The audience relationship is something to be cultivated. This is nothing new to the development department at your station, but the news department may need some nudging to be more proactive, accountable and interactive with the public. Be assured this does not mean getting cozy with sources or anointing sacred cows or any other violation of ethics. Rather it’s about serving our people better.
Like most things in life, if you want something you should ask for it. News Directors want a few things from their listeners:
Tune In: The marketing of the station is not your job, directly, but you might do what you can to help “get the word out.” Where this is applies most frequently is in the promotion of your news content. Typically this requires some work on the part of you and your team — the content makers. Do your part to call the listener’s attention to your work!
Ideas and information: Whether it is general news tips or very specific information on a planned topic, your community merits some kind of input into your editorial planning. You’ll want to avoid making any promises when the ideas come in, but you can certainly solicit them and lend them consideration. New tools for “crowd sourcing” now allow public input to better inform coverage than ever before.
Feed Back: You don’t only want to hear how well you did, you also want to hear how you might have done better. Set up convenient mechanisms for the audience to tell you quickly what they have to add. (And the quicker you can reply to listeners — personally if possible — so much the better.) Publicize the method. Share the feedback on air or on-line to spur more. No matter station size, you can offer some combination of feedback methods: phone, voicemail, email, on-line, regular mail, etc.
It really isn’t enough to say we serve our listeners. In truth, we are owned by the public and owe the public our allegiance. When News Directors talk of accountability they acknowledge this truth. Accountability in action might look like this:
Ascertaining Community Issues: using a systematic method of surveying the entire community to bring about awareness of problems. (This was once required by the government and considered an onerous duty by stations — yet it can be done by news departments simply monitoring their communities and synthesizing all available information into a prioritized list, revisited annually.) Knowing the problems, we can find ways to address them in our coverage plans.
Being Open and Accessible: being easily findable and communicative especially when dealing with sensitive or volatile content. Explaining journalistic decisions. Handling difficult situations personally. (This is not to suggest news directors take any and all calls immediately — no, some screening is definitely recommended.) This suggests you cultivate a sense of responsibility to all people, equally. Moreover, it acknowledges that we have the courage to deal with controversial issues without hiding from the fallout.
Correcting Mistakes: despite our systems to assure accuracy, we may err and when we do we need to address the problem immediately. Internally, we trace the source and address the problem in a way that prevents future harm. Externally, we gauge the harm and address the problem accordingly — setting the record straight and apologizing if necessary.
One of the best ways to build audience relations is to engage folks and involve them in the news effort. Some suggestions:
Talk Programs: the quintessential radio town square. Some do it daily, others weekly or monthly. Good talk programs adhere to strong program values — thus they rarely take an “open phones” approach (although occasionally that’s exactly what the audience needs). For much more depth on talk programming, see Outside Help → LNI: Best Talk Show Practices
Town Meetings: whether you broadcast them or not, serving as the convener of a community meeting allows you to extend your audience service beyond the listenership and bolsters your image as a civic institution of significance and leadership. Your news department should approach such events as an honest broker — assuring their balance… and your neutrality.
Brown Bags, Open Houses, Station Tours: even if you can create small opportunities for small groups of community members, you become more aware and more responsive to the needs of the community.
New Media: the ubiquity of computers, cameras, microphones and digital tools of all types gives the audience more ways to contribute to the professional processes of your news department. And that means more ways to share before, during and after the radio product is made. We go into this aspect of audience interaction more deeply in the section Your Medium.