WFAE Aims for Digital Innovation

Public station targets younger demos through “personal, localized on-demand” experience
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How to utilize technology to better connect with an audience, particularly the younger demographic?

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Ju-Don Marshall

This is an ongoing challenge for public radio stations. WFAE, “Charlotte’s NPR news source,” has developed a plan to address that need. It involves merging NPR news with enterprise reporting about local events in Charlotte and delivering it on NPR One, the app for mobile devices that connects users to public radio’s news and information feeds, as well as podcasts. To help launch the project, it recently received a $100,000 grant from the Knight Foundation.

PODCASTS AND MORE

WFAE currently serves approximately 220,000 listeners weekly with an award-winning lineup of local, national and international news, along with weekend entertainment programs from NPR, American Public Media, Public Radio International and Public Radio Exchange. In addition to its 90.7 FM signal in Charlotte, the University Radio Foundation Inc. operates 90.3 in Hickory, 106.1 in Laurinburg and 93.7 FM in Southern Pines.

Early in the process, the station had to create a position to oversee and administer the transformation of its news department and programming initiatives. The post of WFAE chief content officer was established, and Ju-Don Marshall was named to fill it. Marshall has had a long career in journalism, including 17 years at the Washington Post, most recently overseeing its website. Before coming to WFAE, she was chief operating officer/senior advisor for LifePosts Inc.

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“Charlotte Talks” host Mike Collins and a panel of local reporters discuss local municipal election races at Birdsong Brewing Company in 2017. From left: Mike Collins, Q City Metro’s Glenn Burkins, The Charlotte Observer’s Ann Doss Helms, the Charlotte Business Journal’s Erik Spanberg and WFAE’s Tom Bullock.
Credit: Erin Keever/WFAE

As Marshall explains, a number of driving forces led WFAE to apply for the Knight Foundation grant. “We wanted to utilize the NPR One platform to reach out to a younger and more diverse audience. Sixty-five percent of its audience is in the 25–44 age range. That’s younger than the traditional WFAE listener base. Also, 36 percent of NPR One’s audience are ethnic minorities, while WFAE’s minority listenership is at 18 percent.”

A big part of the outreach to these younger listeners will be podcasts. Marshall said this will be a period of experimentation to find the right mix.

“What kinds of podcasts, what kinds of voices, and how this content will be different from what is on air all have yet to be determined,” she said.

What is clear is that the listeners will be involved in the process at every step. “We are going to have a call out to the community. The best ideas will be selected and developed into pilots, which then can be turned into mini-podcast series. In this way, we hope to get people excited about engaging with us.” She adds that efforts are underway to deliver on-demand content using smart speakers.

According to the grant announcement, data generated through the app will help the station examine audience preferences as well as turn dedicated listeners into station members. And part of WFAE’s strategy involves using NPR One to bring new listeners to the station.

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WFAE reporter David Boraks covers a Hillary Clinton rally at Johnson C. Smith University during the 2016 elections.
Credit: Jeff Cravotta/WFAE

“Many NPR One users are listening to NPR content, and not necessarily to our station,” Marshall said. “One of our goals is to find these listeners and migrate them over to WFAE for a deeper experience.”

When she spoke with Radio World in late 2017, Marshall was planning to spend two days with the NPR One staff, to better understand their practices and set goals for the coming year. She said the exchange will be a two-way affair.

“This will be an ongoing partnership, they’ll have full transparency to what is going on at WFAE. NPR has a relationship with many stations, and we see WFAE as a case study whose experiences will be shared with many other public radio stations.”

“INTIMATE EXPERIENCE”

Charlotte’s demographics make it an ideal test site for WFAE’s new brand of journalism. According to U.S. census figures, it is ranked the top city for millennial population growth, and it has a racially and ethnically diverse population. “Knowledge workers” are attracted to employment opportunities at companies such as Bank of America, Wells Fargo and American Airlines. As is the trend with young adults nationwide, Charlotte’s millennials turn increasingly to mobile for news and information, and seek out content through digital streaming and podcasts.

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Wendy Herkey, right, executive producer of “Charlotte Talks,” counts down during a broadcast of the show from Spirit Square’s Duke Energy Theater. Host Mike Collins speaks with Krista Tippett of “On Being” about civility and having better conversations.
Credit: Jenifer Roser/WFAE

Marshall said the type of journalism going on at WFAE differs in some ways than what is common in the print media.

“The core values remain the same, but this is a more intimate experience with listeners in many ways. Our members have a sense of ownership over what they hear. To them, it feels much more personal than reading a newspaper. And for us as reporters working at the local level, it’s more intimate than working for a national publication or national media.”

Localism plays into the composition of the WFAE newsroom staff. “I believe that you have a much better feel for the local culture if you were born and raised here. We’re currently in a hiring phase for new reporters, and anyone who has the necessary experience and is a native definitely piques my interest.”

While this outreach is focused on bringing younger listeners to WFAE, Marshall emphasizes that the traditional audience will not be neglected. “It’s all about finding the balance. We’ll be entering a period of experimentation, expanding our digital capabilities and hiring multimedia journalists. At the same time, we won’t neglect the real-time, traditional audience that make up the core listening base of WFAE.”

The grant from Knight Foundation has a one-year duration, and is designed to jump-start WFAE’s podcast and mobile devices. WFAE has made the commitment to keep going after that, Marshall said, “We have ongoing underwriting and development efforts, and the station will assume the funding at the end of the year.”

Is your station doing creative work to reach 21st century radio/audio audiences? Tell us about it at radioworld@nbmedia.com.

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