Public radio has a midlife crisis

“Public radio needs to take stock of which parts of its identity it wants to hold onto and which ways of operating need to be left behind.”

Public radio has accomplished a lot over its lifetime, but it’s facing a moment where it needs to examine its identity and assess how it might change to keep with the times.

Long-form, sound-rich audio storytelling was once exclusive to public radio. Now podcasters ranging from Gimlet to The New York Times are nipping at public radio’s heels.

Public radio was the place where great journalism was paid for with small voluntary contributions from the hundreds and thousands of listeners who valued it. Now lots of publications — from local digital outlets like Bridge Michigan to storied international newspapers like The Guardian — have adopted the donation model.

And over the last few years, public radio has had to grapple with the same racism and sexism found all throughout American culture.

The structure of the public radio system was set up within a media landscape that no longer exists. As I predicted last year, bespoke personalized content (see Spotify’s The Get Up) is chipping away at the broadcast approach which gives one thing to many people all at once. Our network of stations — in communities all across the country, broadcasting content from radio towers — made sense 50 years ago. It makes less sense today in an era when audiences get their news content in so many new ways including websites, personalized apps, newsletters, and social media.

In 2021, public radio needs to take stock of which parts of its identity it wants to hold onto and which ways of operating need to be left behind.

Here are some things I’d suggest we keep as our core identity as we examine how we must change.

First: We can tell the story of life as it’s lived in communities large and small across the country. Our reporters are here, wherever here may be. Almost any media outlet can report the big breaking news. Public radio is uniquely well-positioned to tell the story of what those big events mean on the ground, all throughout the country. We can help people make sense of how the news changes life as they know it. But to do this well and live up to our ideals, our reporters, editors, and leaders need to reflect the diversity of our country’s communities.

Second: Podcast studios and tech companies are busy buying each other and consolidating. While we might want to think about some smart consolidation and partnerships, we’d be doing so to organize in a way to better serve the public. Our competitors are consolidating to gain market share, so they can make more money. This means more podcasts with big celebrities and more gruesome true crime tales designed to top the charts.

Third: Public media should stand for innovation and experimentation. Creativity isn’t just for the privileged. Our founding document, the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, reminds us that “expansion and development of public telecommunications and of diversity of its programming depend on freedom, imagination, and initiative on both local and national levels,” and that we need to encourage “the development of programming that involves creative risks and that addresses the needs of unserved and underserved audiences.” That!

Finally: Digital is table stakes these days for any journalism outlet. NPR and public radio stations are doing good work serving audiences on digital platforms. But let’s not give up on audio just because others have gotten in the game. It’s who we are at our core, and we still do it as well as anyone in terms of storytelling, production, and editorial integrity.

This should be the year we stand proudly for public service, inclusion, and great audio storytelling. But let’s make the changes needed to do that in a way that remains relevant and accessible in a moment of profound change.

Tamar Charney is acting senior director for collaborative journalism at NPR.

Public radio has accomplished a lot over its lifetime, but it’s facing a moment where it needs to examine its identity and assess how it might change to keep with the times.

Long-form, sound-rich audio storytelling was once exclusive to public radio. Now podcasters ranging from Gimlet to The New York Times are nipping at public radio’s heels.

Public radio was the place where great journalism was paid for with small voluntary contributions from the hundreds and thousands of listeners who valued it. Now lots of publications — from local digital outlets like Bridge Michigan to storied international newspapers like The Guardian — have adopted the donation model.

And over the last few years, public radio has had to grapple with the same racism and sexism found all throughout American culture.

The structure of the public radio system was set up within a media landscape that no longer exists. As I predicted last year, bespoke personalized content (see Spotify’s The Get Up) is chipping away at the broadcast approach which gives one thing to many people all at once. Our network of stations — in communities all across the country, broadcasting content from radio towers — made sense 50 years ago. It makes less sense today in an era when audiences get their news content in so many new ways including websites, personalized apps, newsletters, and social media.

In 2021, public radio needs to take stock of which parts of its identity it wants to hold onto and which ways of operating need to be left behind.

Here are some things I’d suggest we keep as our core identity as we examine how we must change.

First: We can tell the story of life as it’s lived in communities large and small across the country. Our reporters are here, wherever here may be. Almost any media outlet can report the big breaking news. Public radio is uniquely well-positioned to tell the story of what those big events mean on the ground, all throughout the country. We can help people make sense of how the news changes life as they know it. But to do this well and live up to our ideals, our reporters, editors, and leaders need to reflect the diversity of our country’s communities.

Second: Podcast studios and tech companies are busy buying each other and consolidating. While we might want to think about some smart consolidation and partnerships, we’d be doing so to organize in a way to better serve the public. Our competitors are consolidating to gain market share, so they can make more money. This means more podcasts with big celebrities and more gruesome true crime tales designed to top the charts.

Third: Public media should stand for innovation and experimentation. Creativity isn’t just for the privileged. Our founding document, the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, reminds us that “expansion and development of public telecommunications and of diversity of its programming depend on freedom, imagination, and initiative on both local and national levels,” and that we need to encourage “the development of programming that involves creative risks and that addresses the needs of unserved and underserved audiences.” That!

Finally: Digital is table stakes these days for any journalism outlet. NPR and public radio stations are doing good work serving audiences on digital platforms. But let’s not give up on audio just because others have gotten in the game. It’s who we are at our core, and we still do it as well as anyone in terms of storytelling, production, and editorial integrity.

This should be the year we stand proudly for public service, inclusion, and great audio storytelling. But let’s make the changes needed to do that in a way that remains relevant and accessible in a moment of profound change.

Tamar Charney is acting senior director for collaborative journalism at NPR.

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