New Mexico and Texas. And now I think it has 100 affiliates.

PEGGY: The point Paul was making was just taking an NPR newscast and just repurposing it.

PAUL: The only way I can get NPR in Spanish is to go to NPR.org and use Google Translate to change it. Come on, it’s right in front of you.

PEGGY: We have some Native stations that do simultaneous translations of a five-minute newscast. They have the Native speakers that can do that. But you’re right, there are a lot of simple things that could be done, and that certainly would be a good one.

PAUL: A lot of their news reports from correspondents are straight-up talkers. You’re just literally translating and re-voicing. That’s not the expensive part. The expensive part is going and getting the story.

MARK: Let’s go back to the point John raised before: NPR took over the long-form news format and turned it into a powerful franchise. Are there market opportunities like that? What does The Moth represent as a franchise, as opposed to a program?

JOHN: The way The Moth really does work is: it’s an engagement program. They believe anyone can have a really great story. The producers listen and curate. It’s about identifying people with great stories — and they get to tell them. That sounds very simple, but it’s not done that much. The secrets are finding the right storytellers and curating the best stuff. That to me is about “listening really well.” That’s not editors sitting in a room and telling you what happened in the world.

MARK: Can a volume of that be woven into a sustainable business?

JOHN: Absolutely. [When] you have a tsunami in Japan, and you didn’t have any reporters there, how literally would you cover — “with little c” — cover that story. What are the tools at your disposal? Social networking and cell phones.

Why has Facebook grown to attract an audience greater than the population of the United States? It’s because people find great relevancy in what their friends are sharing with them, more than what an anchor in Washington [is telling them]. We’ve got to pay attention to that form of “truthiness.”

PARTICIPANTS

Max Benavidez, who served as project director of Radio Bilingüe’s CPB-funded L.A. Public Media initiative, is managing director of public communications strategies and lead consultant to Latinos & Economic Security, a research center backed by the Ford Foundation to provide online research on health, social security, financial planning and education to the Latino community. He writes for Monacle, based in London, and the Huffington Post and the Los Angeles Times, and is author of seven books. He has also produced programming for NBC-TV4 and KPCC-FM in Los Angeles.

John Barth is managing director of the Public Radio Exchange (PRX), an online distributor of public radio reports and programs, which also develops mobile apps and assists in the development of new public media programs such as The Moth Radio Hour and State of the Re:Union. John spent half his career in public radio, serving as news director at WHYY and a founding producer of Marketplace, public radio’s principal business news program. He spent the “other half” of his career in new media, currently at PRX, and before that, as head of online news at AOL and head of content at Audible.com.

Peggy Berryhill. president of the Native Media Resource Center, is building a community radio station, KGUA-FM (88.3 MHz) in Gualala in northern California. Berryhill is recognized as a media architect, instrumental in organizing and building Native America radio, especially through her work with the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, where she helped to launch the Center for Native American Public Radio. She has worked for three decades in public media, including periods as an award-winning producer and station program director.

Paul Marszalek is co-founder of Media Mechanics, a strategic media consultancy and content producer. He established his reputation as a commercial radio programmer at Chicago’s WXRT and San Francisco’s KFOG before moving to MTV Networks as v.p./music programming at VH1. He is now working as senior strategist with the federal Broadcasting Board of Governors to formulate strategy for Voice of America, Radio Free Asia and other U.S. government broadcast services that reach 167 million users a week in 59 languages and multiple media.

EARLIER STORIES

Commentary: Can public radio live up to its name? Are we here for 11 percent of the public or all of it? Sue Schardt’s remarks at the NPR Board, Feb. 25.

If you take Arbitron methodology out of the picture, public radio’s audience may still be growing 5 percent a year, the Station Resource Group figures, 2001.

Commentary: PRI’s content strategist Mike Arnold: Thinking outside the core audience.

Comments, questions, tips? markfuerst@gmail.com
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