Intro from Jay Allison: Twice a year, the Transom Story Workshop class makes a pilgrimage from Woods Hole to Boston to see a Moth show, drop by WGBH, and hang out at PRX. A regular highlight of the PRX visit is listening to John Barth tell us where he feels the energy is flowing at that moment in public media, which stations are firing on all cylinders, where a new voice might be welcomed. It’s an edifying riff for all of us, and so we asked John to describe how he recognizes the pulse in the arteries of the system. Here is what he said.
Why Be Daring?
It’s possible to be a very successful public radio station and still play it safe. You might get big audiences. For now.
Why be daring at all? Because if your station is not taking chances you won’t be ready for the future. Worse, you won’t be able to attract, let alone keep, the talent (or the audience) you need to succeed. Your station won’t be seen as a leader and innovator. The next generation of supporters will back real risk-takers — that might be The New York Times or even Google, but will it be YOUR station?
I’ve worked at five stations. And, in the course of working for PRX, seen great things at stations and some truly terrible practices. I’ve been fortunate to visit all sorts of stations and wade into their cultures. Many station producers, reporters, Program Directors (PDs), General Managers (GMs) and development staffers have called me to share stories and ideas, hopes, nightmares, and dreams.
Every one of them wants to be daring.
Okay, 10 signs:
1. Who is leading?
Somebody at the station with vision has to step up. It doesn’t have to be the boss — the GM or PD. Usually it’s not. Not to get all Steve Jobs on you, but more than saying we have to be different . . . some people just do it. They make something daring after hours (check out the history of the Criminal podcast). Leaders act. They get in trouble. At one station where I worked during a fund drive, a donor contributed a motorcycle to hit a pledge goal; we hung a mic out the window to hear it revving. Next, someone offered a GOAT! You can imagine what we did, and we didn’t ask anyone’s permission.
2. ‘Break’ it.
The worst thing is staying wedded to a program schedule when events say we need to change. Stations that shake things up, set their own agenda, anticipate what listeners might like and talk about it — they dare to be different. Ruth Seymour at KCRW was the master of this; ask anyone who heard what she did during the first Gulf War. If a Catholic Church abuse scandal breaks in your town, what would you do beyond ‘coverage?’ In the midst of #MeToo and #WhyIDidntReport, what is your station doing to capture this moment…and return to it again and again? Make your own rules.
3. Be known for SOMETHING.
Daring stations are not pass-throughs of network shows. That might sound like blasphemy, but stay with me. If you carry a PRX show (or any network show) I expect you to DO SOMETHING with it. Create your own promos, push for the hosts as regular guests, ask to play some of the stories in other time slots, drive local discussion on the program topics — own what you air. Do you tell listeners what you believe in and what makes you special? Do you, gulp, even know what that is? WCAI/WNAN (Atlantic Public Media/Transom’s home station) is one such pioneer.
4. Own LOCAL.
More specifics: I am not talking about newscasts and a local talk show. That’s not enough. Aspire to something much greater. Do your reporters stay with a big story? If you have a station slogan, who owns that powerful framing and makes it real — all the time — on air, online and on-demand? No offense, but saying you are an NPR station just isn’t enough in an age of Alexa. Set a local agenda: be the MUST listen local source, if not for news then for music, or for a local sound, or for being the ONLY place to get a uniquely curated version of classical. Master your local domain. My public radio station, St. Louis Public Radio, owned the Ferguson story on every platform when that crisis happened. So did Minnesota Public Radio when Prince died.
5. Bet the farm.
Every single station I have been lucky enough to work at did something terrifying, almost every year. Risk, real risk, means the possibility of disaster is right in front of all your listeners. Nothing motivates a staff more than high stakes, no net and a firm belief that all the muscles will work as one. When I was at WHYY, TV and Radio collaborated on the live broadcast of an investigation into the MOVE tragedy. How long would that coverage last? No one knew. Did we have the staff? Only if every single TV and radio production person was committed to jump in. Had TV and radio ever worked together? Only at gunpoint. 😉 Big risk, big reward. That old canard about scaring yourself every day? It is true.
Radio, much like any other form of audio, is all about that human connection. TV is cool, but audio is warm. Allow your on-air people to have a personality, accents, style. Don’t put them through a blender so they all sound the same. Nurture their uniqueness. Dare to find out what you have in the mix. Listeners are attracted to DJs for a reason — it’s that voice, that set up, that special sound. I know one station where the PD thought what they put on the air was all about THE CONTENT. The talent IS the content. I bet you’ve witnessed listeners who come up to a reporter or a host (maybe you?) and say ‘I love hearing you on air!” Dare to connect. Brian Lehrer at WNYC has that oomph. So do Jim Braude and Margery Eagen at WGBH’s daily Boston Public Radio. And we know the remarkable NPR reporter Wade Goodwyn is in a class all his own.
7. Master live.
Radio’s power is not about packaging (sorry producers!). You want to be daring? Then find a way to sound amazing live. Every on-air person at your station should be trained (or able) to go live. Someday this will save your station’s life and the life of your community. Hurricane, tornado, a social crisis — dare to make your team uncomfortable by getting confident with a live mic and no script. One night I was producing a show and Rev. Jesse Jackson accidentally called the public radio station control room — he thought he was going live at a competing station. Thank goodness the very talented person behind the mic could go live and think on his feet for 5 minutes with Rev. Jackson. I’m looking at you Dave Davies. This is where radio wins.
8. Are we having fun?
You can hear a staff that is having a blast when given enough room to have fun. NHPR’s podcast unit, to call out one group, seems to be having a lot of fun (watch their award speech for the Outside In podcast!) If you work at a station where there are a lot of rules and fear and all that other junk, then get out. If I visit a station and the people are confident and laugh a lot, then that’s the magic formula for daring work. Al Letson is one of the best people I get to work with because he is having a hell of a lot of fun and creating daring journalism.
9. It is not brain surgery.
Radio is just radio. You will only kill it by not trying things. No one is going to die if you screw up — maybe a little embarrassment or frustration, but that’s it. Take a grown-up approach to figuring out what worked and what didn’t and then do it again. We talk about pivoting a lot at PRX; that means learning and adapting. What it’s not about is being gun shy. My first news director let me tell a difficult story as an audio play; we both acted it out! Straight reporting in that case really wouldn’t have gotten to the personalities behind the power. Say ‘yes’ and see what happens.
10. Find inspiration to be daring.
Don’t listen to the same old stuff. Pay attention to the names behind the daring work you hear — find those folks at conferences and ask them a million questions. Call strangers whose work you like. Do not waste your time with sheep. Spend time with the wolves.
I wish I could say most public radio stations were daring. Many of them measure success by numbers first, not their sound.
That’s changing as a new generation with fresh ears and measured impatience is flooding in. If you are a PD or a GM, make your last daring move the hiring of someone a bit scary, very different and skilled enough to make good stuff. The most daring thing my dad did was hand me the keys to the family car — yes, I dented it, cracked the windshield and drove like a demon. But he never asked for the keys back. Dare to hand someone the keys.
And then give us a hand helping others get ready to drive.
Help Transom get new work and voices to public radio by donating now.