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2020
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7

Public media stops trying to serve “everybody”

“The truth is that when we make audio news and content — both in public radio and beyond — for an imagined ‘everybody,’ we’re just making it for white, cisgender, heterosexual audiences of a particular class and education, and centering their experience and perspectives.”

In 2020, public radio will stop trying to serve “all,” and instead actually reflect and center the United States’ vast diversity of experiences and perspectives.

The truth is that when we make audio news and content — both in public radio and beyond — for an imagined “everybody,” we’re just making it for white, cisgender, heterosexual audiences of a particular class and education, and centering their experience and perspectives.

The profile of a public media consumer has become something of a parody of itself — who can forget the still-resonant 1998 SNL skit mocking the “NPR sound”? Though NPR has made some inroads with diverse audiences over the last few years, national NPR listenership remains overwhelmingly white, highly educated, and middle to upper class.

Podcasts and other audio and news sources are filling in the gaps where public broadcasting has failed by directly defining and speaking to their unique audiences. And while it’s easy to absolve public media’s responsibility here by saying their needs are being met elsewhere, 2020 is the year we say that’s not good enough and find radical ways to live up to our shared mission of service.

We must get specific about who we’re failing to serve and recognize how the ways we tell stories and frame the news help define who our audiences are. That’s critical in order for public media to fulfill its mandate — first laid out in the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act — to be “responsive to the interests of people both in particular localities and throughout the United States” and “address the needs of unserved and underserved audiences, particularly children and minorities.” To do this, public broadcasting must become more polyphonic, multivocal, and many-centered — which is not to say cacophonous.

So what does this look and sound like?

  • We need to name the audiences that are missing, find ways to listen to their needs, and create real strategies and goals for reaching them. We must recognize that it takes time to build trust, that “success” won’t be instant, and that we can and must learn from local stations and engagement journalists who have been doing this work for years. And we can’t put all the onus on engagement and audience teams — this is everyone’s responsibility. In fact, it should be a crucial part of every newsroom’s editorial strategy.
  • Editors, producers and reporters need to ask “who is this story for?” — and then make sure that our overall coverage reflects a variety of different audiences. The facts remain the same; the work is in admitting who we are centering, because there’s always a center and we as journalists are always speaking to an imagined someone. Let’s make sure that someone isn’t always the same someone.
  • Finally, we must keep doing the work we’re already doing, but with added vigor and urgency. In 2020, we’ll continue to diversify our newsrooms and get better at diversifying our management and, as dismal new numbers show us, our sources. We can’t afford to get worse; we have to get better or risk becoming obsolete. It’s not a question of making room — it’s about getting out of the way so that new voices can grow and redefine the sound of public broadcasting.

Cristina Kim is producer of the NPR news show Here & Now.

In 2020, public radio will stop trying to serve “all,” and instead actually reflect and center the United States’ vast diversity of experiences and perspectives.

The truth is that when we make audio news and content — both in public radio and beyond — for an imagined “everybody,” we’re just making it for white, cisgender, heterosexual audiences of a particular class and education, and centering their experience and perspectives.

The profile of a public media consumer has become something of a parody of itself — who can forget the still-resonant 1998 SNL skit mocking the “NPR sound”? Though NPR has made some inroads with diverse audiences over the last few years, national NPR listenership remains overwhelmingly white, highly educated, and middle to upper class.

Podcasts and other audio and news sources are filling in the gaps where public broadcasting has failed by directly defining and speaking to their unique audiences. And while it’s easy to absolve public media’s responsibility here by saying their needs are being met elsewhere, 2020 is the year we say that’s not good enough and find radical ways to live up to our shared mission of service.

We must get specific about who we’re failing to serve and recognize how the ways we tell stories and frame the news help define who our audiences are. That’s critical in order for public media to fulfill its mandate — first laid out in the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act — to be “responsive to the interests of people both in particular localities and throughout the United States” and “address the needs of unserved and underserved audiences, particularly children and minorities.” To do this, public broadcasting must become more polyphonic, multivocal, and many-centered — which is not to say cacophonous.

So what does this look and sound like?

  • We need to name the audiences that are missing, find ways to listen to their needs, and create real strategies and goals for reaching them. We must recognize that it takes time to build trust, that “success” won’t be instant, and that we can and must learn from local stations and engagement journalists who have been doing this work for years. And we can’t put all the onus on engagement and audience teams — this is everyone’s responsibility. In fact, it should be a crucial part of every newsroom’s editorial strategy.
  • Editors, producers and reporters need to ask “who is this story for?” — and then make sure that our overall coverage reflects a variety of different audiences. The facts remain the same; the work is in admitting who we are centering, because there’s always a center and we as journalists are always speaking to an imagined someone. Let’s make sure that someone isn’t always the same someone.
  • Finally, we must keep doing the work we’re already doing, but with added vigor and urgency. In 2020, we’ll continue to diversify our newsrooms and get better at diversifying our management and, as dismal new numbers show us, our sources. We can’t afford to get worse; we have to get better or risk becoming obsolete. It’s not a question of making room — it’s about getting out of the way so that new voices can grow and redefine the sound of public broadcasting.

Cristina Kim is producer of the NPR news show Here & Now.

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