Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘Listeners

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

Same but Different?

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same but different

What differentiates public radio from commercial radio isn’t the wordplay that distinguishes a commercial, which is what commercial radio calls the paid statements from advertisers between music or talk, from underwriting, which is what public radio calls the paid statements from companies between programs.

The main distinction between a commercial and underwriting is that commercials have verbs like, go, do, see or call.  They constitute what is known as “The Action Step”; words that tell the listener to perform some act.  Public radio, instead, tells you everything about the company except to patronize it.  Ideally, public radio and the underwriting that financially supports it, avoids the action step.

Not because it wants to.  Public radio’s history is speckled with instances of stations with creative station managers who wanted to see exactly how close they could get to telling listeners what to do.  And they’ve gotten in a lot of trouble for it from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the FCC – two entities that tell public radio stations what to do.

Getting listeners to act, especially if they do it, can be very profitable.  It must be.  It’s a model that financially supports commercial radio to the tune of millions of dollars each year.  But public radio, unlike commercial radio, is also accountable to Congress to maintain its, shall we say, purity.  To be a public radio station, with all of the non-profit, tax exempt perks that come with it, a station must not sell commercials.  And commercials are full of action steps.

When President Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, the goal was to create a system of radio and TV stations that weren’t focused solely on money and didn’t act or sound like it. Think of radio stations with 45 minutes of music and 15 minutes of commercials, or a TV program with 12 commercials in a row, and you get an idea of how it looks like all they care about is money.  But, … at least they’re straightforward about it.

Which is why the pledge drive can be so confusing.  Pledge drives are one of the ways public radio stations get the money they need to provide the programming they offer.  In a pledge drive, hosts come on during program breaks and ask listeners to donate money.  But if you listen to a pledge drive, it can be a non-stop commercial for more than 20 minutes an hour.  And you hear those asks in the places between programs where you would normally hear underwriting;

“Call now.”
“You need to do this.”
“We’re waiting to hear from you.”
“Don’t wait.”
“Head on over to your phone.”
“Get out your credit card and become a member.”

I’m not sure why public radio can’t have underwriting with action steps but it can have pledge drives that tells listeners to call a telephone number up to 40 times an hour.  Maybe it’s a little loophole in the law – a gift from Congress who realized it’s hard to get people to part with their money without a little direct cajoling.

Perhaps the letter of the law is distinctive.  But for the ordinary listener, it can certainly sound like a distinction without a difference.

P.S.

After I posted this blogpost, I had the idea to title it, “Tomayto, Tomahto”, but it was too late.

Written by Interviewer

February 16, 2016 at 12:53

Fund Drive Blues

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Pie Chart

I volunteered this weekend at Oregon Public Broadcasting.  I was one of the people you would talk to if you called to make a pledge for radio.  I also volunteer at KBOO in Portland, a community radio station that isn’t public radio, but is listener funded like public radio.

I just learned that KBOO ended its drive but did not hit its fund drive goal of $85,000.  The drive began on or about February 2 and was scheduled to go for two weeks. When I checked drive progress last night, KBOO was at about $47,000.  KBOO has had problems in the past hitting its goal and it has led to ocassional speculation that the station has financial problems.

But OPB’s fund drive began on February 5.  I volunteered for the current drive three separate times; on the first day, somewhere in the middle and at the scheduled end of the drive, which was supposed to be Saturday, February 14h.  OPB’s goal was around $600,000 but as of 5 p.m. Saturday, it had only raised about 2/3s of that amount.

Both stations are careful however about how they express that shortfall.  OPB stock phrase is “We’re not quite done yet”, while on KBOO’s site, there is a banner that reads, “We came up a bit short of our goal, so please donate online if you can”.  And if you listen closely, you can hear them blaming themselves even though the fact that people didn’t give enough money isn’t their fault.

People take the programming even though they hate fund drives.  And although stations emphasize all of the people that like them, love them or want more of them, these numbers say people either don’t have the money, or for some reason, don’t want to part with it.  And it certainly isn’t because they don’t know the goals or the deadlines or the phone numbers.  What that tells me is that the fund drive model isn’t working and we need to be doing something different.  Even if the intent is to support excellent programming, pitchers often say they don’t like holding programs hostage and listeners don’t like being extorted.

From what I understand, fund drive goals are set through a combination of what the stations need and what they were able to get at the last fund drive.  Although, as I said earlier, KBOO ended its drive, OPB will grind on until it hits its goal, if it hits its goal.  But neither case is cause for celebration because as pitchers often say, the money stations ask for during a particular hour pays the cost the station pays the producer of that particular program.  And if they don’t come up with enough money, they can’t pay for the program next time, which often means programming changes listeners don’t like.  For both outlets, KBOO and OPB to be so far off from such a carefully calculated goal speaks volumes to the alchemy of both misses.

And it affects every operation, including news which is where my interest most lies.  Less money can mean less reporting, less conversations, less exposure of what needs to be seen and heard.  Although a boon for the shady, it’s frustrating for staff and listeners.

It’s a lousy system all around.  It’s got to go.  But the problem is what to replace it with?

*UPDATE: OPB ended its drive at 6 p.m. on February 17th.  It was $33,000 short.  It probably could’ve hit that goal if the drive had lasted one more day since it seemed to be raising about $40K per day.  But because Governor Kitzhaber resigns tomorrow, I am guessing they probably didn’t want to risk fundraising competing with such an important and historical news event.

Written by Interviewer

February 17, 2015 at 02:20

The Thin Black Line

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Thin Black Line

Today, I did a story about protestors marching on a library at Portland State University.  They were representing the “Don’t Shoot” PDX movement (PDX is the nickname Portlanders use for themselves in many cases.  PDX is the designation the FAA gives Portland’s international airport).  While capturing natural sound of the protestors, now inside the library, talking about why they were part of the march, one young white student named Ryan Miller said he is marching because he is afraid that eventually, the police will treat him in the same way as some say they have already unjustly treated people of color.

It was one of those moments of pure honesty that people say they seek, yet are still hard to hear.  As a journalist, for me it was pure gold.  And as a storyteller, I assembled the story and sent it off for airing.  But for a moment, I almost slipped into what I consider to be a bad place journalistically.

Listening to Ryan talk about his fears of being targeted by the police, it was clear to me that he was afraid that the privileged status of being white might one day not be enough to protect even him from police abuse.  And that reminded me of the poem, “First They Came” by 20th century pastor Martin Niemoller.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

According to Wikipedia, “Niemöller was an anti-communist and supported Adolf Hitler’s rise to power at first. But when Hitler insisted on the supremacy of the state over religion, Niemöller became disillusioned. His poem, is well-known, frequently quoted, and is a popular model for describing the dangers of political apathy.”  The labels may be different as they apply to Niemoller’s day, but the context seems sadly timeless.

Listening to Ryan, I had the brilliant idea of using Niemoller’s poem in the story.  And I did.  But it suddenly hit me that the poem would be equating the Portland Police to Nazis.  And although there may be many people who feel that way, I realized it is not my job to editorialize.  So I undid what I did and then I sent it for air.

The police often talk about how they represent a thin blue line that officers say is the barrier between ordered society and chaos.  I think it’s also the line cops try to not cross, lest they become the thing they say they are fighting against.  I think in journalism, there is a thin black line, which might symbolically represent the ink.  This side is as credible and balanced as is humanly possible according to the highest and best ethical standards.  And that side is soapboxing, muck-racking, yellow journalism and all of the worst aspects of the quill.  Sometimes, as we’ve seen in the change of fortunes from Dan Rather to Peter Jennings, the self-serving slide from one side to the other can be almost imperceptible.

I don’t like what’s been happening across the country for my own reasons.  But I don’t think it’s my job to turn my stories into weapons.  By contrast, the listeners will hear them, judge me, my story, the events I describe and make their own decisions.  That is how it should be.

Meeting Goals, Being Real

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Public Radio

A lot of public and community radio stations are in the middle of fund drives right now.  And what I don’t understand is why people don’t support them.  They take the content, but they don’t give anything back.  If these stations could afford to be altruistic, they could afford to bake and leave apple pies on the windowsill for people to take and eat and not bother to say thanks for.  But they have bills to pay.  One station in particular spends $2,000/day just to keep the lights on and pay the teeny weeny staff.

So when people whine about how pledge drives bug them, I want to produce spots that are sort of equivalent to the images on cigarette packages; in other words, very rude.  Because these folks already know the issue.  They’ve known them for years.  So the issue isn’t education anymore.  It’s, in a way, saving them from their inattentive selves.  I want to make commercials that shock and infuriate but grab them by the throat and say something like, “Remember that relationship you had that you screwed up and now everyday, you cry about what you lost?  Don’t do that again here, now.”

It sort of reminds me of how people wail and beat their chests when a local bookstore goes out of business but only as long as it takes them to turn on their IPAD and order books from Amazon.  Spare me the show.  If you care and you’re willing to work, then do.  If you don’t but want people to think you do, … ewwwww.

Written by Interviewer

October 20, 2012 at 02:15