Part I
"Defining Public Radio's Core Values"
Presented by PRPD President Marcia Alvar at the 2000 PRPD Conference in San Diego, CA

Copyright© 2000-2003 by Public Radio Program Directors Inc. - Unauthorized duplication prohibited.

Anyone who has attended a PRPD conference over the last several years is familiar with the term 'core listeners'. Those are the listeners who are the bedrock of public radio's audience. They like what we do better than anything else they find on the radio, and they care enough about what they hear to support us financially and correct our grammar.

We're here today to talk about core values. In 1998 PRPD re-wrote its mission, adding language that challenged us to define and advocate principles of quality public radio programming. We did that for three reasons:

To expand the scope of our work as an organization of programmers. We wanted to add more deliberate discussion of our content to PRPD's long-standing and vitally important efforts in the area of radio fundamentals.

To clearly define and articulate the fundamental appeal of our programming. We're all being pulled in a lot of directions. We believe we're at a moment in public radio's history when it is particularly important to clearly understand what our audience most values about what we do. As we move onto the internet, new media and other new ventures, a clear understanding of what our audience most values about our service will help us apportion and commit our limited resources among those choices in the way that best serves listeners.

To improve the quality of our programming, particularly our local programming. Among the valuable and challenging findings in Audience '98 was this; Network/national programming is more appealing to our listeners than our local programming. Network/national programming is considered by our listeners to be unique, of more personal importance and it inspires higher listener loyalty.

In its report called "A Question of Place" Audience 98 concluded that "Public radio's network programming clearly exerts a stronger pull...We might guess that this is, at least in part, a function of the higher quality of major network programming."

That was an inspiration for a starting point for our effort to make our local programming as appealing to listeners as national/network programming. We would begin by identifying and clearly articulating the qualities, values, and sensibilities embodied in the programming our listeners like best. Put another way, in order to raise the bar, we would first ask, "What is the bar?"

Earlier this year, PRPD convened what we called the Core Values Summit where we brought together - for the very first time -- the executive producers of the seven most popular programs in public radio; those programs that are, in large part, what our listeners mean when they say "I love public radio." Those programs are; Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Marketplace, Car Talk, Fresh Air, A Prairie Home Companion and Talk of the Nation.

From our vantage point inside public radio, these seven programs appear to be quite different. But to our listeners, they work as a kind of ensemble-appealing to different moods and a medley of different needs. We wanted to explore and define the shared appeal, the common ground our listeners hear in these programs by doing two things:

  • Developing a vocabulary of the qualities/values embodied in these shows
  • Deconstructing the decision-making process that's used on a daily and weekly basis to draw the line between what goes into these programs and what doesn't.

Developing the Vocabulary

We asked the seven producers to each make a list of the values and qualities they aspire to embody in their programs. That list sorted out into three clusters:

  • Qualities of the Mind/intellect
  • Qualities of the heart and Spirit
  • Qualities of Craft/use of the radio medium

Qualities of the Mind and Intellect

The first quality to emerge was a love of lifelong learning. Our beginnings were as educational radio and we frequently describe ourselves as "intelligent". But we have pushed beyond that set of boundaries, beyond academic boundaries to a more dynamic and kinetic approach to learning; that is, a learning that is constant, and programming intended to offer up something new for people to learn every day.

The second quality is substance. It's not enough to say what. It's not enough simply to tell what happened. Our mission is to expand our understanding of and our connection with the world

The third is curiosity. It's the fuel that drives our learning and pushes us to ask why, to dig deeper.

Three other qualities came as a kind of cluster within this category and they all seemed to revolve around the issue of trust, an enormous issue for us. Those three inter-related qualities are credibility, accuracy and honesty. Our listeners believe and the producers' intent is to give people straight, unvarnished information. The approach is not manipulative. We're not selling anything. We're not sensationalizing, and we're not hyping. It has to do with a very special place we've created on the media landscape, and as we're hearing resonate in a variety of different studies, and as we've heard over time, our listeners value and like us for that and are deeply concerned that we are losing it.

Another quality is based on respect for the listener. We respect their intelligence and when we bring them information, it is done in a sharing manner. It's not browbeating them with how much we know, basically because we know they know more than we do.

And finally a word that emerged a lot in this category is purpose. I'm beginning to think that purpose is actually the way we're now saying mission but it has some other qualities attached to it as well. Purpose means we have and can articulate a clear understanding of why we do what we do. A couple of examples from our discussion:

In talking about the purpose of Fresh Air, Danny Miller said "Listeners expect us to be on the lookout for them. They trust us to find and bring them what's new, meaningful and important."

Jim Russell talked about his work as a kind of cultural anthropology that shapes his basic approach programming. "Marketplace is not a business show" he said. "It's a show that uses business as a lens through which to look at the world."

That was one of several pieces of tape we played during the core values summit and we had some very interesting discussions about it. Let's just sort of pick apart that little tiny piece of tape. I very specifically asked these producers "Please don't send me the piece you worked on for eighty years and is the greatest example of radio you ever did." I wanted something that really represented the kind of decision making, day in day out, day after day after day, that they do. It may not have been the greatest piece they ever did but it was a good solid piece of work. The people around the table really liked this piece. Here's why.

"Who Owns What?" had purpose. The purpose was to explain to an audience that's in a car, that's feeding the kids, that's making dinner, that an enormous event had just taken place in the world of business, that it affected their lives in ways they had never really known about, and wouldn't know about from a very straight business report. Its' purpose was to somehow let people know that a single company now owns a huge chunk of their world.

The second is that it was concise and jargon free which is very much part of the purpose of Marketplace and true to the identity and personality of that show.

And third, credibility. Just about the time you begin to think they're really pulling your leg, they bring it back and you know that what they were giving you was the straight stuff.

Qualities of the Heart and Spirit

The piece also serves as a very good introduction into our second cluster of values. After qualities of the mind and intellect came qualities of the heart and spirit. And in that category I put humor. I sometimes think that we think of ourselves as humor-impaired. There's actually a lot of humor in public radio, but it's a very specific kind of humor. There's a purpose to it, there's a point to it, and we just heard that. Part of the reason the humor in that piece worked is that it had a purpose, it was very brief and it was very disciplined.

The second quality in this category is idealism. We really are a very idealistic group of people. We believe in our power to help find solutions. It's one of the reasons we went into radio in the first place.

We're inspired about public life and culture

We believe in civility - that civil discourse is the best, most effective manner to discuss and understand.

And another quality that I heard in the discussion is a kind of generosity, and I certainly heard it in this upcoming piece of tape. It's a kind of stance that the best hosts in public radio have, the best voices that we put on the air have. And it has to do with their willingness to give center stage to the content, and let the guest be the star.

The host's role in what you just heard consists largely of four words -- "such as…such as." In that piece of tape, what we heard was one of the really long suits of public radio and that is, our dedication to making the guest and the content the jewel. We act as a kind of setting, as Terry was doing, turning the jewel to show the various facets of this person to the audience.

Qualities of Craft

The third and final cluster of values that emerged in the discussion had to do with qualities that grow out of excellence in the use of the radio medium.

In that category came a uniquely human voice - like the human voices we just heard-very conversational, authentic, intimate.

Pacing that's deliberate, thoughtful, and appropriate to the substance of the content.

Attention to detail-the smallest elements/microformatics -music, sound, language, a word. We know that all of those can have tremendous power, especially when those elements are put together.

In summary, we believe that what we do is based on a combination of these three broad areas:

Qualities of the Mind and Intellect

  • Love of lifelong learning
  • Substance
  • Curiosity
  • Credibility
  • Accuracy
  • Honesty
  • Respect for the listener
  • Purpose

Qualities of the Heart and Spirit

  • Humor
  • Idealism
  • Inspired about public life and culture
  • Belief in civility and civil discourse
  • Generosity

Qualities of Craft

  • A uniquely human voice
  • Pacing that's appropriate to the substance of the content
  • Attention to the smallest details of music, sound, language

Our programs can mix those qualities in a variety of ways but all three categories must be present. It is the fusion, the crosscutting of these three sets of core values that have created public radio's signature, and form the common ground, the shared appeal that allows these seemingly different programs to be regarded by the audience as an ensemble.

Having established a more clearly delineated, defined and complete vocabulary of the qualities, the core values of public radio, we then turned to the second goal of the Core Values Summit. We began to deconstruct the decision making process behind these seven programs, and identify how the line is drawn that divides what goes on the air from what does not. What emerged from that discussion was a series of filters:

  • Selection/shaping of Content
  • Selection/Shaping of Talent
  • Selection/Shaping of Craft - editing, writing, our use of music, and sound

These are called filters but since I put this presentation together I've begun to think that that is not really the right word because it has more iron to it than that. These are not soft, fluffy filters. These are filters of great discipline and work and a kind of relentless attention to quality and very, very high standards.

In the November edition of the PRPD NewsWrap, Part II of "Defining Public Radio's Core Values:
Fresh Air's Danny Miller talks about the selection and shaping of content
Car Talk's Doug Berman talks about the selection and shaping of talent
Ellen Weiss talks about the Selection/Shaping of Craft on All Things Considered.