Successful Self-Disruption: Does This Gift Herald the Future of Public Radio?

photo: Forest Run/shutterstock

photo: Forest Run/shutterstock

All across the media world, organizations continue to grapple with "digital disruption."

And while we address this challenge most frequently in the journalism field, public radio isn't immune from similar disruptive forces like a shrinking audience base, an all-powerful Facebook and Google advertising duopoly, and the threat of "vulture capitalists."

Which is why the Jerome L. Greene Foundation's $10 million gift this month to New York Public Radio (NYPR), home to WNYC and WQXR, is so interesting. By funding the station's "self-disruption" over the past decade, the foundation's vision of a more expansive and integrative role for public radio is now coming to fruition.

The main takeaway? Your friendly public radio station will soon become a "multi-platform journalism service."

Getting Collaborative

Greene's gift funds three distinct NYPR strategic content initiatives, each of which speak to timely challenges facing the larger media landscape. The first involves generating sustainable and vibrant local journalism.

When you think of local journalism, your mind probably goes the plight of newspapers, where,  according to Julie Reynolds writing in the Nation, "speculators have bought and sucked dry an estimated 679 hometown newspapers that reached a combined audience of 12.8 million people," since 2004. Many other papers have declined for more familiar reasons like plummeting advertising and circulation.

Newspapers are but one part of what WNYC calls a "new ecosystem for news." And fortunately, public radio journalism is a part of this ecosystem that's relatively healthy. According to the Pew Research, local and regional public radio news outlets are actually doing quite well. "On the whole," it claims, "the news offerings of U.S. public broadcasters have been marked by relative financial stability and, in the past year, audience growth." 

Strong private support has been a key to the health of public radio. That includes not just listener support, but grants from foundations and major donors. One interest of institutional grantmakers is for public radio journalism to become more collaborative, just as funders are pushing other types of nonprofits to forge new kinds of partnerships (as we report often). 

Knight's vision for "community platform collaboration" continues to inform its journalism grantmaking. Meanwhile, NPR, the recipient of substantial donor largesse, is considering a network of regional hubs to coordinate coverage of local member stations and produce more comprehensive local reporting.

Not surprisingly, collaboration is a key theme behind the Greene Foundation's gift to WYNC.

While specifics have yet to be ironed out, the funding will help the station "systematically partner with other news organizations to produce impactful journalism," and expand local journalism on radio and digital platforms at a time "when local journalism around the country is diminishing."

Investing in Growth Opportunities

The second initiative finds NYPR expanding WQXR’s digital offerings "as the global authority for classical music."

Thanks to streaming technology, all radio is global nowadays, and the Greene Foundation knows a growth opportunity when it sees one, as the funding helps WQXR extend its brand and reach new listeners and potential donors. The foundation's support for WQXR dates back to 2010 when it provided a critical matching gift of $5 million to help NYPR acquire WQXR from The New York Times.

Similarly, NYPR's third initiative will enhance live programming and audience engagement at the Jerome L. Greene Performance Space, WNYC and WQXR's state of the art live event space and broadcast studio.

It's no secret that we're living in the midst of a media content goldrush, with television networks, and cable companies and upstarts like Netflix, Hulu and Facebook commissioning original content across various delivery channels. Apple, meanwhile, announced that podcast subscriptions surpassed 1 billion across 250,000 unique podcasts in over 100 languages—and that was four years ago.

But it was 11 years ago that the Greene Foundation gave NYPR $6 million—the largest gift ever to a public radio station at the time—to build out the organization’s live event space. A $10 million gift in 2014 supported NYPR's digital transformation and paved the way for WNYC Studios in 2015.

The investment paid off. WNYC Studios is now the second-largest producer of podcasts in the world. 

Add it all up, and it quickly becomes evident that this isn't your grandmother's public radio station, but instead—to quote NYPR President and CEO Laura Walker—a "top producer of quality journalism, live programming, and classical music that engages audiences in meaningful ways and builds community and connection on air, online and in person."

It also suggests that disruption needn't be destructive, just as long as organizations have someone there to guide them. 

"At every moment of transformation," Walker said, "when we ran towards the future and disrupted ourselves, the Jerome L. Greene Foundation has been right there by our side."