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When local news is a letdown

Focus groups often lukewarm on stations’ reporting

Originally published in Current, Sept. 25, 2006
By Mike Janssen

As public radio stations produce more local news programming, they too often fail to meet the exacting standards of their smart and sometimes impatient listeners, judging from a recent series of focus-group interviews.

The Public Radio Program Directors’ “Sense of Place” study, presented Sept. 14 [2006] at the association’s annual conference, used numerous focus groups to gauge how listeners value the local news on their public radio stations.

The findings suggest that stations have their work cut out for them. Although the listeners surveyed think public radio provides better local coverage than commercial stations, they said they were often disappointed with reporting that they found boring, shallow and too narrow in scope.

“The actual performance of local news and information programming too often fails to deliver on its promise,” said lead researcher George Bailey during his presentation at the conference. After a beat, he added, “Notice how the room got quiet.”

 The study comes as a growing number of stations pursue local news production to create a niche in their communities in case listeners seek out pubradio’s successful national programs on the Web, on satellite radio or through other evolving audio platforms. A survey conducted as part of NPR’s Local News Initiative and discussed at PRPD’s conference found that eight of 10 stations plan to expand their local news coverage in coming years.

Yet local news production generally costs stations far more than national programming and attracts a less loyal audience (earlier article). Station execs may dream of producing stellar local coverage that listeners find indispensable, but PRPD’s Sense of Place study drives home just how difficult it can be to achieve that goal.

“We know this stuff,” said Marcia Alvar, former PRPD president and now project manager of the Local News Initiative. “But knowing isn’t enough. We need to act, and the audience is telling us we need to act.”

Time for your edit, pubradio

The study summarizes findings from 36 focus groups in nine markets — the fifth series of focus groups that Bailey and PRPD have conducted since 2000 to better understand what listeners value most about public radio’s programming.

Groups included a total of 375 listeners of KUOW in Seattle; WBUR in Boston; WUWM in Milwaukee; KNPR in Las Vegas; KNAU in Flagstaff, Ariz.; WHID in Green Bay, Wis.; WUNC in Chapel Hill, N.C.; KNOW, Minnesota Public Radio’s news station in Minneapolis; and WSLU, North Country Public Radio’s station in Canton, N.Y.

All of the stations involved are committed to local news programming and creating a sense of place. They vary in market size, geographical region and resources for news programming.

Each station provided a newscast and local news programming for the focus groups to hear from a day chosen by Alvar and Bailey, as well as segments that they believe reinforce a distinct sense of place for listeners. The focus-group participants, who all named the stations as their first or second choices for radio news, listened to a mix of local content from their own markets and from other participating stations.

Video clips from the focus groups, screened at PRPD’s conference, and transcripts in the final report show the listeners to be smart, curious and well-informed—and, in their journalistic judgment, as harsh as the editors who haunt a reporter’s worst nightmare.

 “It didn’t take long ... before we felt like we were sitting in on the world’s largest editorial meeting,” Alvar said of the focus groups.

Listeners said they appreciated that stations covered local news but often find the content dull and lacking in depth. Local origin alone was not enough to make a report interesting to them. They condemned reporters for taking too long to get to the point and were impatient with content heavy on opinions and short on facts and data.

“‘Hit or miss’ is a phrase that Marcia and I probably heard a hundred times across the markets,” Bailey said. The study also found that even stations with relatively large production budgets did not necessarily fare better with listeners.

Another finding: Call-in talk shows risk alienating some listeners who find the format inherently flawed. One focus group participant called call-in shows “kind of a lazy way to do the news.”

“I don’t really want to hear what my neighbor thinks,” another said. “I can go across the street and ask my neighbor.”

Regarding newscasts, listeners said they prefer fewer and deeper stories rather  than strings of short headline items.

The study took an unexpected turn when Bailey and Alvar hit upon a broad dislike for a hallowed element  of public radio features — ambient sound. They had not set out to quiz focus groups on the use of sound in radio reporting, Bailey told Current, yet some stories played for the groups happened to include sounds that elicited unexpectedly strong reactions from participants. “I didn’t need to listen to the chainsaw and the barking dog,” one complained.

Because the listeners seized on the sounds without being prompted, “there’s reason to believe that there really is a problem there,” Bailey said.

“One man’s ‘sound-rich’ is another man’s background noise,” Alvar said.

Armed with the Sense of Place findings, PRPD distilled from them a “Ten Commitments of Programming” (above right on this page) to guide programmers in creating meaningful local content. Alvar urged conference attendees to focus on quality, perform frequent airchecks, listen critically to their own work and provide context in their local reporting.

The study has already spurred several stations to review their local coverage, including two that participated. Dave Edwards, g.m. of WUWM, said at the PRPD conference that his station had reduced midday newscasts to devote more attention to Lake Effect, its weekday digest of interviews and local reporting.

Before the Sense of Place study, KNAU lacked a p.d., but the study spurred General Manager John Stark to hire one. Reporters previously assigned themselves stories, and often assignments for NPR dictated their local news agenda, Stark said.

The station is now focusing on choosing stories of greater local significance and paying attention to details such as on-air delivery and execution. It also relies less on local newspapers for newscast material.

KNAU’s priorities mirror the Sense of Place study’s finding that listeners reacted more to microformatic details — including editing, word choice, story selection and news judgment — than to macroformatic matters, such as how many hours of news programming stations produce and the format in which it airs (call-ins, newscasts and newsmags).

“The microformatics level,” the study concluded, “is where the work gets really difficult.” 

Web page posted Sept. 26, 2006
Copyright 2006 by Current Publishing Committee

The Ten Commitments of Programming

From a PRPD handout at the conference.

1 To do only what we can do well and consistently.

2 To think Quality not Quantity. It may be easier to pitch funders and others about how much we are doing. But listeners only care about how well we are doing.

3 To editing and editorial planning. These are absolutely necessary to assure the quality of our content, talent and craft.

4 To airchecking — to make it something we do, not just something we talk about. Listening to our own work on a consistent basis is the best tool we have to assure consistent quality.

5 To focus on the kind of news programming we know listeners value from public radio: in-depth, information-rich, providing context and connection.

6 To do more to develop our reporters so they are considered experts in their beats — so they know more about the subjects they cover than their listeners do.

7 To better communicate and coordinate our news departments and stand-alone shows — to develop integrated editorial goals that make the most of all the news programming we produce.

8 To listen as critically to our own station’s programming as we do others. If we can’t do that, we need to find someone who can.

9 To listen to our stations — so we can hear them as our listeners do.

And, finally, more than ever at this point in public radio history...

10 To make programming quality our No. 1 priority.


Is local news costly and hard to do well? Then get busy and hire good journalists, advises Michael Marcotte, president of Public Radio News Directors.

Despite the costs, many stations choose to produce local news for mission and strategic reasons.


Bailey's website includes his study for PRPD: A Sense of Place: The Value and Values of Localism in Public Radio.

In its Audience 98 report, Audience Research Analysis weighs costs and benefits of local news.


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