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For years, public radio's news/talk stations were hiding in plain sight, serving a respectable if not necessarily large loyal audience with a daily dose of news and commentary often unrivaled by commercial stations in the format. Over the past decade, with the migration of more adult news listeners to FM and to NPR network content, with a greater need for not only news but news they can trust, these stations have become more competitive, with, according to Nielsen, persons 6+ shares ranking them at the top, or in the top five, in markets such as Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, DC.

In this first of a two-part series, Inside Radio caught up with several public news/talk station heads of programming to discuss where they see their role in the current news cycle and going forward, and how they're staying ahead by leveraging other media platforms.

'Inform, Inspire And Involve'

“Our top priority is providing trusted, factual news and information in a time when so much media content has been criticized for being too opinionated,” says John Mussoni, Audio General Manager of WHYY, which along with its five regional FM simulcast partners regularly ranks among Philadelphia's top five stations. That's also an area of concern at New York's WNYC-FM, which regularly finishes in the market's top 10, often ahead of Audacy's competitive news/talkers WINS and WCBS-AM. “To meet the future, we have to change how we think about ourselves and recognize both a moral imperative and a strategic need to rise to the occasion,” Program Director Jacqueline Cincotta says. “We believe that WNYC can be a model of how local news can be a salve, an antidote to the polarization and disinformation that confronts both our city and the nation.”

San Francisco's ratings leader for all of 2021 to date is KQED, where the guiding principles are to “inform, inspire and involve,” Director of Radio Programming Ernesto Aguilar says. “We aim to inform our audience about their community, provide inspiration for how the Bay Area works to be its best, and involve audience in the culture that shapes their lives.” That degree of local focus has proven to be a tall order for most stations, given the current employment situation in major markets. “It’s a crucial part of our mission to serve this community that has fewer journalists covering local news now than it did just a few months ago, a trend that is not reversing, even in New York City,” Cincotta says.

Looking ahead to 2022, programmers see the pandemic and midterm elections as drivers to continued success. “We still see a great deal of uncertainty as new COVID variants continue to affect interests, lifestyles and habits,” Cincotta says. “That said, our cume and AQH grew significantly during the months around the 2020 Presidential election, and we’re cautiously optimistic that we’ll see strong growth in 2022 as well.” Mussoni agrees that “listening tends to rise when there are major issues in the world. Elections, pandemic, important local issues all work in our favor due to the trust level we have earned.” Adds Aguilar, “The news cycle is constantly changing, but I am confident that KQED will build on its legacy of contextual journalism, community engagement, and active listening to local needs.”

'Off-Air Content Is Vital'

For Colorado Public Radio's KCFR, which in the past year has led or ranked in the top five in the Denver market, leveraging digital platforms is a major part of the plan. “Off-air content is vital,” Senior VP, Content & Planning Sean Nethery says. “There is a strong appetite for on-demand local news and content, and we expect digital audiences to increase for CPR News, especially as our digital platforms will have robust content and have already experienced significant growth in the past few years.” Aguilar takes a similar view. “Digital content – from live-streaming our in-person events on YouTube, to our award-winning podcasts, to initiatives like KQED En Español and much more – is integral to KQED’s future. We strive to be present wherever our listeners and viewers are.”

Crucial to this strategy is hitting multiple platforms when a story breaks. “No matter what format a piece of reporting originated in – be it podcast, live radio, text or anything else – we work hard to showcase through other mediums, reaching the widest possible audience,” Cincotta says. “Our newsroom produces journalism that drives impact.”

In part two of this series, the panel addresses COVID's impact on operations, the importance of ratings, and how success has impacted various means of financial support. – Rich Appel