In face of massive change, our public radio industry is in the process of reinventing itself to stay relevant to audiences. Many broadcast stations have stopped referring to themselves as “public radio” and now say “public media.”
By default then, we must be changing from “public radio journalists” to “public media journalists.” What this means years from now is unknown, but the signposts point to a place beyond sound, favoring a mix of all media.
The online Web site is becoming the dominant interface between content providers and content consumers. Newspapers, America’s most established news providers are rushing headlong to an uncertain future online. Even television companies are racing to establish an alternate presence there.
For radio, this conversion is trickier than it is for print and television. Sure we have the sound that is vital for robust multimedia presentation, and we have a way with words, but we have little-to-no experience with photos, video, graphics, animation, layout and design — the media palette for Web sites. Let alone the software skills needed.
Still, the Web so reflects our modern world that listeners expect our radio stations to be there.
For radio News Directors, it is critical to understand that the “aesthetic imperatives” of radio don’t go very far in this new domain.
Bill Buzenberg and Bob Collins helped coax Minnesota Public Radio’s newsroom into online media. “To accomplish this, we found a need to step away from the ‘radio mindset,’” they wrote in a 2001 report. This mindset, they explained, focused too tightly on the radio product. The Web coverage needed to be more comprehensive. They gradually managed to integrate radio and online in the MPR newsroom. To them it was critical they not be separate departments.
A complete conversion to a multimedia newsroom may take some time. Incremental steps include simply adding “Web extras” to your existing news offerings. As you grow, you may begin to see your Web site as a destination all its own, not an adjunct to radio.
Blogs are Web sites designed for serial posting of content. They provide fast publishing in a simple format. They can include audio and video, photos and graphics. Some newsrooms use them for posting breaking news or daily news.
Of course, blogs are well known as vehicles for personal opinions. News people will want to step carefully if using a blog to write in a personal voice so as not to undermine their professional role as neutral observers. Still, journalists can use blogs to provide inside perspective or add background or sidebar content. Some newsrooms are using blogs to let the public in on their editorial planning or to raise journalistic issues.
If your station or news department chooses to launch a blog, first be sure to articulate its purpose, then what processes you will use to feed it, monitor it and sustain it.
Just as radio stations push audio signals to listeners, they can also push multimedia content to users via email. These electronic newsletters can be simple or elaborate. Frequent or occasional. They can serve as news summaries themselves or they can “tease” users to the radio or to the station Web site. Often the same content on the Web site can be included in the newsletter or directly linked to it. Moreover, newsletters can be customized according to a distribution schema, say, for example, distinguishing between users who want arts and culture, and those who prefer a political focus.
All-news radio stations, like 24-hour cable news channels, are familiar with treating news as a continuous river of information. While public radio has mastered a more thoughtful approach, it is increasingly true that public radio is a “source of first resort” when major news breaks.
One simple way for stations to deliver the “quick version” of the news is to issue brief text feeds via email or cellular text messaging or other mobile applications like Twitter.
This is not to suggest public radio newsrooms move away from in-depth coverage. That would be a mistake as that is our unique public service. However, quick text feeds — provided they stick to major news headlines — do more than satisfy a need to know news quickly, they promote the fuller coverage you will have later.
In general, news departments are looking at ways to serve people using their mobile devices. These small but powerful communication platforms are beginning to trump almost all others. Sending text messages is one way. Providing audio streams is another. Increasingly, stations can deliver to the mobile user everything now provided to a computer user, only in a tinier package.