New Hampshire Public Radio established its Community Advisory Board in 1981. President and General Manager Mark Handley says that when he came to NHPR in 1990, the CAB was not very effective and served primarily as a forum for its members to complain about the station. In fact, when NHPR dropped folk music in 1992, the chair of the CAB helped lead the opposition to the change. Handley decided to change the nature of the CAB, moving it beyond meetings where members gave their opinions to a more valuable body that expressed the feedback and concerns of the broader community. NHPR asked the CAB members to do “constituency interviews,” to gather opinions from community stakeholders. The change has led to a more productive CAB that supplies meaningful input on the stations’ programming.
The NHPR Board of Trustees by-laws define the purpose and role of the CAB: “The Advisory Board shall provide regular audience feedback to the Trustees regarding: (a) the station's established programming goals and current audience services, (b) the Board of Trustee's policy decisions, and (c) the needs, interests and concerns of the station's listening community.” Handley sums it up more succinctly, the CAB exists “to advise management.” He says NHPR makes it clear to CAB members that they have no governing authority – that falls to the Board of Trustees – and that the CAB is one of many sources they call on for information. Handley says, “If we’re thinking about a new program, we’ll send it to people on the CAB and ask for comments. Nine chances out of ten, we get favorable comments. It’s like what you do with any constituents you have. You make them feel involved.”
The primary staff contact for the CAB is the program director, assisted by the director of administration who does all the scheduling and liaison work to keep board members in the loop. Handley says having the PD interface with the board works well, “because it reinforces that their role is to give advice about programming.”
One major task of the CAB is to conduct the constituency interviews. Senior staff and members of the Board of Trustees also do interviews. NHPR gives the interviewers a form with questions to ask, but then asks them to put the form aside and talk with listeners casually, recording their responses on the form later.
The assignment is to talk to five or six people, gathering opinion and also correcting any misinformation about NHPR. Handley says the idea is to “try to get at the issues that will get people talking about the station.” The forms are compiled and sent to a public relations agency, which issues a report that goes to the Board of Trustees and management.
The interviews, according to Handley, are very valuable because they allow NHPR to connect with listeners in a way that’s more personal than a sending newsletter or analyzing audience data from Arbitron. The interviewees become a network that NHPR uses as a two way street, says Handley. “When we changed to all news, we had the CAB members call the people they had been interviewing to let them know first. We try to find opinion leaders, people who can share information with others. . . . When we go back to them with information, we have a good chance it will get out to a lot of people.”
Another activity of the community advisory board is ascertainment. The CAB spends one meeting each year discussing the most significant issues in the state. Handley says management reviews the list of issues coming from the CAB and creates categories of topics – for example, transportation, education funding, etc. The categories go to the news department, where they are entered into a computer program. As reporters do stories, they file them under those categories.
NHPR staff occasionally come to CAB meetings to talk about their jobs so that CAB members have a better understanding of how the station works. Handley says they try to have a joint meeting of the Board of Trustees and the CAB once a year to present audience data and results from the annual listener survey. He says the joint meeting helps the CAB members “feel like insiders.”
Selection of members
Handley says there is not a formal process for selecting members. Names for members generally come from the CAB or staff. “We want people who like the station,” says Handley. “People who listen to us but don’t have to be satisfied with everything. We don’t want total outsiders who hate the station.” Members are elected by the Board of Trustees and serve a maximum of three two-year terms.
Handley strongly recommends that community advisory boards have a charter or some document that spells out their role, “so they don’t come and make it into something they think it should be.” He says it’s important that members know their role is distinct from that of the governing board and that while their opinions are valued, that it is more valuable when they help the station understand what the community is thinking about the station.
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.
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