While the headlines about public radio’s staff layoffs create one perception, the efforts inside local NPR News stations remain focused on audience retention and growth.Numerous NPR News stations are 6+ market leaders in the latest May Nielsen ratings. A few examples: KQED San Francisco – #2, WAMU Washington, D.C. – #1, WBUR Boston – #4, KNOW Minneapolis – #6, KPBS San Diego – #2, KOPB Portland – #5, KUT Austin – #2, WUNC Raleigh – #5.

Paragon and Izzi Smith at Listen Again Tomorrow held a webinar (“What Now Conversations”) with NPR News managers and vested parties to hear how these and other stations are maintaining their core listenership. Some of the contributions included:

Rethink local talk –

Ethan Toven-Lindsey, VP News at KQED, stated, “It’s (harder) to have productive conversations about local news and concerns of the kind we see on these legacy radio call-in shows. With new tools, we believe we can bring many more people into the conversation. This is an opportune moment for public radio to experiment with new forms of digital engagement. The need to engage legacy radio audiences and new digital native audiences on digital platforms is both a mission and business imperative.”

The CEO of New Hampshire Public Radio, Jim Schachter, added, “The host of NHPR’s legacy morning talk show left the station.  It was replaced with a localized hour of Morning Edition.  Audiences have grown.”

Provide clear daily news direction –

Naomi Starobin, Managing Editor/Audio News at WAMU, laid out their strategy:

We have decided to focus heavily on broadcast, which means:

  • Reporters spend 80+% of their time on audio, the rest on digital
  • Fewer stories have a web buildout
  • Coming: daily show, podcasts
  • We have also, based on audience research, decided to focus on certain areas:
    • Politics (what are elected officials doing, how is my tax money being spent)
    • Culture
    • Things to do
    • Food
    • Maybe/sort of – stories that reflect pride in neighborhood/city/local culture

Increase awareness, usable content, and clear positioning –

KERA News Dallas PD Jeff Penfield suggested, “We really need to hone three things: finding ways to tell audiences we exist, making sure our content is presented in a way that fits our audiences’ habits, and clearly defining our service for the audience to know why we fit their lives. Shit is busy these days and unless it’s on my calendar I’m likely not going to pay it attention.”

Content differentiation and local voices –

The News Director at WYSO/Dayton, Samantha Sommer, opined, “We might win back the audience by focusing on the content that differentiates us from other legacy/commercial media, including continuing to focus on local news for stations. That includes making sure our coverage reflects the audience we’re trying to bring in and back. The more we put our listeners and digital audience in stories — that they hear and see themselves and their neighbors in our coverage — the more they will sample and hopefully stick around.”

Don’t try to serve everyone –

Chris Seper of Breaking Media said, “Why does public radio exist now, what do we TRULY do, what brief take-aways should be on every employee’s lips? If the top to bottom people who do the work can’t say what we do and why, it is very hard to make a case (to audiences). Don’t try to be all things to all people. We simply can’t.”

The basics matter most –

Izzi rightfully suggested that staying focused on basic programming principles is still paramount:

  • Active listening and airchecks – sweat the details.
  • Editorial choices – review story choices, balancing interesting with what’s useful. What’s happening right now?  News beyond the push alert.
  • Messaging – How to use the station, listen everyday/tomorrow, say hello.
  • Audience 1st culture –Who’s on the other side of the mic?

This was their conversation, not ours. Public radio is uniquely collaborative and transparent, so it was no surprise to see such an open conversation for the good of all NPR News stations.

What Now Conversation #2 was about how these stations are attracting new audiences, which will be the subject of another blog.

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