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Dec. 11, 2019, 11:35 a.m.

Small experiments beat big ones, and other takeaways from BizLab’s public radio innovation summit

“Because we’ve been in a relatively protected space, I think one of the challenges is that there’s not always the urgency to change.”

With all the trouble local newspapers are in, local public radio stations have been a bright spot in many communities: growing instead of shrinking, adding more than 1,000 journalists system-wide since 2011.

The public radio business model — built on a mix of corporate sponsorships, foundation grants, and individual memberships — is still relatively strong. But both journalists and business folks in the industry can see the writing on the wall and want to avoid the newspaper industry’s fate, said Joan DiMicco, executive director of BizLab at Boston public radio giant WBUR. That’s why the time to innovate is now.

“Because we’ve been in a relatively protected space, I think one of the challenges is that there’s not always the urgency to change, and public radio doesn’t have a culture of trying new ideas,” DiMicco said. “It’s a more traditional environment that’s less comfortable with the idea of launching a new product in six months.”

To address those cultural challenges, BizLab — a standalone team within WBUR that experiments with projects to increase revenue — has been working with six public radio stations on revenue-generating projects of their own. They presented their findings at the BizLab Summit in Boston Tuesday. Their projects:

  • DCist: a monthly membership program for readers after being acquired by Washington’s WAMU
  • Louisville Public Media: exclusive memberships and events for members of do502, a local event-listings platform that LPM acquired
  • WDET (Detroit): promoting local businesses to the station’s audience through paid social media
  • Capital Public Radio (Sacramento): a new underwriting sales strategy with other public radio stations in California
  • WLRN (Miami): a membership donation channel through an email newsletter covering environmental issues
  • Vermont Public Radio: increasing donations by engaging listeners in Southern Vermont with local coverage

Once selected, each station sent staff (from business, editorial, or both, depending on the project) to spend three days with BizLab developing their ideas to take home and implement. At the summit, DiMicco said, across the six stations, these new experiments project to bring in $600,000 in new revenue in 2020.

Here are a few of the biggest takeaways from the summit. You can also watch video of the entire day here.

The wall still needs climbing

Whether you call it “the firewall” or “church and state,” the idea that collaboration between business and editorial has to compromise journalistic integrity is remarkably persistent. Attendees who work on the business sides of their stations expressed how hesitation from reporters and editors can be limiting.

“At Vermont Public Radio, first and foremost, my team and I believe very strongly in protecting the firewall, because we understand that editorial integrity and the trust of our audience is our bread and butter,” said Brendan Kinney, its senior vice president for marketing and development. “The suspicion that we are in any way trying to figure out a way around that isn’t the case. At VPR, the reporters and development people would try not to make eye contact in the hallway…But there is a way to coordinate our efforts without breaching the firewall in a way that would diminish the reason that people believe in VPR and trust our content.”

Kinney’s team worked with Southern Vermont reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman on his social media presence and community engagement strategies to better reach his audience — and, in turn, increase donations. After looking at research about what works on Facebook, they discussed what Weiss-Tisman’s boundaries were. They had him share stories on Facebook and post to different local Facebook groups. Eventually, they saw increased audience engagement.

But in the case of Miami’s WLRN, its fundraising arm, Friends of WLRN, is a completely separate organization. Director of strategic initiatives Giselle Reid said a WLRN newsletter was the first time the newsroom and development were able to truly collaborate. Reid said that when they settled on launching a monetized newsletter, she told newsroom leadership that she would volunteer to curate it — something they immediately objected to. Instead, they assigned engagement producer Katie Lepri to the project. Lepri said one of the benefits of working with development was that she was able to get stories published earlier and faster so that they could be included in the newsletter. The end result? An open rate of 30 percent.

Business messaging can help shift culture

Tamsen Webster, a brand and message strategist and former TEDx executive producer, led a workshop at the summit about how to get leadership to agree to and buy into a new project. She said the biggest barrier to innovation often isn’t just a station’s culture or leadership, but also poor communication between staff and management.

“In business messaging, there’s no sad ending, because everyone should get what they want,” Webster said. “How do we script the story that people will tell themselves about your idea?”

She appealed to traditional journalistic instincts and made the distinction that, when pitching a new idea or product, you have to connect your idea to its impact on something they care about. Webster distributed a script to attendees focused on framing a pitch around how a project will fulfill a mission in content creation and increased revenue to continue that content creation.

BizLab experience strategist Sarah Bloomer described design thinking as just a fancy term for continuously exploring a problem space. The innovation processes for the six stations included six phases: coming up with an idea, identifying the audience’s needs and desires, testing, revising the product, launching the product, and generating revenue. While each station’s needs and ideas varied, what was common among them were requirements to speak directly speak to their audience through intercept interviews, synthesize the data from their analytics, and make changes their product ideas based on their findings.

Small experiments > big experiments

Not every project or experiment has to be complicated and expensive. That’s why BizLab gave each station just three days to develop their ideas from their applications and a plan to execute it. Working quickly lets you fail quickly, learn quickly, and adjust strategy accordingly.

Louisville Public Media’s project with BizLab was to launch its do502 event series. The goal of the first event ($5 entry, free beer) was to have 50 people attend through one week of promotions. But complications meant LPM and do502 could only start promoting the event 24 hours ahead of time — and yet they still had 35 people attend. BizLab considered that a win.

During a panel on podcast-driven donations, Glow co-founder and CEO Amira Valliani said her clients are often concerned about when, exactly, to ask their listeners for donations. She advises them to start at the very beginning, in the first episode: “You have nothing to lose.”

WDET in Detroit wanted to work with small local businesses that aligned with its mission but couldn’t afford the station’s usual underwriting pricing. So instead they worked with those businesses to develop branded social media posts for Facebook and Instagram, platforms that both WDET and the businesses were already using. WDET was able to develop an affordable underwriting product as a result, and while building meaningful relationships in its community.

Hanaa' Tameez is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@HanaaTameez).
POSTED     Dec. 11, 2019, 11:35 a.m.
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