Keep Hitting Listeners Right Between the Ears
It’s an honor to receive an award in the name of Don Otto, whose all-too brief career helped launch PRPD and professionalize the job of public radio program director.
The first time I met Don was in 1987 at one the PD Bee workshops he helped to organize. Those workshops were a critical beginning to the success and relevance public radio has today.
One of the key themes of those workshops was helping PDs understand what business they were in. Many thought they were in the “be all things to all people” business. Others thought they were in the museum business, that their stations existed as a place to preserve the failed programming of commercial radio. Polka anyone?
What program directors learned during the PD Bees was that they were in the public service business… more specifically… public service delivered via the ears. They learned that public service was NOT what they created… but what was consumed… what was heard.
Here we are, a quarter century later, and as an industry public radio is again questioning what business it is in. And by “business”I mean the activities that generate the money that pays the bills. The value proposition.
Is it the radio business? The journalism business? The content business. The public media business? Honestly, do listeners even know that that even means?
How about none of the above?
The significant service public radio provides, the market niche public radio owns, the one that keeps public radio in business is not radio. Radio is a technology. And it’s not journalism. There are hundreds of places to find good journalism.
No, the service that you deliver, the service listeners voluntarily support with money is helping people find meaningfulness and joy in life while they are doing other, mundane things.
It's not just the content. It's how and where the content gets to them, how it fits into their lives. That's what listeners support with their money.
Again, the business you’re in today is helping people find meaningfulness and joy in life while they are doing other, mundane things. And you are the best in the world at doing that.
I just started a new reserch company that measures the emotional connection public radio listeners have with NPR, and with their stations. Let me tell you two things we’ve learned and reaffirmed.
First, your listeners believe that the act of listening to public radio is part of doing something good for society. Think about that. For your audience listening is doing good for society.
Second, your listeners believe that listening to public radio makes them better people. You make them feel smarter. You contribute to their sense of happiness. You help them connect to people and ideas that enrich their lives.
You help people lead more meaningful personal and civic lives while they are doing the mundane -- shaving, dressing, making coffee, sitting in traffic.
You don’t occupy their time. You make the time they spend doing other things more valuable.
Sometimes you do that with journalism. Sometimes you do it with music. Sometimes you do it with entertainment.
That was the essential lesson Don Otto, and many others, were trying to help program directors learn in the 1980s. That lesson still applies today.
You’re not a hospice for dying radio formats or, for that matter, local journalism. And digital technology? It’s just that –technology -- another means to the end.
The end game is the same today as it was in the 1980s.
Keep hitting listeners right between the ears.
Keep getting better at turning the most mundane, routine activities into meaningful moments. And when you think you are good as you can be, find ways to be even better.
That was what Don Otto brought to public radio. It is an honor to receive this award in his name. Thank you.