Public Radio And Youth

Nov 30, 2015

The Washington Post recently published an article that spoke of the “graying” of NPR and its member stations. It was a fascinating look into the ways in which young people get their news -- through podcasts and social media and not by listening to the radio.

The article also spoke of what I would consider the desperate hit or miss approach of NPR to marketing their important news to a younger audience. We’ve all heard their segments with contemporary rock bands and the like. The NPR dilemma, of course, is to not throw the baby out with the dirty water.

NPR has an admittedly ageing population who grew up with the franchise. If you now try to attract a younger demographic with extreme changes to your programming, you risk alienating your core, faithful audience. Should that happen, you become meaningful to no one. You risk destroying what you have built. I have always believed that sooner or later, young people who, for the most part, care little about news or current affairs will come around because they need certain kinds of information. I’ve always put it this way, “When you get your first mortgage and begin to pay serious taxes you become a public radio listener.”

The other side of the story, of course, is what the member stations are doing to bring in younger audiences. At WAMC, we honor young people. We have all kinds of internships. We encourage our people to get out and teach college classes. We have relationships with schools and encourage class visits. We try to make sure that competent young people are given positions of responsibility at the station. We hired our news director Ian Pickus when he was 23 years old. We hired former Program Director Katie Britton when she was 22. We love to promote our interns into positions of responsibility when jobs come up. We depend on their antennae to pick up stories of importance. We have not been disappointed.

At WAMC, we encourage a sense of family with our listeners. It is not something that we gratuitously do. We are dedicated to young people and to their potential as the future doers and thinkers in this country. We believe that while there is some evidence that young people don’t care much about news and public affairs, there are those who really do. One of our board members tells us how his grandson and his partner listen to the station every morning. They are not alone. Young people are taught by their parents that a democracy demands our participation. Children get exposed to WAMC by just being in the car when their parents are listening. We used to say in our family that “The driver pays the fine” and “The driver picks the station.”  But now as we move into a time where everyone is learning about podcasting and all the newer innovations, we all have to work doubly hard to make sure that our young people know how valuable this radio station is. That will take everyone’s efforts, yours and mine.