By Sue Schardt , SchardtMEDIA
September 1998

“The aim of this essay was to talk about different kinds of spaces predicated on the ability of the viewer to combine different realms of perception. – The Space Between Things by Michael Tarantino

My father was a radioman. Some time around 1973, he decided to buy a new car. For weeks, I tried hard to make a case for paying the extra cash to have the FM band added to the car radio. No dice. He was an AM band die-hard. Eventually, I did win out, of course; the FM band was added to our next car, 4 years later, with no pomp and little circumstance. I can trace my interest in the relationship between commercial and non-commercial at least as far back as this disagreement with my father over the radio.

When The Christian Science Publishing Society shut down Monitor Radio on June 27, 1997 after 13 years of serving public radio stations and their listeners, I was one of several radio staffers kept on to explore “new, self-sustaining broadcast opportunities.” This 9-month assignment afforded me, among other things, a wonderful chance to develop a new vision of the radio news listener, and to explore the larger media environment.

One of my guiding principles came from my college economics professor, Dr. Jim Wightman: everything happens in the margin. In other words, the margin is where you can observe people who’ve split from the pack, who are exercising choice by leaving where they were and moving in a new direction. We see them at the point between “here” and “there” It is an excellent place to study why people are making a particular choice, and also the place to see signs of new trends, when people’s choices begin to align in any significant way.

In developing a new model for radio news programming, I considered the radio listener “in the margin.” I studied crossover data and had many conversations with colleagues, friends, and strangers about their media habits, experimenting with a variety of ideas that might draw a listener to places other than public radio. The final product, which we piloted, was an hour-long, week-day radio news magazine that borrowed from a variety of media: the intelligence and thoughtfulness of public radio, commercial radio’s directness, and television’s spontaneity,to name a few. While the Monitor has no plans to implement it, I believe we succeeded in forging a new sound — a new approach — to radio news.

This essay touches upon some of the thinking that went into my Monitor assignment. While my work at the Monitor was focused on news programming, the ideas may also speak to non-news formats.

The Listener

Public radio’s understanding of its core listener has been extremely influential in shaping formats in recent years and increasing revenues to the system. While much has been determined about the bilateral relationship between these most loyal and giving listeners relative to their respective public radio stations, most people who listen to radio have an active, multilateral, relationship with their dial, tuning to an average of 4.1 radio stations every week, sometimes including public radio. Radio listeners spend an average of 16 hours and 47 minutes a week listening to their first choice station, and 5 hours and 41 minutes listening to their second choice station. On average, most radio stations receive 16.65% of their cumulative listening from the listener’s second choice on the radio dial.

Imagine a stream of people that flows back and forth between public and commercial radio. According to data from the Radio Research Commission (RRC) commissioned by the Monitor, the strongest flow is from public radio news to commercial classical stations. There is also a strong flow between public and commercial news, and it appears that public radio listeners find more reason to turn to commercial radio than commercial listeners to public radio. Slightly more than20% of the public radio news audience flows to commercial news vs. 7.8%of the commercial news audience that flows back to public radio news. One major public radio news station shares 24% of its audience with its commercial counterpart. Those particular listeners spend 5.2 hours each week tuned to the local commercial news stations vs 6.86 hours tuned to public radio. The commercial talk station in town holds strong appeal for this group of public radio listeners, attracting 13% of them for 7.6 hours each week — more time than they spend with the public radio news station.

Take hypothetical public radio listener Joan Smith and drop her into this listening context. Joan gets into her car each morning about 7:30 am to make the 30-minute trek into Anyville where she works half time as a staff psychologist at City Hospital. Joan’s dial is set to public radio, and she first tunes in to NPR’s bottom-of-the-hour newscast. Next comes a long report on Morning Edition, and at :43, Joan pushes her pre-set button to AM 1100 to catch the traffic report which airs every 10 minutes “on the 3’s,” a weather report, and a dose of local news. After work, she stops off at the Super Stop and Shop and hears “WLIT, Adult Soft Favorites” as she strolls the aisle. After dinner, it’s back in the car to aerobics with commercial radio’s call-in program “Two Chicks Dishin’.” Beyond radio, Joan likes network television’s morning line-up on her off-days from work — Rosie O’Donnell and “The View” are her favorites, and there’s CNN on cable, which she’ll turn to if there is a big news event.

The Listener as Programmer

We can easily theorize that, like Joan, many news listeners are custom blending their radio, mixing public radio’s depth, analysis, and a view beyond their borders, with the commercial AM’s quick-hit of the news-from-your-back-yard, as well as information that will get them to work on time and let them know if they should take an umbrella along at lunchtime.

Once we understand that radio is about choice, and accept the premise that most listeners are moving targets, a good first step in innovating sound is to spend time listening to radio programs outside the mainstream of public radio — behaving like most listeners do. This includes not only commercial radio, but also college and community radio, if we’re fortunate enough to have those choices available to us.

Adventures in Sound

At its inception, public radio was an innovative and daring experiment. In its 25-year history, it has revolutionized the medium of radio in the United States. Most would agree that public radio has reached a point of maturity, and much of its spirit and sound is based on enormously successful formulas and techniques that were invented at the inception of NPR news. These prescriptions work, otherwise they wouldn’t have remained popular or enduring. But let’s consider some them with an ear towards innovation.

“Liveness” and spontaneity. When is live not live? On public radio. With few notable exceptions — mostly talk shows — public radio’s national news programming is pre-taped in whole or in large part. Pieces are canned, interviews are heavily edited, and two-ways with reporters are often pre-scripted to sound unrehearsed even though they’re perfect for live give and take. As a result, the program loses the hard-to-duplicate energy of a live exchange between host and guest who both know they’ve got two minutes left to talk until the next break, no more — no less.

Genuine spontaneity is a powerfully effective advantage of real-time radio. Such a moment communicates a sense of “we are here, sharing this moment, this place, together.” It is unifying, and helps builds the campfire around which all are gathered. Radio formats and programming must have flexibility to allow for unplanned moments.

If spontaneity calls for flexibility, it means occasionally letting go of the notion that you have to control the listeners’ experience; It means taking a risk once in awhile on the air. Listeners are pretty tough. They can take it. And if they can’t, well, you can do always try it another way next time.

A successful, live broadcast requires a unique and talented host. She must communicating authority and objectivity. She must be an engaging storyteller, and be very clear about her role at the microphone. Such a talent must be able to think on her feet, and have the confidence to speak without a script — or with a simple outline — without losing her objectivity. Some of the best in the business are hard pressed when it’s just them and a live microphone alone in the booth.

Story telling. You know who you are. You wake up in a conference hotel room. The room is dark. You’re alone. You don’t know where you are and you reach over and turn on the radio… ah… Morning Edition. You listen eagerly for an accent, a name… anything that would help you remember where you are… It’s fruitless. The local announcer sounds just like the one back home, whether Boise or New Orleans or Minneapolis. It’s that public radio “sound” — the smooth homogenous voice, consistent inflection, and steady delivery. You know it. I’m sure you could probably do it yourself right now if you had to.

Yet, radio is the greatest medium of all for animating words and images; bringing them to life. We occasionally hear this dynamic range of sound and color on public radio in prescribed places — commentaries or weekly listener comments, for example. These are wonderfully effective vehicles for experimentation.

Some of public radio’s most exciting work is being done by independent documentary producers who break the public radio mold of — sound effects… fade… reporter… tape… reporter…tape… report — experimenting with news ways tell a story. David Isay and Joe Richman hand their microphones to the subject… let them talk directly to us. Karen Michel, too, is skillful with mics, placing them around a table of 8 women, allowing us to eavesdrop on 30 minutes of intimate dinner conversation. There was the late, great “WildRoom” on WBEZ — “This American Life” was a twinkle in its eye — with Gary Covino and Ira Glass, which featured wonderful experimentation in the art of live, electronic, storytelling.

Content is King

Public radio managers pay attention to program content these days, though at a distance. They worry about new media that will compete with their music and news formats, and they work to refine consistent formats that “super-serve” the core listeners who help to pay the bills.

But they’re like the grocer who, when he hears that his customers want more vegetables, makes sure they can consistently find eight aisles of veggies, though the cans all have pale green labels, and the creamed corn tastes strangely like the asparagus. Consistent format doesn’t guarantee quality content.

Public Radio has always been “king of content.” Its non-marketplace funding sources have made it a safe haven where distinctive ideas and sounds have flourished for 25 years. Change comes from the outside. Given our larger context, the opportunity for innovation has never been greater. It’s time to look beyo d convention and innovate new sounds. Ask questions. Experiment along the boundaries between public radio and other media. Look and listen to the margin.

Author’s note: While this article deals specifically with the margin between public radio and commercial radio, the thinking also applies to the relationship between public radio and other new and emerging media.

Originally published in “Current,” Public Broadcasting’s trade publication, on 9/14/98 and titled “There’s growth and freshness at the margins of our audience.”