In a recent conversation with a JPR staff member I found myself in an interesting and spirited discussion about the difference between public radio and what he referred to as “corporate” radio. As I listened, I found myself struggling with the very concept of “corporate” anything. It seems to me that a corporation is a legal structure, not a qualitative standard. I generally accept the principle that there are effective corporations and ineffective corporations, just like there are effective non-profits and ineffective non-profits. I know the essence of what people mean when they refer to a “corporate” radio station is one owned by a distant media conglomerate, which also owns fistfuls of other stations, programmed uniformly most often disconnected from the distinctions of their local community and operated with the singular goal of turning the biggest profit for its owners. “Corporate” ownership groups tend to follow audience trends and ratings data as the Holy Grail and routinely switch formats to respond to emerging audience preferences in their quest for maximum profitability. Over the years, when JPR’s harshest critics are angry with us for not programming or doing something they want, they sometimes charge us as being “as bad as corporate radio” – an insult that I must confess smarts a bit.
Public radio stations are generally operated by non-profits with the goal of fulfilling a mission that is beneficial to society. But sometimes, just as “corporate” stations can become one dimensional seeking profit, public stations pursue mission with a zeal that becomes a tightly defined crusade funded by a narrow constituent base and interest groups. When public stations fall into this category, they completely ignore their responsibility to serve a significant audience as a reasonable measure of their relevance. At JPR, we try to carefully balance our commitment to mission with an understanding that we must look outward and work to serve a growing audience that is not static but continues to evolve in what they want and need from us. For us, fulfilling mission and growing our audience go hand-in-hand and are not mutually exclusive. It’s difficult work sometimes – knowing the difference between staying true to our values and not stubbornly being stuck in the past, understanding that we must always adapt and be open to change while not following fleeting fads.
The media landscape is a challenging environment filled with emerging new technologies, fickle consumer programming tastes and unavoidable, complex (and sometimes downright bizarre) music industry partnership relationships. In general, media organizations tend to be populated more by followers than leaders. At the end of the day, I take solace in knowing that our staff is firmly rooted in the communities we serve, we program from the region as well as to the region, our governance structure and relationships with civic leaders offer timely and meaningful feedback and we can count on our listeners and members to always keep us honest.