Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Refusing to take the Medicine?

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Taking the Medicine

I’ve been looking at websites of public radio stations.  And the variations among them reminds me of the whole idea of meeting the needs of your customer and of a quiet corporate fight taking place even as I type these words.

Supermarket chain A buys supermarket chain B.  Both chains run a pharmacy.  Chain B’s technology and its system for managing customers and medications is superior to chain A’s system.  But although Chain A is absorbing chain B’s technology, chain A is forcing chain B to adopt its management system.  Chain B is resisting because it knows its system serves its customers better than chain A’s.

The correlary to public radio is this.  Back in the 90s, the National Federation of Community Broadcasters was promoting an effort called “The Healthy Stations Project”.  Among the ideas was that stations should adopt a similar feel in terms of sound and look because that would help stations project an image of professionalism.  And that, in turn, would increase listener support, i.e. more successful pledge drives.

As a former federal employee, I am very familiar with concept of corporate branding.  Every agency went through such a branding process in the mid to late 2000s.  But as the huge public radio survey, “Audience 98” showed, the messages about what audiences wanted vs what seemed best for stations were confusing.

On one hand, the data seemed to show that local programming, much of it created by volunteers with little training or in small stations with low budgets, was driving some of the audience away.  Quality, in stations with trained staff and better equipment, was what the audience wanted, or so the NFCB thought.  In 2008, community radio station KRCL in Salt Lake City fired many of its volunteer staff and replaced them with professional hosts.

But on the other, many stations rejected the idea of diluting a local identity they had spent years growing from nothing and were quite proud of.  Their audiences were very protective of the look and sound of their local stations and didn’t care if they didn’t have the “polish”.  KBOO in Portland, for example, has a reputation as one of the fiercest defenders of it’s identity, whether from outside or from within.

There was a backlash, and the Healthy Stations Project died.

As I go through these websites, and see the variation in their look and feel, three things stand out;

1.  Many stations do share a “corporate” look.
2.  Many stations don’t
3.  All of the websites I’m looking at are for NPR member stations

I’m curious to know if you know whether stations that haven’t adopted one of the half-dozen or so prevailing templates are struggling to keep their own identity as NPR member stations, or if NPR is letting them be?

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