While rolling news and shock jocks may grab the headlines there is another facet of US media quietly growing its audience. Public radio is heir to a rich tradition of discursive debate, grass-roots music and local focus that chimes with a nation ready to listen.
There are two main accusations levelled against mainstream news television in the US. The first is that it is too sensationalist; the second that it is has bowed to commercial interests. But while the networks plug the threat to “homeland security” – interspersed with adverts for catheters (yes, really) – there are people turning away from their television sets towards a medium that not so long ago was written off as a has-been: radio.
So what has happened? One factor is the success of the podcast, which has made radio sexy again. The popularity of This American Life, produced by Chicago’s WBEZ radio, and Serial (a podcast-only production, also from wbez, that had attracted over 70 million downloads by the end of January this year) has proven that clever, original radio works in the US. And it all seems to be happening on non-profit public services.
Advertising-driven commercial radio still dominates the broadcasting landscape, as you’d expect. According to the Federal Communications Commission there were 6,652 commercial FM stations in the US at the end of 2014 compared with 4,075 arts and culture-focused outlets on the same frequency. But while music and shock jocks aren’t about to go out of fashion, public radio is showing that diverse programming and presenters who represent city and state interests resonate with listeners. Public-radio listeners also prove far more loyal than commercial television and radio audiences.
Public radio in the US can be a complex beast; there are no state broadcasters like the BBC or Deutsche Welle. Instead there are four main groups. The largest is National Public Radio (NPR), an umbrella organisation representing over 900 independent radio stations throughout the country; next comes American Public Media (APM), which operates its own radio stations in Florida, California and Minnesota. Then there are the smaller outfits: Minneapolis-headquartered Public Radio International (PRI) and Cambridge-based content provider Public Radio Exchange (PRX). These groups are rivals in one sense but they are also interdependent. So an APM station may buy a nationally syndicated programme produced by NPR in DC, or an NPR station may buy APM content, meaning shows can often reach a vast audience. For example, the hugely popular business and current-affairs programme Marketplace is made in Los Angeles and New York and distributed from APM’s HQ in St Paul, Minnesota. It has more than 10 million listeners a week and averages in excess of eight million monthly podcast downloads. For this month’s Expo we have dispatched our writers to three corners of the US to report on public-radio stations we like: we make a dart down south to the liberal bastion of Austin, Texas, where we meet the team on the Texas Standard news-magazine show at KUT; the Midwest heartland of Minnesota, where we check in with AP’s Minnesota Public Radio network; and then we head to Portland, Oregon, where we meet the staff at NPR-member Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB), which also runs a TV station.
In all three cases, beyond merely weathering the storm these stations are adding listeners through colourful local content. That could be the Midwestern drawl of 72-year-old Garrison Keillor on his live-music, storytelling and news show A Prairie Home Companion (with nearly 3.5 million weekly listeners) or the trusted voice of former Marketplace presenter, now Texas Standard anchor, David Brown.
The fact that listeners are prepared to dip into their own pockets to keep these stations alive (unthinkable in the commercial TV world) is testament to the trust built by presenters and shows. Public-radio stations do carry advertising, albeit repackaged as what the industry refers to as “underwriting” (meaning shows are presented “with support from” sponsors). But there can still be a funding gap, even after federal allowances handed out by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. This is where the audience steps in, pledging monthly or yearly donations. OPB raised nearly $15m (€13.4m) in 2014 – 64 per cent of the total funds amassed by the station that year – from around 120,000 donors, while MPR gets nearly 40 per cent of its funding from listeners. Clearly these public broadcasters are doing something right.
It is just before 10.00 on a bright Texan morning and David Brown, the host of KUT Austin’s recently launched flagship news programme, is making the final checks before going on air. He smooths his hair under his headphones, nods at his production team and dips his head to the microphone. “I hope this works,” one editor says under her breath in the control room.
Texas Standard is a new venture for KUT, Austin’s local NPR station, and is a first-of-its kind collaboration among public-radio stations across the state. After a month as a daily news show reaching just the Austin area the programme went state-wide on 2 March. It plays to a proud sense of Texan individualism while also aiming to redress a skewed news agenda often seen through a New York, DC or Los Angeles lens.
“If there’s snow in Washington, guess what we hear about? Meanwhile, we are in drought down here,” says Brown, an adopted Texan – not that you would know it from his worn black cowboy boots and open-neck blue shirt. The show aims to cover everything from the oil-price collapse in the state’s shale basins to firebrand Texan politicians on the national stage. It’s a departure for KUT, whose newsroom usually focuses on the best local news stories for a city-wide audience.
But with a sense that some of the biggest national stories of the day are writ large here in Texas, the station decided it was time for a new type of show. “Because of politics, the border and immigration, all eyes are on Texas at the moment – for better or worse,” says station director Stewart Vanderwilt. KUT has been broadcasting since 1958. While once seen as a sleepy backwater station it has thrived in step with the boom of the liberal, music-loving Texan capital. The channel split its two main offerings of news and music two years ago and today KUT broadcasts NPR shows alongside local news items. The studios are also home to the nationally syndicated African-American focused show In Black America, hosted since 1980 by radio veteran John L Hanson Jr.
Sister station KUTX prides itself on providing the musical soundtrack to life in the heart of the Lone Star State, with 300 live studio sessions a year. Together the two outlets reach one in three people in the Austin area – nearly 500,000 listeners each month – giving KUT one of the highest per capita figures of any public-radio station in the US. “They used to say TV would kill radio and that the internet would do the same with TV,” says host Brown. “With all these things it’s the strong who survive.”
On a frosty late-February morning, Tom Weber’s talkshow on Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) News is delving into one of the most fundamentally American of discussions: the right to protest and where you’re allowed to do it. The show’s topic stems from a protest last December at the Mall of America in support of the movement Black Lives Matter that caused disruption on one of the busiest shopping days of the year. The city attorney has since charged organisers and is seeking compensation to cover the costs of having additional police on hand.
Over the course of an hour, listeners and studio guests dissect the implications of the case. The show is American public radio at its best: lively and thoughtful collective engagement on an important but complex issue, fostering the sort of nuanced dialogue in real time that newspapers and television don’t accommodate.
Headquartered in a four-storey production centre in downtown St Paul – Minnesota’s low-key capital across the Mississippi River from brash sibling Minneapolis – MPR enjoys a reputation as one of America’s most prominent and influential public broadcasters. Since launching in 1967 as a standalone classical-music station, it has grown into a 45-station network that provides the most complete state-wide public-radio coverage of anywhere in the US. “That vision of more than 45 years ago has grown a core of people who are devoted to us and passionate about what they hear on the radio,” says Chris Worthington, MPR’s managing director of news.
MPR’s newsroom of 90 staff is one of the largest in US public radio. “We’re very lucky to be able to grow,” says Worthington. “That’s anomalous in this age and [in] this difficult economy when it comes to media, fickle audiences and the elusive advertiser. We’ve been able to do it because we have such a loyal audience.”
The vitality of the MPR network has had an outsized impact nationally through its parent organisation, American Public Media (APM), which produces or distributes out of the same building such widely syndicated programmes as financial slot Marketplace and storyteller Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion. Together, APM’s programmes reach 18 million listeners a week on more than 900 stations, even as it experiments with ways to reach new audiences. Last summer it launched Infinite Guest, a podcast network that aims to blend the programming priorities of public radio with the digital-first spirit and anarchic instincts of podcasting.
“Whether it’s national, local or regional, we’re going to do journalism that sets us apart,” says news director Chris Worthington.
It’s 07.30 and morning-show host Geoff Norcross has already been on the air at Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) radio in Portland for several hours. “I love being able to tell people first thing in the morning what’s going on in the world,” he says during a break.
A little later a team gathers in the open-plan newsroom to run through topics for the weekday talkshow Think Out Loud: vaccinations; Oregon’s new governor; a fish taken off the endangered-species list. Elsewhere April Baer, the host of arts programme State of Wonder, pre-records a segment with a local film-maker.
Neither of these shows existed a decade ago. Back then OPB was focused on rebroadcasting says Steve Bass, the CEO of umbrella organisation Oregon Public Broadcasting. It drew content from national and international organisations including the bbc; in an era of more rarefied sensibility, its mid-morning schedule consisted of two hours of classical music. But Bass led a drive to feature more original material and instill a newsier ethos at OPBR, which appears to have found success. New programmes have been commissioned, the editorial staff at Oregon Public Broadcasting as a whole has quadrupled and radio listener figures are up. “Nobody is going to be Oregon’s storyteller in the way we can be,” says Bass.
OPB, which traces its roots to 1922, is spread across several floors of an office building close to downtown. Bass is looking to renovate the network’s headquarters to create more studio space and to boost its editorial chops, perhaps by adding reporters focused on state government and Oregon’s changing demographics.
Besides public radio, Oregon Public Broadcasting offers television and operates jazz radio station kmhd; at the same time as Norcross was live, music host Derek Smith could be seen across the hallway doing his show, decked out in fedora and vintage shirt. Also in the building is Oregon Field Guide, an outdoors-themed television programme whose staff also produce radio features. An intrepid crew, they have reported on skis, snowshoes and from climbing ropes. A test for OPB was the February resignation of Oregon governor John Kitzhaber over an ethics scandal. The station, says Steve Bass, was “just flooding” the state capital with staff. Current-affairs debate show Think Out Loud broadcast five times over two days. It was the kind of response the station might not have been able to mount in its previously less-nimble incarnation. “It’s exciting in those moments to spring into action and do what we do best,” says producer Julie Sabatier.