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Local Content Creation

Local Content Overview

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FIRST REPORT
September 2002

The fall 2002 Public Radio Collaboration spoke volumes about the capacity of public radio stations to create original content. The scope of the project was unprecedented, with stations and producers creating more than 30 hours of material available to air nationwide. The Collaboration's focus was national, but its success was due to the expertise gained by stations in recent years in producing high quality local programming. There is a strong and broad movement in public radio to produce local programming - programming that extends public radio's core values and increases stations' importance in their communities.

Interviews with a number of general managers at a range of stations show that the increased emphasis on local programming is well-considered and based in market realities. Managers say that local programming is essential. Many see it as the key to success in the future. As one manager said, "My whole strategy is that there is no future if we simply distribute other people's programming."

Public radio's push to local programming comes as the media marketplace as a whole is moving in the opposite direction. Internet radio, satellite radio, and the consolidation of station ownership (which is creating more syndicated programs and more voice-tracking that allows one DJ to serve multiple markets) are creating more nationally focused programming. Public radio stands out in the crowded media field because of its commitment to local programming that provides depth and context. As Craig Beeby, general manager of KOSU said, "I know that XM and other satellite programs are coming. Here I am in the middle of the prairie and I better be doing Oklahoma!"

Local programming does more than provide a distinctive identity for public stations, it also allows stations to serve listeners in a distinctive way. Local programming makes listeners more informed about their communities. It connects people by providing a sense of place and a reflection of local values. It inspires listeners to take action - support a cause, go to a concert, volunteer at a local organization. Local programming can provide a forum and allow listeners to speak their minds. Much of the local news programming appeals to listeners called "NPR activists" by researcher George Bailey. These are news listeners who seek to solve problems, debate issues, confront reality and take political action. As one manager said, "When public radio is on top of its game, it changes lives."

Just as listeners benefit from local programming, so do stations. Stations are reporting that local programming can help:

  • Increase audience and/or loyalty
  • Increase membership, major giving and foundation support
  • Achieve mission
  • Serve under-served audiences
  • Build partnerships
  • Add value to national programming
  • Increase competitive advantage by filling market niche

All these benefits can be summed up in two over-arching themes. Local programming deepens a station's connections to the local community, and that, in turn, helps make the station a more valued community institution. One manager said that producing local programming is a "no-lose proposition." He said, "even if the competitive environment isn't as fierce as we thought, we're still strong because we have a great relationship with the community."

There is no doubt that local programming is important, and some stations may decide to produce it simply because it seems like the right thing to do. But there are critical questions that must be addressed before a station makes the commitment. Good programming decisions are based on well-thought out strategies that incorporate budget and personnel factors over multiple years. Even with the best of planning, stations have to find ways to:

  • Fund local programming -- Local programming is very expensive and labor intensive. Stations producing talk shows or a concert series need the staff and resources to do it.
  • Attract high-quality producers, reporters and hosts.
  • Avoid conflicts with licensees, major donors or content partners. This is especially important for news stations that don't want to damage their journalistic credibility in a joint project.
  • Make local programming really significant. How do stations make sure all the effort is really worth it?
To take a deeper look at these questions, we've created the Programming Ledger. The ledger provides an economic and strategic framework for making decisions on local programming - determining if a station is ready to proceed and at what level of commitment.

Programming Ledger
Investment
Cost
   Dollars
   Air time
Fundraising
Quality control
Continuity
Risk
   Financial
   Image
   Audience value
Returns
Listening
Loyalty
Attract talent
Defend against bypass
Fill a niche
Significance
Public service
Valued community Institution
Editorial expertise
Stronger connection to University
Credibility and authenticity

The ledger can help station leaders think about all the factors that go into assessing the value of local programming. Obviously, if the investment outweighs the return, management needs to decide how to sustain the programming or if it should be cut back. Some of these Returns and Investments are easy to calculate, while others are more intangible. SRG will continue to refine this first draft of the ledger.

There is an additional factor to consider when evaluating local programming. Stations need to decide how to best position their local programming.

Local programming can fall in several different positions vis--vis other programming on the station. The first goal is to create programming of value to listeners. This is programming that embodies the core values that PRPD identified - including substance, curiosity, accuracy, honesty, humor, idealism, civility, and a uniquely human voice.

Our best national producers strive to create programming of value and hit the mark most of the time. Stations also strive to create local programming of value and achieve that goal in varying degrees.

Some stations choose to make their local news programming closely identified with National Public Radio news, inserting local stories and newscasts into Morning Edition and All Things Considered. This positioning has the advantage of tying the station to the NPR brand and giving the station clear goals for quality, style and depth in its reporting. In this scenario, listeners often don't know if they're hearing work from NPR or from the local news department. That may be an advantage because the programming is seamless, but it can also serve as a disadvantage, because the close positioning with NPR may not help the station build its own identity in the community it serves.

Other stations choose to produce local programming that is of value to listeners but is not so closely identified with NPR or other network programming. These local efforts are stand alone programs with their own identities. Again, using findings from the PRPD core values study, this is programming that is successful because it is local but not parochial, it tackles issues that matter to listeners. This programming becomes identified with the station and helps build the station's stature in its community.

There is also programming that falls outside the circle of value to listeners. Obviously, producers shouldn't aim for this positioning because it won't attract a significant audience. Most programming outside the circle of value is there because it lacks quality in production or it is not relevant. It is not produced with the intention of being outside the circle, it simply misses the mark. Station leaders have to ask themselves how much of their local programming falls into this area. As one manager said, "we don't want to spend millions on local programming that de-values our station to the listeners."

Some programming in this area is desirable, however, if it allows staff to learn their craft or is experimental and could develop into programming of value to listeners. Local programming outside the circle of value is risky, but it could pay off if it is part of a conscious strategy that builds toward creating value.

There is a lot at stake as stations pour resources into local programming and bet on its ability to draw listeners and build prominence. There are factors outside the control of our best planning - unexpected personnel changes, sudden budget cuts, new programming from other media outlets - that can change the way stations approach local programming. If the chosen strategy for becoming the public media company of the future is a focus on local programming, then stations must constantly ask if they are producing local programming of the greatest value to listeners and to the station.

SRG's continuing work in this area will help provide the tools needed to answer this critical question and help stations achieve the greatest impact for their local programming.

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.

Copyright © 2003 Station Resource Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.