By Bill Siemering, Contributing Editor
We look at maps to see relationships: distances that separate and options for getting to our destination. One assumption of this study is that understanding the relationship between Independent Producers and Acquirers will enrich public radio. As in any exploration, we make discoveries. This takes us to a core question: how do we define public radio in 2004? How we answer that determines whether or not we have the same destination.
The Key Findings in Mapping Public Radio’s Landscape are an important first step to answering this question. I’m reminded of a map I bought before traveling to Mongolia, where there are few paved roads and you often travel the countryside following tracks. The map had this disclaimer: “Road/track information is unreliable. Does Hasagt really exist without some sort of track to it? If so where? Do the roads/tracks shown on this map really end where our available research indicate? … Please regard this map as a provisional map.”
Likewise, while this study is an excellent way of understanding the landscape, it is only a first step and to some degree provisional.
Because of world events and the decline of commercial broadcast journalism (1), public radio has evolved into “a competitive news source for influential listeners.” The Acquirers who respond to this survey, who are mostly station program directors, but include a healthy contingent of network staffers,are most interested in acquiring commentaries and news pieces, and the Realists producers aresuccessful in supplying this need.
At the same time, both the Independent Producers and Acquirers agree that the producers make a valuable contribution to public radio. However, according to the content analysis, only two-percent of the programming is from individual Independent Producers. And much of this is in the form of commentaries and essays, not evocative, sound-rich pieces.
The PRPD Core Values characteristics include “curiosity, idealism, and a uniquely human voice; conversational, authentic and intimate; attention to detail, music, sound elements, language.” They are the result of extensive audience research and describe the ideals that listeners value most in public radio programming, whether from Independent Producers, local stations or the networks.
Research is what has also driven the evolution of public radio into a primary news source. When considering PRPD’s descriptions of the craft in the context of what we’ve learned in this study about the effect public radio’s news success has had on limiting demand and air space for more adventuresome uses of the medium, I wonder if we’ve arrived at different destinations.
The differences between Acquirers and Producers uncovered in this study regarding the use of Arbitron and focus groups are understandable. While producers can benefit from some research, some of it is irrelevant to how they work or their objectives and assumptions. New Yorker editor David Remnick said, “I have never been to a focus group. I’m not interested. It’s not because I don’t care about readers but because I do. The New Yorker reader does not want to be anticipated or pandered to. Our reader wants to be surprised or thrilled. Thrilled never comes out of a focus group.” In other words, research can be valuable, but it is very difficult to calculate to what degree research does, or should, influence the creative process.
Over the years, both when I was Executive Producer at Soundprint and as a listener, I’ve regarded the pieces from independent producers as:
- Reflecting the diversity of place, viewpoint and ethnicity that is America.
- Taking listeners to neighborhoods they may only glimpse from the expressway, or to a town they recognize only as a name on an exit sign on the Interstate.
- As a source of innovative audio techniques.
- A way of bringing new talent to the system.
- Enhancing the news magazines with features that breathe, and that engage the listeners’ imagination.
In this research, the Acquirers seem to see the value of Producers’ in a more limited light.
With the ascendancy of satellite radio and the increasing use of the Internet for information and music, it’s important for us to define the unique role for public radio now while continuing to serve our core audience. So we ask, what is important? Is it still important to reflect diversity? To celebrate the human experience? To capitalize on the strengths of radio as a sound medium? To be a creator and curator of culture? To inspire young people to the medium through innovative examples? As the research in this study shows, there are at least three different mindsets (Addendum B [PDF]) at work here whose visions vary.
To me, the most disturbing finding is the little use of the work of Independent Producers, given the value they have added to public radio in the past. In addition to projects such as “Hearing Voices” and “Worlds of Difference” that are working to use independently produced programming in new ways, the Public Radio Exchange (PRX) is working to connect with station program directors who are interested in creating a distinctive sound by drawing upon Independent Producers. PRX facilitates the relationship between producers and acquirers by finding available productions reviewed and rated. In turn, the process encourages a higher level of craft. And transom.org on the Web is another place for producers to present their work and encourage each other.
I don’t like to see anyone impose limits on what radio can do. This is my bias after working in other places where the medium of radio is often the most important. In developing countries, for example, I’ve seen radio create a Commons by giving voice to people and helping them to solve their problems. I’ve seen how soap operas create a model for Tutsis and Hutus to live together in peace in Burundi and at the same time be the most popular program. In South Africa I’ve seen violent disputes settled on-air, and life saving information offered by health workers, where public officials are held accountable.
Radio can literally save lives by providing accurate information and by teaching conflict resolution and peace making. At the same time it still inspires listeners to sing and dance to the music. So I see radio with a new sense of purpose.
Most importantly, public radio needs to define itself in relation to the challenges to our older democracy, which has one of the widest gaps between what the people want and what the government does. People are hungry for community connections that transcend those things that divide us.
Retuning to this “mapping”, and the differences within our small community of public radio, informed about our differences, let’s focus on our common goals. This paper, this study, is but a first step. Using this information, the stakeholders need to come together to define ourselves and see how each contributes to the whole.
Let’s continue drawing the map so we can travel together once we agree on our destination.
1) Based upon “The State of the New Media 2004 Annual Report on American Journalism” by the Project for Excellence in Journalism (journalism.org). Some key findings: 61% of national television and radio journalists say that the state of journalism is moving in the wrong direction. 51% are concerned about the quality of journalism. 78% say too little attention is given to complex issues. In the last seven year, newsroom staffing dropped by 57%-44% fulltime and 71% part-time. Decline of journalism is also documented in “The News about the News” American Journalism in Peril” by Leonard Downie and Robert Kaiser, both editors at the Washington Post.