Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘APM

Wake up and Smell the Coffee in your NPR Coffee Mug

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NPR coffee mug

Public radio listeners can be an insular bunch.  In some ways, they are opposite to American citizens in general and a contradiction to one of public radio’s main selling points.

American citizens, in general, are interested in what happens in other states even though they themselves live in one state.  Public radio listeners, by contrast, like to think of themselves as citizens of the world, but have little to no idea what is happening elsewhere in the public radio universe.  In part, it’s the fault of the public radio stations themselves.  They have, each and every one of them, set themselves up like little Levittowns.

Every listener need is met.  Every street has a grocery store, a hardware store, a restaurant.  There’s no reason for anyone to leave their own block and that’s the way station’s like it.  If you never feel the need to go anywhere else, then all your time, attention and money stays here.

But that means public radio listeners never hear of the turmoil elsewhere between stations that are fighting over audience, or the white knuckled panic with which affiliates and networks eye each other over the effect of podcasts on funding, or state cutbacks to public radio support and the struggles stations are having over when and for how long to have fund drives that are both, effective and don’t drive listeners away.

Stations have succeeded too well at making things comfy.  And that is where some of the responsibility needs to shifts to listeners.

They could afford to be more engaged with the state of public radio, not just their local station, because of domino effects.  In these times of tight budgets when state A decides to cut or end support to its public radio station, states B, C and D, looking across the border, start wondering where else besides public radio they could put their money.  And while station A in Nebraska misses a fund drive goal, and its board sells its frequency – making it disappear, listeners in Connecticut are blissfully absorbed in the soft tones of Garrison Keillor.

Public radio listeners pride themselves on being advocates for every cause NPR, PRI or APM reporters haul out before them.  But they also need to pay attention to the medium as well as the message because without the medium, there is no message.  Contributing to your local station is fine.  Volunteering for your local station is great.  But your public radio community is a lot bigger than your neighbors your public radio station serves.  It is part of a hemispheric network of wheels and cogs.  All of them, together, make this amazing thing called public radio.  If any of them start to grind, or strip, the whole thing could come to a smoking stop.

I know it might seem unlikely.

But unlikely things are happening everyday.

 

Written by Interviewer

June 30, 2016 at 03:00

Radio Silence

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Flatline

At about 6:43 p.m. PDT on April 28, 2016, listeners to KOPB in Portland stopped hearing American Public Media’s “Marketplace” and instead, listened to about 15 minutes of buzzy static.  When the program returned, the board operator didn’t make any mention of the technical problem.  I’ve worked evenings and nights at a public radio station.  I know that after quitting time, there is a skeleton crew, if any, in the building with you.  I also know that problems with a network feed are pretty much out of a board operator’s control.  At my station, there was a “B” line that we could switch to if there was a problem with the “A” line.  I don’t know if the board operator tried that, or if that option was even available.

The point of this post, however, is about the non-comment over signal loss after the signal returned.  And admittedly, I don’t know if there was any kind of explanation for the signal loss later in the evening.  Maybe there is no protocol, i.e., no generic script in place for board ops to read in case of a signal loss like that.  Though, anyone who has grown up with American TV and radio knows trouble slides and trouble music are as much a part of broadcasting in the U.S. as test patterns and the National Anthem.  So, why no mention?

My suspicion, and it has been my suspicion for awhile, is that stations don’t want to draw attention to their problems, whether those problems are in or out of their control.  It makes sense.  Radio is an ephemeral medium, meaning it’s designed so that you only hear something once and then, it’s gone, on its way to Alpha Centauri, forever.  Just like there is no crying in baseball, there is no repeating in radio.  So a mistake made a second ago deserves to die there.  The audience will forget it a second from now because there is always new stuff filling up their ears.

But, although that rationale might work with commercial stations that repeat formulated playlists every 90 minutes, I think the public radio listener is more of a challenge.  And, ironically, they’re more of a challenge because they’re public radio listeners.  We’re told they’re smart, they’re politically active, they have long memories.  All of the things public radio stations wax romantic about during pledge drives.  It’s why they wax romantic – public radio listeners are special.

So if they’re so special, don’t they deserve to know why stations have flubs?  If they’re supporting stations with their hard earned dollars in tough economic times, if they’re constantly referred to as “shareholders”, don’t they deserve to know when the machinery breaks down and what’s being done to fix it?

When I lived in Utah, KCPW, one of several public radio stations that served Salt Lake City, went through a period when for up to half an hour at a time, the station would inexplicably play the same :30 second commercial over and over.  Or, there would be long stretches of dead air.  I was a loyal listener and contributor and I can’t remember hearing an explanation.  Eventually, I had to contact the station directly, where they told me about a technical problem that involved their then sister station – KPCW.  Anyway, even though the interruptions continued for months, I decided to keeping listening and giving because I understood the issue.

But that I had to call, and them not volunteer to tell me, really chapped my ass.  And the thing about being taking for granted like that, over time, the effects become cumulative.  One could start to feel like stations really don’t care about how their behavior affect the audience.  And that is a mistake.

Someone said, “I’ve come to expect it.  Stuff happens.”  And yes, that’s true.  Why should we care?  I ask instead, what good, really, are calipers or scales or rulers or, for that matter, standards if they can be always be fudged?

Hey, I’m that loyal, smart listener, remember?  Own up and start talking to me about everything I’m helping support.  When stuff like this happens, tell me something rather than try to make me feel like it never happened.

It’s a little thing, but not really.

Written by Interviewer

April 29, 2016 at 10:06

When Elephants Fight

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elephant-fight-far

“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.

Written by Interviewer

March 12, 2016 at 08:59