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Community Broadcaster: Plotting Public Radio’s Future

Public Radio Content Conference attendees look at ways to adapt to a changing media landscape

Ira Glass, Public Radio Content Conference 2016

The author is membership program director of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. NFCB commentaries are featured regularly at

The recent Public Radio Content Conference brought out the big names to Phoenix. The conversations were high level. Yet at the core of the discussions was a simple idea — radio’s success is truly about what the audience thinks.

As the signature event in major-market noncommercial media, the Public Radio Content Conference is the NAB Show for the Terry Gross set. It is a huge convention led by organizations and radio stations that are some of the biggest players in public radio. From PRX to NPR, WNYC on the East Coast to KPCC on the West Coast, it features names you probably know. Whether it is the BBC or a mid-size radio outlet, all are contending with a new terrain.

Many shifts in listening habits are happening, everyone in radio sees that. From their bones to their bottom lines, radio professionals know tastes are changing. Audiences want more choices, faster and on many more platforms than we ever imagined radio to live on. Radio may be the most ubiquitous medium in America, but it’s fighting for survival. For its part, commercial radio is scrambling to respond. Public, community and low-power FM radio institutions are no exception.

It is thus no mystery about why audience perception is so critical. As program directors and general managers debated the future, appealing to new ears and familiar ones was ongoing all gathering.

Studies suggest noncom’s educated listeners are particularly vulnerable to the lure of other media. In this and other respects, the stakes remain high. During the conference, Coleman Insights experts offered a telling statistic. Only 24% of those it surveyed have an awareness of public radio. Compare that number with 99% of respondents, who could identify commercial radio. While that represents opportunity, it’s fragile. Every new person drawn to other platforms is a potential loss for public radio. As Larry Rosin of Edison Research told one session, listeners who like podcasts tend to stay. A consequence of this matter is the time listening to radio collapses.

In Phoenix, engagement was the buzzword, but the idea it captures is commonplace. How does radio keep its place with old friends, and welcome younger listeners to the fold? Implicit to responsiveness, keeping audiences was a centerpiece of the conference. Commercial radio is experimenting with formats and focus. For noncommercial radio, such experimentation is more difficult. Expectations clash with pressures. Welcoming partners while keeping true to a sound is a challenging balance. At the Public Radio Content Conference, the dialog was about mission and values. Again to the power of listeners, the undercurrent is one of sensitivity to these issues. How longtime fans feel about the sound of public radio still counts.

Public Radio Content Conference 2016

The secret to success could be about marrying the two: fresh sounds appealing to a sense of civic duty.

Fred Jacobs told attendees that audiences go to public radio for particular reasons. The reasons people listen cut across many demographics and listening methods. For example, 72%, he said, listen to learn new things. Among millennials, that statistic shot up to 84%. With noncommercial radio, education is central to licensure and mission. In appraising radio’s future, Ira Glass of “This American Life” said it’s about staying interesting.

Creative offerings, Glass said, will ensure there’s an audience to listen. The emergence of digital was the big takeaway in this regard. A range of initiatives like the Association of Independents in Radio’s Finding America and the newly announced PRX podcast initiative demonstrate unique approaches in both radio and digital.

The Public Radio Content Conference may be a valuable time for noncommercial radio to meet up, but it remains the audience who ultimately calls the shots.

Next year’s Public Radio Content Conference is set for San Francisco.