Wednesday, July 18, 2007

A New Hope

Well, I'm back from the Public Radio Development and Marketing Conference, and in a different frame of mind than when I left. Yes, I did run into the Dunning-Krueger Syndrome on occasion, but not as frequently as I imagined.

While there were many nuts-and-bolts sessions about the technique of fund-raising, the overarching theme of the conference was how to move with the audience.

Now it may seem like a simple thing, but compared to commercial radio's reaction to change, it's a very big deal. Commercial radio's answer to the shift to MP3 players was the introduction of the Jack/Bob/Single syllable man's name format. No DJ's and a mix of music that was supposed to simulate shuffle play on an iPod -- if your iPod only had the top 40 tunes from two or three different radio formats, that is.

Commercial radio answer to satellite radio was their version of HD Radio, which I've discussed elsewhere.

In neither instance did content enter into the equation. It's the same old bland focus-group-tested tunes, just slightly repackaged.

At the PRDMC it was an entirely different story. The emphasis was not just on the different media people now use, but how to not just repackage but to create new content for the appropriate media.

People listening to iPods? Supply more downloadable clips and podcasts.

People using the Internet more than the radio? Expand the website with content that's user-friendly and not just recycled from what's on-air.

People subscribing to satellite radio? Be there with exclusive content they can't get anywhere else.

Cellphone feeds, expanded RDS -- they're even testing new services to take advantage of the digital broadcast capabilities of HD Radio. Yep, it may be moribund for commercial radio (who wants to hear a 10-minute commercial block in pure digital sound?), but public radio is looking at text-based services and new programming channels that make HD Radio a valuable addition to the public's media options.

So what's the difference? Simply this. Public broadcasters believe they're providing an important service. Whether its news, entertainment or music, their main concern is the quality of their programming, and how to best serve their audience however they listen.

Change is difficult -- but on the whole, public broadcasters aren't shirking the challange. So while commercial radio blathers on about the "stations between the stations," pubcasters are evolving along with their audiences.

I'm looking forward to what's going to happen next down at the lower end of the dial.

- Ralph


  1. What efforts do you know of local public broadcasters to develop local programming? They are not currently doing much of anything online. The Charlottesville Podcasting Network would like very much to help out with this sort of thing.

  2. Excellent question, Sean. The message is clear -- what keeps radio relevant is local content. And it's an area both commercial and non-commercial stations are weak in.

    There's always the possibility of being a stringer for the local public radio stations (I'm thinking here of WVTF) that do produce their own news stories.

    Probably the most effective way to contribute is to work with a station to develop a short series, similar to WVTF's "Civil War Journal." Something that's about two minutes in length and fully produced should have a greater chance of getting airplay than just another idea for an already overworked staff to try to pull off. And if you already have a underwriter to pay for everything, so much the better!

    - Ralph

  3. I've been filing stories for WVTF since 1995, and they do have plans to hire a full-time person for this market. But, that doesn't necessarily mean the content will be any good, or will actually serve the public. Rather, what public is served?

    I will say, the most local radio station is WINA, with local news on the hour, and more than four hours of local talk programming each day. They have responded to shifts in the market, and I see their reporters out and about all of the time at every meeting. With a signal targeted at one community, they're able to be truly local. Public stations WVTF and WNRN can no longer be considered local, as they serve multiple cities and can not actually cover any of them effectively.

    Now, this could be done online, but online doesn't yet attract enough listeners to make it worthwhile, especially a small market like ours.

  4. You've made a good point -- and it was one made at the conference as well. While WVTF might not be local from a broadcast perspective (since their coverage area stretches from North Carolina through Central Virginia), they CAN offer that locality online.

    And that was the message. Stations who only think of themselves as radio stations will become obsolete. 21st Century stations need to post more online content that can be aggregated and customized by the audience.

    In theory, a WINA or a WVTF could offer all kinds of local content that could be pulled into someone's customized homepage or news collector.

    Cross-platform aggregatos are becoming more common, pulling in RSS audio feeds, text, video and search items. It may not be apparent, but the ability to collect localized content is growing -- which should stimulate demand.

  5. Right now, you can get listen to commercial-free podcasts of at least one of WINA's shows on the Charlottesville Podcasting Network. WNRN podcasts the Sunday Morning WakeUp Call. Charlottesville Tomorrow posts full-length audio and features from City Council and the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors. I'm working with someone else from WTJU to put their podcast up on my site. I work with Live Arts to produce in-depth interviews with the director of each of their plays. With Leadership Charlottesville, I produced a series of podcasts on poverty.

    Notice what entities are not present. WMRA and WVTF are barely experimenting with online content, and are certainly not using it to put up new content.

  6. Great conversation, by the way! I didn't mean to sound like I was bragging, but just wanted to show that you don't have to have a transmitter to create content. The question is, how can you pay for the talent, and how can you build the audience?

  7. Excellent question -- and its one podcasters continue to wrestle with. I've seen all kinds of solutions -- prerecorded spots at the beginnning and/or end of programs, copy woven into the content, hyperlinks on enhanced feeds, banner ads on podcast home pages. There is a way to support this, and I think it will evolve as the advertisers and content providers work together as partners, rather than the podcaster being just another one-size-fits-all media outlet for an ad agency.

  8. I saw in Bloglines you have a more detailed response, but I can't seem to find the post online to comment to it. What happened?

    My original point was that local public broadcasters have more or less ignored the web as a distribution strategy, for whatever reason. I created my site in early 2005 as a way to begin bridging the gap, and as a way of re-purposing content I was selling to local public broadcasters (WVTF and WCVE mostly) and expanding it for an online, dedicated audience. They weren't doing it, so I did.

    Are you interested in having an in-person conversation about this?

  9. One thing, too. I commend WVTF for finally updating their website to present their audio content in a more compelling manner.