12 Ideas to Make Public Radio Cooler

I grew up listening to public radio. Our little college station in Abilene, Texas, was a real-live NPR affiliate. It played two hours of Morning Edition before switching over to easy listening at 9am until it was time for All Things Considered in the evening. Weekends brought A Prairie Home Companion and a local physician, “Dr. Jazz,” who spun records from his own pretty solid  collection every Sunday night.

Public radio’s in my daily-routine DNA. Though I currently listen to more podcasts (including a few made by NPR) than live radio, I still support our local Kansas City station, KCUR, listening while getting ready in the morning and occasionally even giving money.

But for many people my age and especially younger, public radio isn’t even on their radar.

To get ideas for how the station can better reach and engage the youth of KC, KCUR convened a group of young professionals to give feedback and brainstorm over beers at Californo’s on a recent Tuesday night. The lively conversation was led by Christie Garton, a contracted researcher and expert in millennial marketing. Taking notes was KCUR’s community engagement director, Ron Jones.

I failed to ask how they got my name, but I was grateful to join in with a lot of like-minded people (read: awesome local nerds) in sussing out how KCUR can be more visible in the community, develop more relevant programming, host live events and the like.

As soon as I left, I began brainstorming a list of my own ideas. There is simply SO MUCH that KCUR — a vital and well-positioned outlet — could be doing to expand its reach and relevance with young and not-so-young nerds like me.

So here goes…


Source: Flickr - @catandgirl
Source: Flickr – @catandgirl

12 Ideas to Make Public Radio (KCUR, at least) Cooler to the Local Community

1. Create more avenues for discussion.

Most programs play on the air, get posted online, and are never heard or talked about again. Yeah, yeah, you can turn to social media to address the problem, but I think it would be even more effective to follow the model of the TEDx salon and host a weekly listening and discussion session. Content could be an NPR show or highlights from the previous week on KCUR-produced shows.

2. Source local talent for evening lineup.

After 12pm on weekdays, there is basically nothing local on KCUR. (Even the 10 & 11 shows are difficult to catch if you, you know, have a job.) This local void is especially noticeable at night. Following the very Canadian interview show Q, there are hours upon hours of evening airtime each week that are given over to outsourced classical music. If there were an hour or two every night given over to conversations with the community itself, maybe there would be a reason for that same community to listen. Of course, without good editorial direction, it could turn into a mess. But a nighttime talk show hosted by two or three witty and interesting locals talking to other witty and interesting locals (and non-locals, whoever) could be pretty great. The important thing here would to tailor the content for the audience and give them a sense of ownership in the proceedings. If people know they’ll hear themselves in the programming, they’ll tune in. I’ll volunteer to interview Mac Lethal and the star quarterback from Lee’s Summit West.

3. Create a “young ears” club for teens.

One of the most important ways to entice millennials is to give them ownership. Start a club that not only creates social interactions for youth around radio but that sources content for future programs — which the club members will not only listen to but encourage their friends to listen to as well.

4. Start an audio producer academy.

Another way to get youth participation is to teach them cool new skills. Use in-house talent and resources to start a producer academy for students to learn how to record and edit their own shows.

5. Hold a radio hackathon.

Create a weekend-long event for young people in the professional tech community and aspiring makers with an interest in radio and audio production to come develop apps to make public radio more powerful and useful.

6. Start a citywide story-producing month.

Taking a page from National Novel Writing Month, invite the whole city to make their own radio show. Host structured events on conceiving a show, interviewing subjects, editing footage, etc. Post them on the website at the end of the month and allow people to vote for the best, to be broadcast on air.

7. Make an audio tour of Kansas City.

Post “historical markers” around the city at interesting sites. A QR code or geo-location feature will access audio history snippets and interactive media like old photos, video footage, etc, and award badges to people who unlock the most/sites of a certain type. (I would go for the coffee badge.)

8. Start a record label.

The state of the music industry is such that no one can make money off record sales, but just about anyone can start a record label — and look cool doing it. There’s no shortage of talent in the KC music scene, and it amazes me that so few NPR affiliates have staked a claim as musical tastemakers. KCRW in LA and KEXP in Seattle are the only ones that have positioned themselves as indie music trendsetters, and even they don’t have labels.

9. Build more interactivity into the content.

Just about every NPR program and host reminds you they exist on Twitter and Facebook. But how often do they actually tell people to do anything? Ask questions on the air and use hashtags to get people to discuss topics that interest them. I don’t mean just once in a while when you’re doing a specific “crowdsourced” story. Do it about everything all the time.

10. Concerts & live show opportunities.

KCUR-stamped concerts came up a number of times at Californo’s. How about partnering with a local venue such as the Record Bar to capture those cool Tuesday night concerts by up-and-coming indie bands that play bigger cities on weekends and playing them on air later, archiving them as well. Additionally, invite bands to drop by Central Standard at 10am and play live acoustic sets.

11. Embrace podcasters.

Befriend the podcast community and invite popular national shows (Stuff You Should Know, The Nerdist, etc) to come do live events in KC. Additionally, foment a local podcasting club to help people perfect their ‘casting skills. Reserve the right to use the best podcasts on air.

12. Replicate Harvest Public Media for youth-savvy topics.

KCUR’s best new product is Harvest, a co-op of regional stations that team together to magically make agriculture interesting. Rather than making long-form shows, the results are dropped amid Morning Edition — to great effect, as it strengthens the Harvest/KCUR brand while breaking up those long, dry national segments with something that has voice and personality. Why not do the same with arts/culture and politics, telling stories in ways that make them more appealing to younger listeners? It’s a killer model.


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