Public Radio in the Year 2020: Thoughts on the Future

A group of station managers were asked to write about public radio in the year 2020. They were given free reign to write whatever they wanted and at whatever length. Only a list of questions were provided to help them begin thinking about public radioís horizon.

Please read and begin your own thinking about public radio in the year 2020Ö

Itís All About Rising to the Challenge

Joe Gwathmey
Texas Public Radio

I confess to being a little boggled by all the news about changes in communications technology. The possibilities are astounding. I find myself trying to fit a mission conceived in the 1960s into a wireless framework that offers volume and choice in abundance. I find myself unsatisfied.

What people needed in the 60s was contextual information. America was engaged in wars at home and abroad, and a lot of us didnít understand why. Commercial radio and television (remember the three networks plus NET, in some places?) told us what was happening but didnít often provide insights about what it meant. A handful of national-scope newspapers and magazines helped people who were really serious about informing themselves. That was about it.

Believing we could make a difference, we launched NPR in 1970 using the best technology that was available to us at the time. It was a long time before very many people noticed, but from the outset those who did notice seemed to care deeply that we offered them something they couldnít get anywhere else.

I welcome the new technology. I hope we embrace it with the enthusiasm that fueled public radioís success in meeting the challenge of the 60s.

Note I used the word success.

Public radio has made a whale of a contribution to society. In 2005 we reach a significant audience with significant programming. We can rightfully pause and take pride in that fact.

A thing that worries me, though, is that defending what we have now may limit us to continuing just to meet the challenge of the 60s.

As we venture into the new communications world, letís consider what new challenge we think we can meet. Letís think about what people need in THIS decade, and letís adapt what we do both to the new technology and to what we can do differently to improve the lives of our present and future listeners.

We will adapt to new technology whether we want to or not. If terrestrial radio is on a glidepath to a museum, so what? Letís continue to use it, because it will still reach people for a long time to come. But, letís free ourselves from the past and from the defensiveness embedded in talk about the threats to public radio.

We have strengths. I think the people who listen to us, trust us. I think they recognize that there is integrity behind and inside what we do. I think they recognize our commitment to quality. I think they expect us to be there for themÖon their radio, in their computer, in their MP3 file, their iPodÖand whatever other gee whiz gadgets lie over the horizon.

BUT. Consider the possibility that our listeners have less need for public radio these days. I think I can make an argument that their access to the wide world of information and diversion via the internet makes the content we provide them obsolete.

Before we settle just for repurposing what we do now, letís find out what our listeners need from us in this new age of boundless information and entertainment choices. And letís find out what needs we can try to meet in the population that does not listen to public radio. They may need us more than our present listeners do.

Then, letís apply our resources and abilities and experience to meeting the new challenge, or challenges, we will find.

After all, donít we want those who replace us to look back on 2005 thirty or forty years from now and say we rose to the challengeÖsuccessfully? I do. I invite you to join me.


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