Posts Tagged ‘Public Radio’
In the course of writing my book about the public radio pledge drive, it has happened twice so far. Twice, I have found discrepancies in secondary sources. Reporters love doing that. And when I notified the purveyors of that information, they acknowledged their errors and fixed them.
I’m just plodding along here. For me, this process isn’t fancy or technical. Rather, it’s more like connecting cars in a toy train set. But it feels nice to know that not only am I paying attention, but I am correctly interpreting what I find.
As I read up on the innards of public radio while working on my book about the public radio pledge drive, I’ve found something interesting. It has been said that it’s important that public radio continue to focus on the audience it has; a 25% or so slice of the total listening audience (described as Innovators and Thinkers) while pursuing other segments of the audience not based on their skin color but on their interests and values. That assumes the audience members in that sought after segment make no connection between the color of their own skin and their interests and values.
It reminds me of why non-traditional casting, as a rule, doesn’t work in the theater community. I sat on the board of an African-American theater non-profit for a year and a half. Audiences are comfortable seeing black actors playing in productions like “Porgy and Bess”, “Ain’t Misbehavin”, “Jitney” and a number of other productions written with the black experience in mind. They are OK with the ocassional, high star power substitution.
But a black actor in a traditionally white role is a very uncomfortable experience for many non-black audience members. This 1998 NYT Letter to the Editor makes that argument. Nearly 15 years later, no less than the director of the London’s Stratford Shakespere Festival is still defending its validity. Not much has changed.
To me, it’s an example of how even if the story is a human story, skin color is the lens that determines who sits in the audience to see it. So making the assumption that doesn’t also work in the other direction, i.e., non-whites will consume public radio on the assumption they themselves don’t view culture through the lens of their own skin color, that is incorrect no matter what any data set says.
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?
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.
The only thing I like better than writing is building databases. You would think those would be reversed considering writing is thought to be more of an artistic endeavor. Creating spreadsheets, by contrast, is head down, butt in the seat, grunt work though, as someone who writes, I know writing can be its own kind of torture.
But there is something about the researching; the lining things up, the sorting, the cross-tabulating that I find fascinating such that the days or weeks or months it takes me to compile that data is as much the reward as the surprises the data reveal. You would think filling rows and columns would be laborious and tedious and mind numbing.
Each piece of data helps build a picture that I anticipate like a kid’s first time visit to Disneyland. I’ve always been like this. I know I have to do this digging and shoveling, sifting and stacking. But I also know that when I hit “Tabulate”, pictures in each cell start to move like pages in a flipbook and that is thrilling to me.
As I work on this book, I am digging as deeply as I have ever dug and I know what I’ve done so far hasn’t gone nearly deep enough. I can be OCD like that. But when the researcher is satisfied that he has found every article, report, study, white paper, message board or blogpost, he will hand it all off the the writer who trusts every ladder rung has been stress tested.
The writer will take that roiling vat of information and move to Step 2 of the process; corroboration; turning facts and assumptions into thoughtful and intelligent questions that people in the know can confirm (or refute). Questions that I hope show the people I’m asking that I have done my homework. Because nothing annoys professionals more than amateurs who waste their time. These are busy people and my subject – money and how public radio stations get it – is at the heart of what each of them do everyday. The writer will then take everything and exhaust pens, pencils and toner cartridges on reams and reams of paper.
My editor will first pat me on the head and tell me it’s clear that I’ve been thinking hard about this, but then fill the other side of the page with notes. My graphic artist friend will tell me my ideas for artwork are good places to start. My programming friend will make me stare at numbers I’ve already stared at for months and make me make them make more sense.
And I will (for the most part) listen to these people because they are smart.
I hope the interviews I get, supported by the rows and columns I’m filling now, help me create something new and helpful to everyone who cares about public radio, listens to public radio and wants it to be the best it can be.
Time to make the donuts.
A programming genius I know is helping me crunch data that I’ve been collecting for this book I’m writing about the public radio pledge drive. The plan is that tranche A, after it’s washed and tumble dried, will be a template for tranche B; using one as a control for the other to find patterns that aren’t obvious.
I know a little about spreadsheets, and that’s how I gave my programmer friend the data I’d gathered. But they weren’t exactly in love with it. “You need to reformat this”, they said. “Otherwise, I need to write a whole language subset (whatever that means) before you can see this data the way you want to see it.” In other words, they didn’t like my spreadsheet.
I like to think I’m a smart person. I like to think I’ve been around enough to know a little about a lot, but that little bit I know is really good. Turns out, spreadsheets are high school level data collection to graduate level people writing programming in languages like Perl. So, here I am, reformatting my spreadsheet in a way that my programming friend’s program can better search it, parce it, slice and dice it.
And you know, their way is better.
There isn’t as much ambiguity. There’s much more consistency. And I’m finding mistakes, not in the original data, but how I notated it. It’s like when writers are taught to read their copy backwards as a way to catch mistakes because reading it forward makes it too easy to miss them. Rearranging my twenty columns into their three is a brutal exercise in utility. But it’s exactly the kind of brute force utilitarianism that a programming language needs to create elegant results.
“Kill your darlings” is what editors tell writers too in love with what they’re written.
I can tell you, programmers are even worse.
That’s the first thought that hit my brain when I saw the preliminary artwork for my book from the terrific graphic artist who created it. Ren (short for Karen) and I worked on the front and back cover for no more than a week after the phone cover art was finished. But we haggled for months over that cover art, which we both knew would have to be definitive and signature.
I wanted something boring. I just didn’t know it was boring. I knew I wanted a phone on the cover, since what better exemplifies a public radio pledge drive than a phone? But I wanted a generic, black, 1950ish version. And I wanted it on a white cover because I thought it would draw the viewers eye..
Ren liked the basic idea. “I can work with that”, she told me. But it was by no means a finished idea. For weeks, we went back and forth about design. She developed a version of the phone that was more stylized and interesting than what I was thinking. Big body, big dial, big handset. You hear pledge drive phones during pitch breaks because the ring is supposed to conjure up in your mind the icon of telephone – a thing that equals the noise it makes and the attention it garners. Think Peter Sellers as the US President in “Dr Strangelove” pleading with his Russian counterpart on a big clunky phone that the bomb heading his way isn’t intentional. It wouldn’t do to have Androids vibrating on tabletops as the sound that you’re supposed to associate with the dynamism of giving.
Likewise, Ren felt the image needed to draw on that association to power and formality but at the same time, not be that. So when she completed my black phone on a white cover, I was thrilled. She, not so much. “White covers are death”, she said. “But I love it” I whined, even as I felt I had already lost the argument.
I mumbled something about white space, but Ren pressed on. “I’m sending you a variation I’ve been playing with”, she said. “Keep an open mind”. Her variation was a halting fire engine red phone on a black background. I stared at it, not wanting to be that guy who couldn’t swallow ideas not his own. “Waddya think?”
I deferred. It was attention getting. Still, I clung to my boring black and white version. “Well, since we’re experimenting, can you give me some color combinations for the phone and the covers?” She did, handily, as if to say, “You know this design is the best one. Just admit it.”
And, she was right. The more I looked at it, the more it grabbed my attention. It made me think of urgency. It made me think of the pressure to reach a goal by a deadline. It made me think of disappointment and defeat if the goal is missed and the crime of the consequences that could follow. And it made me think of valiant efforts to not let that happen by public radio crusaders.
P.S. To learn more about the coming book, visit @pledgethebook & http://www.pledgethebook.com. To see more work from Karen Green, visit https://rengreen.wordpress.com/ and linkedin page? https://www.linkedin.com/in/karen-green-102579b9