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June 30, 2016, 10:52 a.m.

How Detroit’s public radio station is trying to attract younger listeners

“The news can be pretty divisive, especially in an election year like the one we’re having now. So how do you create spaces where people can find some common ground?”

— Public radio’s audience is getting older. In 1995, the median NPR listener was 45 years old; according to a report last fall, the number is now 54.

A series of stories in various publications in recent weeks have questioned whether NPR — and public radio as a whole — have the wherewithal to adapt to an increasingly digital world and attract the younger audience they need to survive.

But here, WDET, a Detroit-based public radio station, has seemingly managed to build a younger listenership over-the-air while also experimenting with podcasts, events, and other ways to build community.

30 percent of WDET’s broadcast audience is under the age of 35, and most are younger than 45, WDET general manager Michelle Srbinovich told me.

“We’ve been targeting 25-to-54 and we’ve succeeded in bringing a new audience to public radio, both in terms of race and age, and people who are not always public radio listeners,” she said in an interview in her office here.


The station launched its first podcast last year, and it plans to launch a second later this summer.

WDET still faces challenges though. It finished its 2015 fiscal year with a budget shortfall of nearly $900,000 and its levels of individual giving have plateaued over the past three years.

Yet Srbinovich, one of the youngest general managers in the United States, is optimistic about the station’s future. What follows is a condensed and lightly edited excerpt of our conversation, which touches on the challenges of fundraising, adding new programing, and reaching diverse audiences.

Lichterman: It seems like your audience is younger and more diverse than what’s typical for public radio. How do you try to reach them?

Srbinovich: Engagement is a big thing. Going out in the community, listening to people, bringing those stories back into what we’re doing so we’re relevant and reflecting what people are talking about in their neighborhoods. I think that’s a big piece of it. But I also feel like the fact that we are a news station primarily: We have our morning drive, daily talk show, and evening drive, but we also still do a lot with culture.

The station was traditionally a music station with news. There was a schedule change. There was a dropoff. We started bringing a little bit of the music culture back. The more and more we do programming and events that are cultural as opposed to just focusing on the issues, we see see that it becomes a more inclusive environment. We see new people come into the station. When we were doing Moth events, seeing who came to those events and people discovered us through The Moth and then discovered public radio — people coming to something we’re doing in the community that was around music or art and then discovering public radio for the first time.

So now we’re looking at how do we bring more of that into our programming on a regular basis so there’s not a disconnect: “I had this amazing experience in the community, and then I put on the radio and am I hearing that on the radio regularly?” So how does that show up in the news programming? What kind of programming can we bring, both in terms of podcasts on-demand, but into the broadcast that really reflect what we’re doing in the community as well?

I think there’s some perceptions of public radio programming where you just have to pick one: Well, you’re a news station, so you just do news. But how do you get people interested in those stories? In a region like Detroit, that’s been divided economically and racially — and this is historic division, it’s not something new — and now you have new people coming in, people who weren’t living in the city becoming interested in the city.

What’s going to unify those people? A lot of time it’s not the news. The news can be pretty divisive, especially in an election year like the one we’re having now. So how do you create spaces where people can find some common ground? There’s certainly a way to do that with news programming by being conversational and including different perspectives, presenting news in a way that humanizes different people as opposed to just talking about the issue in a traditional way with newsmakers and the powers that be. But even before that, I feel like cultural experiences create more of a social cohesion that makes people realize and have context for who lives here and other people’s realities and finding common ground around music, art, or film and then suddenly paying attention to the issues that you hear about in different ways.

So if you live in the suburbs, and you’re hearing about Detroit Public Schools — Detroit Public Schools have had problems for a long time — but if you’re not a parent in Detroit and you don’t live in Detroit, why do you care? I mean, you care in some ways because it’s still in your region, but what’s going to tap into people’s emotions to the point where they’re hearing those stories and actually caring if they have no connection to the people whose reality that is. I feel like different cultural expressions really help people connect. I think that’s where we’re seeing a change.

I know NPR has research around the audience that is attracted to their music programming and how do you bridge that divide, and how do you get those audiences to come to the news? It’s a question that we ask ourselves a lot here, and I feel like even the podcasts, with Beginning of the End, there’s storytelling, there’s issues that get brought up in those stories that are serious. We’ve talked about everything from cancer to somebody coming out to their family to drug abuse.

So we have these serious conversations, and it can create a platform, actually, if you do it right, to have that conversation through a story and discuss it. So now that you’ve gotten people to connect through a human story, have a discussion about it. What are those implications? Let’s bring in some context for what’s happening in the news that relates to this story as opposed to just starting there with the issue and expect people to engage if they’re not already interested.

Lichterman: That seems like a change for public radio, where A Prairie Home Companion is on at X time, and you expect people to tune in.

Srbinovich: [NPR CEO] Jarl Mohn has been really talking about the value of live, and that’s something that we look at. Yes, there is time shifting, so people want and expect things on demand, and that’s okay. If that gets people to listen, or it’s more convenient, or they’re able to discover things or catch what they miss, that’s wonderful.

The only way you’re going to get people to listen live if you do things live that you can’t do in a podcast — so if your programming is pretty much a Pandora version of public radio, and you’ve got your shows plugged in and there’s not interaction, and there’s no way to engage with it, and it doesn’t feel like it’s happening now, or you’re not reminding people that we’re live, what is the value proposition of listening now? Why are you telling people they have to listen at this time? Especially with shows like The Moth or Radiolab, which you can listen to them as a podcast. You don’t have to wait until a certain time of the day to turn them on.

I still feel like having those shows on the radio provides people with an opportunity discover them they might not have otherwise. So if you’re not already familiar with The Moth, how do you discover it unless someone tells you about it or you stumble upon it in iTunes? I feel like the broadcast does let people discover things that they might not discover on their own and then they can seek it out.

But what do you present as a local station that can’t be duplicated as a podcast, and that other media can’t present digitally or in their traditional form? I think conversations where people can call in and interact are important. I think being responsive to what’s going on today and now — and again, I think that live element, even if it’s alongside things that have been pre-produced and things from other places — is important because it makes people feel like they’re plugged into something. If you’re listening to the station, how do we create those moments where it feels like you are listening and you are plugged into something that’s happening now — especially on a local level?

Lichterman: I imagine live events and more interactive projects, like Framed by WDET, contribute to that.

Srbinovich: It does, because now people are having a shared experience. How do you do that on the radio? These shared experiences, how do you replicate them on air more often. So we’re looking at that.

Framed by WDET is a very interesting project. There was a photographer that we had worked with here and there. He had been doing some photography alongside some audio features. We put them on our website, and he had wanted to put some of them up at a local coffee shop. I thought, well that’s interesting, having these photos up. He told people that they could hear the story at I thought, what if we took it the next step and people could actually hear the story as they look at the photos, so we did a little test, and Courtney Hurtt was the one who really made it happen. A photographer plus Courtney went out and captured stories of Hamtramck’s Bengali community. We installed them in this gallery that was willing to work with us with headphones and little iPod Shuffles in these containers we found at a hardware store.

Surprisingly, over 200 people showed up to the exhibit. We had people from the community come who were curious about this gallery in their community. They walked by regularly, but it wasn’t presenting work that they were familiar with. So sometimes they came in a little confused, you see these photos on the wall that represent shops in your neighborhood and there’s audio — what is this? So we just realized that there’s something there, and to be in a room and watch people in a public space put on headphones, engage in listening while looking at photos, and then realizing that they’re in the community where this is taking place, so if you step outside these are people and shops that are right there, but you feel like you have a connection to them. They don’t feel like others. You don’t feel like you came to this community and you’re eating, but you don’t have context.

It was kind of a paradigm shift. Is this radio? Is this journalism? What is it? To have the stories coming out of it actually win awards, and the audience love them — and people were asking about it.

We’re just connecting people to different things that are happening, and different people in this region, in a way that makes them feel comfortable with interacting and for the communities that we’re talking to, making them feel like we actually took the time to capture their real story and present it as it is, and not just dropping in with a microphone to report on something reactively and then putting it on our airwaves and that’s it.

Now, we’re thinking of how do we bring more of that magic and that engagement and that element into the programming that we do everyday.

Lichterman: That must be such a challenge. I read about Detroit more nationally now, but so much of the concern about Detroit is that it’s just people dropping in and saying, Here’s an interesting thing happening in Midtown, and then forgetting about the rest of the city. It seems like you’re able to strike a nice balance there.

Srbinovich: We’ve been really deliberate about that. And also remembering too that if we’re going to talk about representing Detroit, we also have to go out into the region. If we only focus on what’s happening in the city, even if we’re branching out into the different neighborhoods, now we’re neglecting all of the people who are living in the suburbs. Now they’re not engaging with you either.

We’ve been doing these Smart Politics events, going out into different cities in the suburbs, talking to them and finding out ways that we can really be that convener and that connection that brings people together. Not that we’re going to singlehandedly change things, but it’s a start. I feel like a lot of public radio stations aren’t willing to take the risk of isolating certain parts of their audience or changing too quickly the way we’ve been willing to and will be even more in the future.

Lichterman: Do you think the concerns about alienating those parts of the audience are because those older, more established listeners, happen to also be the primary donors and supporters of public radio?

Srbinovich: Absolutely. If there wasn’t a financial risk, I think that people would be willing to take the risk. These are people who have supported what we do, and if they are unhappy then we have no revenue. I completely get that. The John’s Carpet House pieces we’ve done [for Framed by Detroit]. These CuriosiD pieces, based on the Curious City model that Jennifer Brandel created out of Chicago. Those are stories that the core audience loves, so by producing more of those types of stories and including those voices, that isn’t turning the current audience away, because they are curious people.

If you look at who are the public radio listeners, why they were attracted to public radio in the first place, it’s because public radio was doing something different.

When All Things Considered came out there was a memo from the man who created it. I read the memo, and I thought that I so relate to this memo.

If you interpret the ethos and the spirit of why NPR was created and how shows like All Things Considered came to be, but you reinterpret it for today, what does that look like? Are we regularly doing that as an industry on a regular basis or have we gotten comfortable?

Now, there are these things that we feel like we can’t change, because we’re afraid we’ll upset somebody — but that’s not why NPR was created. NPR went against the grain of what radio and media was doing at that time. Don’t we think it’s maybe time to reinterpret that for today? Or are we going to become a version of what public radio was pushing against, and then be surprised that another medium is created that served that role for another generation of people?

Lichterman: The national narrative, at least, is that this is something that NPR is struggling with. There was a story just recently in The Wall Street Journal about Garrison Keillor’s retirement and what that impact is going to be. It seems like that’s the central tension for a lot of people right now.

Srbinovich: The conversations are happening. It’s not as if people aren’t discussing this and there aren’t stations that are trying things. I think that it’s: What’s going to have scale?

There are incremental changes. I look at podcasts and it’s a different medium in someways. There are things you can do with a podcast that don’t translate as well to radio, and vice versa. But I don’t look at that as the enemy. It’s an opportunity. If stations are producing more podcasts, and podcasts are able to bring in new audiences, what are the implications? Are they all bad? Is there a way we can view this as an opportunity and not a threat?

I even look at shows like Radiolab, those one-hour shows. People now say those are podcasts now and they’re raising their own money and that’s a problem. Well, is it? Because if they can raise their own money, does that then lower fees for stations, ultimately? So that stations can still present those programs, create that mode for discovery, and invest more in local programming? That’s the thing that really needs to happen. More stations need to be able to invest in local programming.

What that looks like is going to be different for every station. It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. There are unique opportunities here at WDET — one because it’s Detroit, and Detroit is not the same as every single city or town in America, and also because we have Michigan Radio in-market. New York doesn’t have that. WNYC and where they cover, their region, is is the station. They don’t have that direct competition. So they can do things differently.

But if we just repeat with Michigan Radio is doing, what value are we offering? So we have to be able to evolve. It’s like KCRW and KPCC are very different stations. Both do well. It’s L.A. That helps; L.A. is not Detroit. It’s not replicating what other stations are doing, and that’s actually the beauty of the public radio system here in the States versus public radio in other places.

I was in Europe in the fall and talking to different public broadcasters in Bilbao, Spain, the BBC, and in Brussels. I was trying to understand the dynamic of public broadcasting in these different countries. There is some beauty in everything being centralized, and at the same time, it’s a very un-American form of business. There’s a beauty in what we’re doing here because everyone gets to experiment and be really responsive to different communities. But how do we take risks as a system? How do stations share more knowledge of what’s working and take smart risks, and not just throw themselves off the deep end. I feel like there’s some of that happening. I would like to see more, but it’s going to take some time.

I think NPR and some of the larger stations taking the lead, and even some stations like ours that are kind of in unique situations are able to push and show people that taking a risk is not a bad thing. You can take risks that are smart, you can still adapt, and if you look at the revenue piece, if you’re going to attract different audiences, maybe you need to think of new ways to attract support. Maybe the fundraiser is not the only way. If your audience changes, if you’re reaching a younger audience, you have to think about different ways to ask for their support.

We’ve been talking about that for awhile because everyone knows that interrupting programming isn’t the best way to raise money. It’s been effective, and people are used to it, but at the same time we know that the audience goes away when we do it. We’ve tried to make our pledge drives as entertaining as possible: We have songs, we make jokes, we try to be high energy. It’s worked — we had success last spring. We got the fundraiser down to three days by doing a warp drive, and now we’re going for no days of interruption: “Let’s just get this done without having to interrupt the programming.” That does require some different thinking around how you ask for support and what channels you use. That’s going to be the key.

Whether you’re talking to younger listeners, or if you’re talking to listeners who are not your white baby-boomer audience that is used to a pledge drive and wants a tote bag or a mug, does the message have to change? Is what you’re doing relevant? Because if it’s not relevant, people aren’t going to support you either way. And how do you do that if you’re not willing to take a risk? It’s twofold: If you’re going to take a risk in your programming and how you present it, you’re going to take some risks and try new things as it comes to fundraising.

Lichterman: I imagine a lot of those younger listeners aren’t necessarily listening live.

Srbinovich: Well that 30 percent number I gave you is based on our live broadcast ratings — that’s not factoring in people listening to podcasts, it’s not factoring in web traffic, it’s not factoring in people at our events. If there was a way to actually capture that in an apples-to-apples type comparison, I would say we actually skew a little younger.

They are listening live, but are they going to respond to the fundraiser previous listeners have? You just have to be willing to try new approaches. We do want to do a deeper dive of our donor database to understand what the demographics look like there and what type of approaches work with different parts of the audience — to understand where do we invest, based on the shifts that we’re seeing with the audience.

I’m not interested in isolating older listeners at all. I think there’s a way to present these stories and be relevant without pushing people away. People always have a choice, and they may not like things — and some people want things the way they are, and that’s okay. But I’ve been really surprised when I talk to people — let’s face it, nobody who’s older wants to feel old. If people have a chance to feel like they’re part of something, that’s future-focused, that’s welcoming, that makes them feel they’re part of something and they’re learning new things, that’s a positive thing.

I talk to my parents, and they like that I keep them in touch with new things that are going on. There’s a way to present it where you don’t make people feel like “this is not for you.” Public radio, the way public radio tells stories, has done a good job of telling stories in a way that’s not isolating. But they haven’t pushed enough. I’m not saying we’ve cracked the code on it, but it’s a conversation we’re having regularly. We’re not afraid to sound different; we’re not afraid to try new things.

Photo of the Detroit skyline by Mike Boening Photography and photo of Michelle Srbinovich by Patrick Farrell for the Knight Foundation both used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     June 30, 2016, 10:52 a.m.
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