As you're reading this, hundreds of diligent public radio program directors are convening virtually at their annual conference. Led by public radio vet, Abby Goldstein, PRPD has bobbed and weaved a great deal in recent years in an effort to better serve its tribe of content creators.
Public radio has had quite a run these past few years. Referred to in the system as the “Trump Bump,” 45 created a sense of daily – often hourly – “cume urgency” with his announcements, behavior, statements, orders, and of course, those tweets. The world of news journalism has never seen anything like it, and may not ever again.
Now public radio may be facing a reckoning of sorts. While there are still plenty of mega-headlines each and every day – hurricanes and climate change, the Insurrection, Afghanistan, abortion, COVID, and the California Gubernatorial recall vote – to name just a few – the news bug simply isn't as voracious in 2021. More of us can wait before we turn on the news, whether it is delivered by local TV, a newspaper, a website, an app, or a public radio station. Some of us are simply burned out on the news.
This will be just one of the topics this year at the PRPD Conference, dubbed “REdefining Public Media” this year. As always, it will feature some of the best and brightest in the space. I am fortunate to be on the agenda this year, thanks to Jacobs Media's 13th annual Public Radio Techsurvey. Usually, Abby gives me 50 minutes or so to blast through 100 data slides that help explain what's going on in public radio.
But because this year is so different, my PRTS 2021 will be quite a bit different, too. I'll be joined by Paul Jacobs, along with two of the best content creators out there. Ju-Don Marshall is chief content officer and EVP at WFAE Radio in Charlotte.
She was managing editor of the Washington Post's digital unit, among her other impressive accomplishments. She brings a lot of outside-in thinking to public radio's existential issues of the day, the types we'll be dealing with on the panel.
And the session will be moderated by none other than Jay Kernis, a guy who is very well-known to public radio programmers, managers, and leaders. Jay worked for NPR in the early years – the '70s – as a producer, before joining 60 Minutes where he made some amazing television for 14 years.
He became NPR's SVP of Programming through the early 2000s – truly a renaissance period for the network. That's when Paul and I met him.
Jay then shifted to CNN where he became managing editor, before eventually rejoining CBS News were he's served as producer for the amazing CBS Sunday Morning for the last eight years. Jay has won an Emmy, Peabody, and DuPont-Columbia Awards along his amazing journey.
“Trends and Stories from PRTS 2021” promises to be a unique way for discussing and perhaps even debating what this year's findings mean to public radio. The virtual audience will have a voice through Abby Goldstein. Jay has already pinpointed a number of “jump ball” topics we'll be discussing, but the one that I'm hopeful will get some oxygen revolves around emerging news outlets being targeted to, and consumed by, core public radio listeners.
The first is daily news podcasts, a format pioneered not by a radio or audio entity, but by the New York Times. The Daily, launched just four years ago, is hosted by Michael Barbaro who takes listeners on a daily journey focused on key news stories and happenings. As we learned in this year's study of nearly 23,000 core public radio listeners, nearly half listen to a daily news podcast regularly.
And the winner? By a vast majority, The Daily. NPR's entries in this space, rank second and third, while there is now a slew of similarly formatted news podcasts struggling in the single digits.
Impressive. This entire news space didn't exist five years ago. Today, it is redefining the way millions of avid news junkies follow the world each morning, including sizable numbers of public radio listeners.
Oh, did I mention The Daily also became a radio show, syndicated by American Public Media, now reaching more than a million listeners a day?
And then there are newsletters, another genre that has quietly rocketed to success in recent years. In one form or another – paper, then e-mail – these periodic publications have been around since Guttenberg. But now in electronic form, they are helping Americans keep up with what's happening in their communities, regions, states, and genres of interest.
For the first time this year, we queried about newsletters consumption in PRTS 2021, and it produced some eye-popping results:
Nearly seven in ten (69%) ever read these locally-crafted newsletters, with strong participation among our many demographic breakouts. Again, here's another rapidly emerging outlet, often launched by out-of-work journalists looking to apply their craft to a different journalistic outlet. And as you can see, they're clearly having success in the public radio system.
How did I learn about these newsletters? From my Millennial daughter, Allison Jacobs, of course.
Allie is finishing up a successful stint with “Detour Detroit,” a wonderful newsletter here in the Motor City with coverage and a vibe you won't read in the Free Press, the News, or even the city's independent paper, the Metro Times. “Detour” was co-founded by Ashley Woods Branch and Kate Abbey-Lambertz, and is a great example of how a local-centric newsletter can have an impact on its community.
As we will no doubt discuss tomorrow at PRPD, public radio stations in New York or Nebraska can participate in either of these newsy endeavors, especially if they're locally focused. If a national/international daily podcast can have the measure of wild success enjoyed by The Daily, a local or regional version could surely work anywhere. And public radio has the talent and vision to produce these podcasts.
So do many commercial News/Talk and Talk Radio stations. Rather than simply repurposing daily radio shows in podcast form, a daily effort covering the “313” or the “214” or the Bay Area could likely find an audience.
Of course, the same is true of newsletters. Many, many radio stations – public and commercial – are producing them. But given this is largely still a nascent space, how can existing radio news brands create a truly must-read newsletter with stories only they could tell.
And all of this begs the question about what other yet-to-be-discovered journalistic outlets are still untapped or ricocheting in some bright person's brain, yet to be invented.
Despite the impending death of newspapers – clearly an anachronistic news outlet – we may be in the middle of a new Golden Age of journalism, thanks in no small part to smart, innovative news hounds with stories to tell.
As Ju-Don uses the radio dial and podcasts to cover the Charlotte area, and Jay weaves amazing, buzz-worthy stories every week on CBS Sunday Morning, I know both will have a lot to say about innovation in news gathering and telling. Paul and I will do our best to keep up with them.
As Apple unveils its new iPhone today, I think about Steve Jobs and how he viewed the potential disruption caused by invention:
“Innovation is the ability to see change as an opportunity – not a threat.”
In many ways, that's the challenge facing all of us in broadcast radio – not just in public radio. How can we not just survive, but thrive, in an ecosystem where change is the currency, and innovation is what will provide growth and sustainability?
See you at PRPD.
“REdefining Public Media,” the PRPD Conference, runs through tomorrow, 9/15, on a screen near you. Our panel, “Trends and Stories from PRTS 2021,” starts at 11;30am ET tomorrow. Info about the event is here.
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