Sunday, March 13, 2011

Trust the Listeners

In an e-mail to NPR station managers this weekend, Interim NPR CEO Joyce Slocum said last week was a "bad week for public radio."

It probably felt that way to many people who work in the industry, but it is unlikely listeners think of it that way.

Listeners' perceptions of public radio are shaped almost exclusively by what they hear on the radio. They are further shaped by their experiences with public radio web sites, mobile apps, emails, and direct mail letters. Lastly, and in minuscule amounts, listeners' perceptions are shaped by what they read or hear about public radio's inner-workings.

Last week, while public radio employees rightfully fretted over Schiller Theater, listeners were hearing exceptional international news coverage from Egypt, Tunisia, and Japan. Listeners stayed informed of the battle over collective bargaining rights for public employees. They heard about Supreme Court rulings, discovered new authors and artists, laughed with the Car Guys and Keillor, yelled out the answers to Peter Sagal, and sat transfixed at the stories spun by the folks at This American Life.

Last week was a very good week for public radio listeners. As most weeks are.

And it was a good week for stations doing pledge drives, at least the ones we know about. Our company had a few clients finishing up pledge drives and The Schiller (times two) news had no discernable effect on the results.

Why should it? Imagine the listener who hears that some NPR executives screwed up and were subsequently terminated from their positions. Listeners hold the entire organization to the standard of excellence set by the programs. If some execs failed to meet that standard, then it makes sense that they had to go. It's not like NPR fired Bob Edwards again.

That brings us back to the programming. It remains exceptional. Listeners know that. and they will remain listeners even when we practically beg them to go away -- like during pledge drives or when we suddenly fire the person they woke up with for more than a decade.

Nearly 30 million strong, public radio listeners are the foundation of our industry. They ultimately hold the cards when it comes to public radio's financial future. That's true whether the revenue source is donations, underwriting, or tax-based funding. It wasn't a bad week for them. And everything will work out as long as public radio keeps on delivering good weeks of listening.

Trust the listeners. They will not let you down.

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