The State of Radio – by John Barth

November 8th, 2010
Black and white photo of old radio

The State of Radio

We’ve all been there: the after-conference round of drinks where the bar conversation turns to the frustrations of public radio and what needs to be done to ‘fix it.’

Relax. A lot is happening that’s making public radio better.

Collaboration. Finally! More stations are working together. Whether it is the Local Journalism Centers, collaboration projects sparked by CPB or early efforts to include local bloggers, there IS movement.

New Platforms are a Given. There are fewer debates about whether ‘new media’ is worth it. Audience growth, technology, price and innovation are combining to make multiple platforms a smart investment for stations and indy producers.

Making it. A whole new generation is clamoring to create, if not for radio then for all platforms, and that means all sorts of media innovation are bursting forth. AIR (and PRX) are two powerful catalysts; this means more opportunities for stations to work with new talent, IF they embrace the new.

Audience is UP. Public radio’s audience is not dropping. If the numbers are accurate, it is curving upward.

Public radio is a BRAND. Now, it is usually synonymous with “NPR,” but that’s ok (generally). It is a brand with a lot of positive meaning and value if we can translate that to audiences and supportive constituents (the Juan Williams fallout , aside…).

But it isn’t all great. There are still reasons to have a strong drink:

Long Way to Go. Most stations are in no way prepared for the change that is now here: personal, ‘on-my-own-time’ listening. Listeners are their own program directors. The stations that are prepared got religion a few years ago and made the programming, talent and technical investments to become growth brands in their communities. Those stations that are trying to do it now are working in a recession to make those changes. The options are fewer, the choices harder. Collaboration is one way to catch up.

The Great Divide. Producers and stations, stations and indy producers are far from talking the same language. More needs to be done to bridge that gap and money should not be topic A. Start with what you have in common, what passions brought us all here.

Take More Chances. Stations, by and large, are still risk averse. There are best practices to better assure success. The PRPD conference sessions this year in Denver was a good place to start.

News but Much More. Head-on journalism alone is only one way to reach and hold audiences. Look at the programs that have buzz right now: Radiolab, State of the Re:Union, Snap Judgement, The Moth Radio Hour. Are they ‘news?’ No. The content universe for public radio is wide, wide open.

Break the Mold. Let’s play more with new forms of storytelling, production, roles for audiences, gaming, sound design, talent, hosting, and un-formats. New platforms and new audiences give us all a chance to re-think every single piece of public radio.

John Barth is the Managing Director of PRX, The Public Radio Exchange.


3 Comments on “The State of Radio – by John Barth”

  • Ginger Miles says:

    Hi John,
    Thanks for your article on the state of public radio (and I like that part — let’s not talk about money). Public radio was indeed the Great Oasis when I began, and many of us are still here! Still ‘breaking the mode,’ still telling stories.
    My biggest news/change is that I left New York City after 30 years and moved to Austin Texas, where it’s quite a literal oasis as far as indys are concerned.
    Don’t we all have that project that isn’t ‘quite finished’? Well, I’ve just re-started it, and hope I can keep my cheeks rosy doing what I love and what I MUST finish!
    Thanks for being out there John!
    Ginger Miles

  • Amanda says:

    Great snapshot, John. Not surprisingly, the emphasis on collaboration really resonates for me. It’s not efficient – in fact, it’s time intensive, especially at first – which is why, I think, more orgs aren’t doing it. But I agree with you that strategically, learning to partner and collaborate effectively is absolutely critical to a public media org’s long-term viability. “Start with what you have in common, what passions brought us all here” — great advice.

    As far as innovation… I think if collaborating isn’t part of your DNA, you should focus on that first before you start creating iPhone apps and the like…and/or, bake collaboration into your approach to more tech-focused innovation. In other words, collaboration can be a form of innovation, and it’s innovation that will pay strategic rewards, no question.

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