Category Archives: Models

Examples we can productively study

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The Changed Media Landscape for Public Radio

Was I wrong in 2016? What does it mean when virtually every American in the country can listen to any radio station, music streaming or podcast service anywhere at any time?

A forum of public radio executives on The College of New Jersey campus in December of 2016 made it apparent that the medium was generally holding its own. Panelists included the Chairperson of the Board of NPR and news executives from WNYC in New York and WHYY in Philadelphia. Then, audience sizes were larger, contributions from sustaining members were up, and many stations were benefiting from powerful streaming technologies. True, there were hints that storm clouds. The broadcast medium that was at the very center of the American experience during and after World War II was beginning to see more restless audiences and enterprising operators who delivered content digitally, without the need for a broadcast license. We now take for granted that Alexa and Spotify will deliver more customized content at any time, with far less effort from us. In 2016 I didn’t appreciate how this storm might arrive. A post I wrote that year optimistically declared that “Public Radio Thrives.” But even then, WNYC’s Dean Cappello nailed what was changing in this new era of media abundance: “The audience is in charge now.”

Our forum centered National Public Radio, with an astounding 1000 affiliates in every corner of the country. Most nations have somewhat similar non-commercial radio networks, including France 24, Germany’s Deutsche Welle and Britain’s multi-channel BBC. They usually adhere to the broad mainstream of their own societies, usually with a slight tilt toward a more progressive view of politics and human affairs. But all must now contend with other audio sources who can gain access to listeners simply by having a studio and an internet address.


Add into this vastly enlarged field the fact that “legacy” print and “broadcast” media are in the fifth decade of a disordered contraction. In the U.S. newspapers have declined to the point of disappearing in many cities. Traditional Network television news from ABC, NBC and CBS no longer dominates as they once did. Formerly influential magazines like Time and The Atlantic see their futures mostly in non-print digital forms, while most still covering the national scene, like Slate and The Daily Beast, are struggling to pay their reduced staffs through total or partial paywalls. In terms of access, it is the best of times for a person ready to try their hand in digital journalism. But in terms of making a comfortable and secure living at it, it may be the worst of times.

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Against this background, in some ways NPR looks less robust than it did a half decade ago. It has been under pressure to diversify its staff and audience. And, indeed, there is a greater variety of voices on its air. But as the trade magazine Current noted, “NPR’s newsroom is more diverse than its listener base.” Those listening at least once a week have dropped from 60 million in 2020 to 42 million today. In March, the network laid off close to 10 percent of their staff in an attempt to close a $30 million budget gap.  And recent internal data made available to the New York Times showed that NPR’s audience was 76 percent white, 11.9 percent Latinx, 9.2 percent Black and 5.1 percent Asian.

To be sure, attracting younger and non-white listeners has always been a challenge. It is apparent that social media have swallowed up the attention of younger Americans, mostly for the worse, since much of it’s content is light years away from the public service perspective that has defined public radio.

Even the idea of a radio network has changed. Formerly, a listener that wanted to listen to landmark content like All Things Considered, Fresh Air or Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me needed to tune in to a local station. Now, all of those programs are available as podcasts, frustrating affiliates who traditionally raised money from listeners to those network shows.

If these challenges of streaming, podcasting and America’s declining appetite for straight news were not enough, grumbles about salary discrepancies between the old guard and newer staffers have added tensions. Cultural nerve endings rising from increased awareness of past injustices against women and racial groups, altering what a media organization can program without triggering a backlash. In January of 2021 three high profile hosts and women of color–Noel King, Lulu Garcia-Navarro, and Audie Cornish–all left the network, with organizational tensions and unequal pay as reasons. And last month a senior producer made complaints about a “liberal bias” that were picked up by the growing numbers of journalists who follow the media exclusively.

Understandably, in media circles declines in audience numbers are always taken as a bad sign. And yet it is trend not just for NPR, but radio in general, and for theatrical films and publishing as well. The days of legacy sources like city newspapers, national magazines, and massive television audiences are perhaps gone for good. While there are still big media “players,” a period when any single source can function as a big tent matching the reach of, say, CBS News in the 1960s and 70s, seems gone as well. Back then, a program like the CBS Evening News could attract a huge 27 million households. The nation came together for this and the other legacy network programs. But that does not happen any more. We don’t have “mass media” in the ways we used to. And no doubt that will include NPR, which will have to build its audiences from a more fragmented pool of Americans.

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The Third Place

Place matters a lot in how humans relate. In a welcoming setting we feel comfortable, even as strangers.

The new ‘work at home’ culture that has emerged after Covid has a lot of cultural observers asking questions about how we are coping with this partial shift. Do we feel isolated? Would we willingly go back to pre-pandemic days? Some apparently find the world a bit limited when living and working under the same roof. And the office is not always a remedy. With more colleagues on scattered schedules, traditional work spaces have lost some chances for the kind of amiability that might have existed prior to Covid. Of Course, there are many exceptions. But few would welcome a ten-hour day in the middle of a half empty carrel farm. And not every workplace can be the kind of extended ‘game room’ that the folks working at Pixar seem to enjoy.

Sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the idea of “the third place” several decades ago to describe a need in people to be out in the world, but without the hierarchies and tensions that often come from homes or offices. Libraries, inviting parks, coffee shops, public lectures, bookstores, bars, and churches are representative examples. Oldenburg noted that third places needed to be informal and welcoming with “no formal criteria of membership and exclusion.” So, as New York Times journalist Anna Kodé recently noted, an escape to a cozy private club does not meet his standard.

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We need third places to fully experience being “of” a place: to feel connected to a community that offers chances for random connections with few requirements.  In these spaces with may still be “strangers,” but our simple presence is somehow affirming. Imagine the denizens of Cheers”(1982+) or Friends (1994+) when all were just first-time visitors.

As in most towns and cities, a coffee shop with enough space is a representative case. My little town has a few good examples. My experience is that those lounging on the chairs and sofas are less thirsty than fulfilling a need to be in a common physical space. Many working on their laptops appear to be enacting an adult version of the parallel play of children.

There is an interesting communication dynamic in the act of putting ourselves in the presence of others, but not necessarily interacting with them. Place matters a lot in how humans relate. In a welcoming setting we feel comfortable even as strangers.

The Importance of Partaking 

The idea of communication has its root in the Latin verb communicare, which translates as “sharing with another” or “to make common.” But, as silent witnesses, are we really connecting in a third space? The argument for “yes” is strong. Our bodies and clothing say a lot, mostly that we are part of the tribe. There is also a degree of comfort when entering a welcoming space that is non-threatening. This derives from escaping the usual burden of responding to settings with clear expectations and verbal scripts. Because what we say can unexpectedly boomerang, our presence in a place is usually the additional option of adding our thoughts. An important part of communication is simply being present. What communication theorist John Durham Peters call “partaking” means “taking part in a collective world.” This is much more than an ancillary part of communication; it speaks to our core nature as social creatures.

Many theorists have paired Oldenburg’s idea with the work of social scientist Robert Putnam, who has argued that we live in an era where old and durable affiliations have withered. He lamented the decline of trade unions, granges, small museums, community service groups, church-supported activities and even bowling lanes, which were at a low ebb when the book was written. In Bowling Alone (2000) he noted that, even with increasing urbanization, we seem more isolated. More entertainment is produced exclusively with home consumption in mind. And, of course, the non-games side of the internet atomizes experience with only intermittent real-time interaction. (Texting resembles signaling, setting the bar too low to be included as rich human communication.) Some of those civic facilities that remain—school boards, city council meetings, and PTAs—now seem to come with more tensions that can easily shatter the idea that gatherings can nature the individual.

In the best of cases, partaking as communication is affirming because we are noticed and seemingly accepted: a variation of the old aphorism that “80 percent of life is just showing up.”

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