Sunday, October 26, 2008

How can social media help public radio?

WBUR, one of Boston's public radio stations and nationally recognized, has embarked on an experiment to build community through social media. Notwithstanding their enthusiasm and a growing group of loyal social media advocates, this is uncharted territory, metaphorically akin to Lewis and Clark setting out to explore the great American west.

Ken George recently lamented in a Tweet that the General Manager (GM) of WBUR doesn't see the value in Twitter:
Had a conversation earlier this morning w/CEO who is Twitter skeptic. Cites relatively small numbers & lack of "Joe Six Packs." 10:54 AM Oct 15th
This skepticism of Twitter and, presumably, other social media poses interesting questions, which I recently spent some time contemplating on a cross-country plane flight. I started with the mission of WBUR, as posted on the station's web site:

“As the leading producer of news and information in New England...WBUR's highest ideal is to contribute meaningfully to an informed, engaged and caring citizenry.”

Given the mission, how might the station accomplish it?
  • Provide FM listeners in the Boston area with news and information generated by WBUR and the world's leading radio news providers (e.g., NPR, PRI, BBC);
  • Increase the served audience (i.e., listener hours) by supplementing the main FM broadcast signal with additional broadcast (FM, AM, HD) and Internet (streaming and podcast) channels;
  • Syndicate WBUR produced programs for distribution through other public radio channels that are outside of WBUR's broadcast and Internet footprint; and
  • Raise sufficient funding through listener membership, organizational underwriting, government grants, program fees, and other sources to enable WBUR's mission.
Now, how might the GM measure the station's success?
  • The number of WBUR listeners via broadcast and Internet;
  • The number of syndicated programs, stations carrying these programs, and associated listeners;
  • The number of members and average pledge per member;
  • Income and expenses (income should obviously exceed expenses);
  • Image in the community among listeners, businesses, government, and journalistic peers.
With this traditional framework, it's logical for the GM to evaluate a new program, technology, or other investment of station resources from the perspective of its impact upon the mission, strategy, and success of the organization. Does social media, collectively and in its various individual forms, help the station to accomplish its mission and succeed?

I think those of us who use Twitter, Utterli, Facebook, etc. and who also are WBUR's social media community would agree that we are increasingly loyal to the station. In response, the GM might reasonably ask what loyalty means: are more of us becoming members? Are we increasing our pledges? Are we volunteering? Can social media increase the number of listeners and pledges to WBUR? And how else is the social media community benefiting the station?

What may not be fully appreciated or easily measured by the GM is how social media creates an opportunity to have conversations with listeners, conversations about how well the station is serving the community. Consumer companies spend untold millions on focus groups to gauge customer preferences and behavior. Social media can offer relatively inexpensive and intimate insight into what listeners value as quality news and information. Only the listeners can answer whether they are better informed, fully engaged, and more caring because of WBUR. And if not, only the listeners can provide a sounding board and guidance on how to achieve these goals.

The GM is right that we in the social media community are, today, relatively small in number and don't really fall in the Joe Six Pack demographic. I suspect we would probably describe ourselves as early adopters, rather than Joe Six Packs. That should be an advantage: Early adopters help to discern the future, what will be and – equally as important – what won't be. Having spent my career in technology, I would jump at the opportunity to have a willing community of early adopters advise and inform my company's strategy and provide feedback on performance.

In the 1980s, U.S. industry began losing significant market share to Japanese competitors, because of lower quality. U.S. companies responded by redefining the American paradigm and approach to quality. In one of the first quality courses I took, Joseph Juran, dry and bow-tied, admonished us to translate quality into the language of management. By that, he meant money.

This lesson is still appropriate. One of the responsibilities of a social media evangelist is to translate the lexicon, tools, and experience of the community into the language of management. If we can articulate how we can help WBUR achieve its ideal of an informed, engaged, and caring citizenry — even how to measure our impact — the GM will listen and, most likely, join us.


After I posted this, Ken George clarified that the CEO he referred to in his Tweet was not the GM of WBUR. So let me correct that error before I get Ken into trouble with his management!

Nonetheless, I think the point of engaging social media with the mission and strategy of WBUR (and, by extension, other public radio media) remains valid.