Call for Transformation:
Themes from the Audience Growth Task Force
Public radio stands at a transformational moment.
Behind us is an extraordinary legacy of accomplishment. 28 million Americans who tune to a public radio station each week, over 1.7 million at any given moment. Powerful programming at the highest levels of broadcast journalism and rich cultural fare that celebrates traditions of quality and innovation. An enduring commitment to trustworthy content, authentic voices, civil dialogue, and respect for the intelligence and sensibilities of those we serve.
Ahead of us are extraordinary opportunities to reach millions more listeners with active, curious minds, to connect more deeply with the civic, cultural, and social lives of our listeners, to enable those listeners to connect more closely with one another as they make decisions about their families, their communities, and the nation.
When the Audience Growth Task Force convened for its first meeting in mid-June, we asked members to share their initial thinking about the prospects for public radio's future and what motivated them to join this effort. For a first meeting, there was remarkable agreement about five large themes.
We have every reason – and need – to be optimistic about our possibilities. However challenging we might find the pace of change, our current competitive circumstances, and questions about our future role, the long arc of our field is toward stronger stations, stronger networks, and stronger service. These are exciting times to be working in almost any dimension of electronic media. Alisa Miller, President and CEO of Public Radio International says, "In a time when there is much focus on new digital opportunity, I also believe there is immense potential in terrestrial broadcasting. We have a great opportunity to grow . . . we must have the courage to take our work to another level, to try new things and commit to them at times that matter."
Dennis Haarsager, Interim CEO at National Public Radio, underlined the practical imperatives. "Our business model stands squarely on our audience success. Whether we look at it from NPR's perspective or a station's, the largest share of our revenue has its base in the level of listening and if we fail to plan for a larger audience, we do so at our peril."
We should aim for big, long-term goals and pursue them with a sense of urgency. Laura Walker, President of WNYC, sets the tone: "Public radio is ready for a big idea. I hope one will come out of this." Jon McTaggart, the Chief Operating Officer at American Public Media, agrees "We need a big idea, a vision, a coalescing imperative . . . something aspirational." And Jeff Luchsinger of CPB, "Let's push ourselves to do more and do it sooner."
We must plan with a sense of context, purpose and strategic choice. "Growth in the past was driven by better and better programming, and being there with the big news stories. Something else needs to drive the next stage," offers Jo Anne Wallace, VP Radio at KQED, which just posted the largest-ever weekly audience for any single public radio station. She continues, "We cannot forget the hunger to make our world better . . . the yearning for a society that is more fair."
Jon McTaggart sounds a similar theme. "Our goals should be more than just pure consumption; it is both how many listeners and for what purpose. We must define the public media space and become more essential to more Americans."
Mark Vogelzang, President of Vermont Public Radio, urges a "whole system" approach to audience growth. "There is probably a governance piece to this – do we have leadership for our organizations that focuses on our service? There is probably a philanthropy piece – can they help us break thorugh some tough issues?
Commitment to wider reach. Public radio speaks most powerfully to an audience of educated adults, people who went to college and others with a commitment to life-long learning. But it many respects the focus is even tighter, on those 35 to 55 years old more than those younger or older, on those who are white more than those of other racial or ethnic backgrounds. But as our communities change around us - as the college-educated community changes - public radio needs to enlarge its reach. Frank Cruz, a founder of Telemundo and long-time CPB board member, hopes "we can figure out ways of reaching out to the true diversity of the United States, to the changing population that we have a mandate to serve."
Orlando Bagwell, Director of Media, Arts and Culture at the Ford Foundation, believes "the real opportunity may be with the age demographics that don't use public radio now - younger listeners. This is a generation interested in participatory media - more inclined to be involved social interaction, but also about information. This generation wants news, wants to give support and be involved in things that matter - look at the election. How do these people think about media in their life? Bringing that energy and that demographic into public radio who be huge."
"Perhaps there is something around the concept of The People' University," suggests Andrea Taylor, Director of North American Community Affairs for Microsoft, "linking notions of education and learning with a populist sense of inclusiveness and accessibility. These are big and powerful themes."
Expectation of redefinition for our field. The shared sense of Task Force members is that achieving he next level of success for public radio will lead to a new sense of identity for public radio. Bruce Theriault, CPB's Senior VP for Radio, asserts "We are in a radically changing media landscape. I want us to achieve higher impact and wider reach for public radio. That might be through doing a better job in our core services and it might be through new formats." Jake Shapiro, Executive Director of PRX The Public Radio Exchange, proposes "multiple, parallel strategies. Use podcasts, side streams, and other options as ways to develop concepts and talent, as something of a format lab."
Orlando Bagwell sees a need for restructuring: "Some services don't have to be re-created in every place. There are efficiencies that could channel savings into content. Without doing that work, why should there be more support from the federal government. And from foundations. Some clear concrete tough choices need to be made to have a leaner more flexible system."
Donovan Reynolds, General Manager of Louisville Public Media, highlights the tough challenge of moving ahead. "We're stuck," he says. "We are trapped in a sound - nationally and locally - that is 10 or 20 years old. It is time for a critical self-examination of our system. We are too self-congratulatory. How long can we afford 600 separate fiefdoms that fail to aggregate significant funds to support significant programming. There is opportunity in the weakness of commercial broadcasting. There is opportunity in political change. But can we change fast enough to seize it."
Copyright 2008 Corporation for Public Broadcasting