Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Editor's Rant

Current Issues Inside the Public Radio Sphere

In a recent report (titled Audience 2010), public radio audience researchers have analyzed a disturbing trend among public radio listeners: the public radio audience is shrinking. For three years now, fewer people are choosing to listen to public radio, and public radio is beginning to worry.

The loss of audience spells trouble for the fuel of the public radio machine: money. Public radio receives a significant portion of its income from listener donations. Fewer listeners may mean fewer donations. Less money could mean a change in your local station’s programming schedule. Even more frightening, it could mean that public radio moves closer towards the profit-driven stylings of – gasp – commercial radio.

It is perhaps too soon to call an exorcist. The audience slip has been small, but it is enough to help turn the wheels of change.

Public radio is entering into an exciting period. NPR has recently proposed a ‘Blueprint for Growth’ that came out of a nine-month series of conferences and planning sessions with station reps, public radio executives, and consultants. The blueprint “urge[s] public radio to become a true network by embracing openness, pooling resources and brainpower, and inviting listeners to become active participants in creating and sharing content.”

Another hot issue in public radio right now is local content. Most shows on public radio stations are produced elsewhere and aggregated and distributed through networks like NPR, PRI (Public Radio International), or the BBC (British Broadcasting Company) to name a few. As Audience 2010: Losing Our Grip so clearly points out, “local shows are usually … less important in listeners’ lives [than network shows], and more difficult to sustain through listener-sensitive support.”

Finally, public radio is becoming acutely aware of the – please excuse this gross adjective – “same-ness” of its audience. Since the early 1980s, public radio has marketed its programs towards specific demographics of the public. The core listener of public radio is the social-conscious, college educated Baby Boomer. Travis Smiley recently wrote an editorial for public broadcasting’s trade newsletter, Current, in which he criticizes: “Until public broadcasting can get past a structure that favors the academic elite, it will always be too exclusive in its tone.” Public radio is also pushing hard to develop ways to creatively incorporate the Internet into its broadcasts, such as WGBH Boston’s Open Source.

All of these efforts are part of larger attempts to engage the audience as more than just listeners and financial contributors. Public radio must invite the audience into the creative sphere and let the people in front of the speakers affect what happens behind the microphones.