Grow Your Own…Audience

How can public radio build on its success, better serve its current audience, and reach an even larger segment of the U.S. population? The Corporation for Public Broadcasting wants to know. So, they turned to Tom Thomas and Terry Clifford of the Station Resource Group, two of the big brains behind public radio, and asked them to lead the effort. They engaged a Public Radio Audience Growth Task Force, consulted with a veritable Who’s Who of Public Radio Influentials and published their findings last month in a report called “Public Radio in the New Network Age.” Have you read it?

I have to admit, in this era of 140-character tweets, RSS feeds and distracted web surfing, a 95-page report (even on a topic I care about) seems like a commitment bordering on marriage. Fortunately, they catered to the special needs of the attention deficient among us and produced a summary of recommendations that’s only 12 pages. If you care about the future of public radio, there’s no excuse not to read the whole thing.

I’d also recommend at least skimming the Proposals for Investments in New Media, which features a diversity of ideas and perspectives throughout the public radio system, including Sue Schardt, Executive Director of AIR. 

Public Radio in the New Network Age covers a range of issues including strengthening national programs, deepening local journalism, music service, commitment to innovation, multiplatform and web-native content.

To me, the most exciting piece of this report is the assertion that public radio should “triple the number of people of color in the average audience.” I whole-heartedly support this, in both spirit and sweat equity. We call ourselves public broadcasting not solely because the funding comes from taxpayers. “Public” is a badge of honor, an expression of identity and ideals. But public radio has long suffered from “an unbearable whiteness of being.” And the American public is increasingly non-white.

Public radio should reach and engage more Latino, African American, Asian American, Native American listeners. What the Grow the Audience Report doesn’t say clearly is just how we get there. I’m not sure anyone really has the definitive answer.

Certainly public radio isn’t as segregated as church on sunday morning. But it will take a serious strategy, an “affirmative action,” to achieve this critical goal. What can public radio learn from other media – or other institutions – that have had success diversifying participation and reflecting the changing demographics of the county? Perhaps the people we must consult on this issue are outside of the public radio system itself.

Join the conversation. Public Radio Program Directors (PRPD) is holding a Webinar tomorrow (Thursday February 25 at 2 pm ET) to review the report and launch a dialogue. It’s free and open to the entire public media community. Sign up here and now.