Across the country — from Florida to California — public radio stations are feeling the economic squeeze. Listeners have less disposable income, so donations are down and programming cuts and layoffs are up.
This past weekend, Chris Brogan wrote a post about his local public radio affiliate — WBUR — and how it uses social media to engage listeners. Not just dabbling in social media, WBUR maintains a listener photo project on Flickr, plus an active presence on Twitter, Gather, MySpace, Facebook, YouTube and Utteri. The station even hosts tweetups!
This got us thinking: Can social media save public radio — or at least make it stronger? We decided to pose the question to Twitter. The poll may not be exactly statistically relevant, but we think the results are telling.
Two-thirds of respondents said their public radio station did not use social media. That’s almost shocking when you consider how much NPR itself has invested into social media.
[NPR] is asking all of its journalists to rethink their storytelling and audience interaction. Most news organizations are at least paying lip service to this multiplatform goal, but NPR is putting its money (and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s) where its mouth is: The foundation gave NPR $1.5 million to train its 450 editorial employees in digital storytelling skills and to pay for substitutes to fill in for them while they learn. NPR is putting an additional $1 million into the training.
As NPR VP for News Ellen Weiss put it, “We’re going to get our stories and our storytelling and our journalism out to people wherever they are and in whatever form they want to experience it.” Going back to our poll, 100% of respondents said they believed social media would help grow the listening audience. It’s safe to assume that more listeners equals more money, right? Then, why aren’t a greater number of public radio stations incorporating social media? The easy answer is a lack of resources, but that’s not a good response. (To the contrary, Coffee Grounz general manager JR Cohen told Shel Israel during a recent interview that the bad economy just means that “this is the time to be innovative.”)
So, what’s the hold-up for public radio affiliates?
NPR’s self-proclamed “social media guy” Andy Carvin explained to me (via Twitter) that “NPR has a wide range of social media activities, but the stations are all different since they’re all independent.” Carvin said WBUR, WOSU and KQED are good examples of stations that “get” social media.
Our local public radio affiliate, WMFE, has a talented pool of reporters. During the week, the station plays classical music all day, sandwiched by popular national programming. But, their online presence is non-existent, except for a basic web site. Listeners have zero opportunity to engage with the station or with reporters. Management doesn’t ask listeners for feedback. Social media doesn’t drive listeners to the radio station. Talk about a missed opportunity.
So, here’s what we suggest: Create a very active, very informative Facebook page. Get NASA expert Pat Duggins on engaged in Twitter (ADDED: He needs to be *conversing* more with listeners). Attend this month’s Orlando Tweetup and offer to host the next one. Blog (suggested topics include “a day in the life of” featuring a mix of onair talent and behind-the-scenes staff as well as the process of putting together a story). Let readers vote on stories, similar to Digg. Comment on other local blogs. Create a photo-sharing project on Flickr. Buy a Flip camera and create some videos. And that’s just for starters.
While public radio stations are non-profits, they’re vulnerable to many of the same challenges facing for-profit media organizations. Traditional media is losing ground to new media. That means public radio — like newspapers and magazines — has little choice but to embrace social media … or risk being left behind.
Is social media the answer to public radio’s woes?