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The Path to Significance
About Charting the Territory
By Tom Thomas
Not long ago I had the opportunity to work with the board of Southern California Public Radio, the organization created to operate KPCC-FM under an agreement between Minnesota Public Radio and Pasadena Community College. Bill Davis, SCPR’s President, asked me to reflect on the experience of public radio stations that had made a “transformative leap” in their organizational stature to attain genuine significance in the civic or cultural life of their communities.
Bill suggested four organizations to consider:
Colorado Public Radio
Chicago Public Radio
Different observers might create a different list and each of these organizations has its detractors as well as its many admirers. But most in our field would place these operations among those defining the higher levels of public radio accomplishment, service, and significance.
I set out to surface the common themes, if any, in the storylines that took each of these groups from their early days to their current performance. I have had occasion to work closely with all of them over the years, so I was able to dig out notes, reports, and various snippets of their histories, both official and less so.
It was soon apparent that there was a remarkable convergence – eight key steps repeated across each group’s history that I have dubbed The Path to Significance.
1. Capacity for independent action
In different ways, and for different reasons, each of these operations evolved into independent entities, self-governing and focused on their public service broadcast mission.
2. Compelling vision of service . . . that works in radio terms
3. Strong sense of place
But they also capture, in ways both large and small, a sense of the place in which they work and the communities they serve. WBEZ talks about being a convener of community. Minnesota Public Radio delivers the nostalgia of Lake Wobegon that is one sense of place. It also pushes itself toward “interactive journalism,” bringing its listeners directly into the news making process with polls and tips and expertise. That delivers a sense of place, too.
All these stations are engaged in national production. But Laura Walker notes that her WNYC board is careful that the programming works in New York most of all. “It may be a little of that New-York-full-of-itself thing, but they feel New York is different, maybe with tougher standards, and they don’t want our reach for a national audience to weaken the power of what we do for our audience right here.”
4. Concrete focus of energies
WBEZ had a similar experience in moving to a prominent location on Chicago’s Navy Pier. For Colorado it was the quest for a second channel in Denver. For WNYC it was the high profile $20 million sale of the stations from the City to the WNYC Foundation.
5. Willingness to assume risk . . . and debt
6. Confidence in a larger role
Significance seems to require a certain comfort in playing a larger role. WBEZ’s Torey Malatia recalled the nervous staff that prepared for the station’s first fundraiser after they had moved to the new digs at Navy Pier. “Maybe the listeners would think we were too rich, or too full of ourselves, or too something to need their support. Instead, we had one of our most successful drives ever. Instead of what we feared, it seemed that because we were taking ourselves seriously, the audience took us seriously . . . at a whole new level. It was an important lesson.”
7. Engaged and committed civic leadership
Most public radio stations, including many community licensees, are still operated under what I think of as the “conspiracy of professionals.” It takes some courage to consciously pass power and authority to genuine community-based leadership. It takes hard work to find, cultivate, and retain the best talents of one’s community. But the dividends can be profound. Meaningful civic leadership within the public radio enterprise grounds our public service, enhances our accountability, connects us with major financial resources, and ensures our enduring strength through the inevitable transitions in professional staff.
8. Bold ask for community support
* * * *
The concept of The Path to Significance is a work in progress. But I am certain that there are elemental steps that these organizations have done right, that they follow in a common direction, and that others can replicate their success. Every time someone suggests that public radio has reached its full potential or is brushing up against natural limits to its growth, our leading stations have shown that we have far more opportunity than most imagine. The Path to Significance leads to that opportunity.
I would like to hear nominations for others amongst us that deserve a close look and welcome ideas for how to improve the framework – or challenges to its basic concepts. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
This report was developed as part of Charting the Territory, SRG's national planning initiative for public radio that is supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and SRG member stations.