As public radio stations across the country attempt to navigate the brave new world of emerging media platforms there has been a new fervor to return to radio’s roots when radio was “live and local.” Public radio in the U.S. has been built on a foundation of localism. Stations have always been locally (or regionally) owned and operated, and have worked hard to be more than just repeaters of nationally syndicated programming. Creating local content unique to individual communities has always been an essential element of public radio’s mission.
But, over the years, as budgets have been squeezed and the public radio audience began gravitating away from music-based content toward news, information and entertainment, many stations became satisfied airing national programs and punted on local content since it’s more expensive to produce and takes a great deal of vision, talent and effort to create. Ironically, this shift resulted in two decades of impressive audience expansion and financial growth within the public radio system at a time when other parts of the radio industry struggled.
But now, as digital platforms enable people to listen to numerous NPR stations, there is an emerging recognition that local stations must recommit to local content, both to engage citizens about their local communities as a matter of civic responsibility and as a business imperative. As we look ahead, I believe every successful station will need to balance high quality national programming with inspired local content or be replaced in listeners’ hearts by digital alternatives.
It’s easy to say but much harder to do. That’s because public radio listeners tell us that they generally don’t value local programming over national content simply because it’s local. It just needs to be good. It needs to fulfill their desire for depth, context, perspective and creativity. In short, it needs to have the same quality and production values as a national program, on a budget at least 10 times smaller than any national network.
There is no formula for achieving this result. But, I do know that any station that aspires to flourish in this new media environment must have four things:
• A talented, motivated staff committed to building community and working together as a team.
• A bravery, beyond reason, to embrace change.
• A willingness, no a genuine passion, for learning new things.
• A community of listeners that truly believes in the power of the human intellect and creative spirit.
I am extremely bullish on JPR’s future. Our staff is comprised of a special group of talented individuals who could work at virtually any big market operation. We are gradually becoming more nimble and, dare I say, excited working in new ways. And, our regional community of listeners is one of the most generous audiences in the country, stepping up time and time again to support our work. We look forward to serving you in the months ahead and getting your feedback about what you hear on the radio and experience at ijpr.org.