Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

When Elephants Fight

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“When elephants fight, the grass suffers.” – African Proverb

In the course of working on my book about the public radio pledge drive, I stumbled upon a conversation between two leaders in the public radio realm. Adam Davidson, who has been a content producer for NPR and APM with a particular interest in economics, and John Sutton, a long time radio researcher and fundraising consultant who has been following audience behaviour for decades.

Mr. Sutton responded to a conversation Mr. Davidson posted about the future of audio content and how public radio in general is facing an existential threat from new, long-form journalism from podcasts like “Serial”. Mr. Sutton responded that people don’t use podcasts the way they use radio as it currently exists and even with the technological changes that have rocked public radio, their effect in the long term will be smoothed out.  As time went on, their conversation got a lot livelier and their critiques of each other’s point of view, much more, … um … pointed.

Fortunately, what I’m working on isn’t specifically about program production, audience behaviour or technological innovation as it affects public radio. There are people are much smarter about those things than I will ever be. But it reveals the problem with experts. What is the public to do when standing between two people who have the credentials to clearly and cogently defend opposite points of view?

Pubcasters do everything they can to keep the public happy and in a giving mood and that means drawing as little attention as possible to such conversations. But in the deep underbelly of public radio, they ultimately direct bigger conversations. Like, for example, those over the success of Jarl Mohn, NPR’s new CEO who wants to bring more high value donors into NPR. It’s a strategy that drew justifiable skepticism from the host of OPB’s daily flagship radio news program in 2014.

Maybe the extra cash will help public radio rely less on pledge drives, give producers more freedom to produce higher quality programming and help it avoid future bloodbaths like the one that rocked the network in 2014. ICYMI, NPR made deep cuts in staff and programming in a cost saving move.

In their August 2015 conversation, both men do agree on one thing – the key to public radio’s success is producing programs the audience will listen to and pay for. Their discussion, found here, is probably only one of many such fights between such elephants deep within the public radio milieu.

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Written by Interviewer

March 12, 2016 at 08:59

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