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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

US and Canadian Public Radio: An Acid Test

With a new year at hand, my incorrigible sense of optimism is asserting itself. I believe that, in spite of everything, all is not lost, in the world of public media.

But first, the bad news:

My alma mater, CBC is going through an oft-repeated exercise to reinvigorate the news departments in both radio and television.

The head of CBC News programming is Jennifer McGuire. She recently sent an all staff memo asking for input into a process that will result in significant changes to the two most important news programs: "World Report" on CBC Radio and "The National" on CBC TV.

McGuire's email reads, verbatim:

What is Program Development at CBC News?

This is where (we hope!) the fun part begins.

We have crunched the numbers, talked to audiences, and had input from those
who work here. Now we need to make it all come to life. We have the direction.
We know where we want to go. All that is missing is the spark. The creative
idea. That mix of fairy dust and technical skills that turns strategy into
programming and brings all of this "think" work to life. What we do best.

We have talked a lot about engagement. It is what holds people’s attention and
makes them come back for more every day, every hour of the day. Many of you
are likely thinking news is news is news, but the choices we make about what
we cover, how we tell stories, how we package news, and the way we offer it
are what creates a connection with audiences. And the kind of connection we
make influences their choices of where they get their news. That was clear in
our research.

So, what is Program Development at CBC News? It is an opportunity for you to
get involved in driving this change. It is an opportunity for you to consider
the themes we presented in the strategy and propose new and interesting ways
to produce news content and programs. We want you to bring your ideas to the
table, share them with your colleagues, and ultimately have an opportunity to
experiment. We can’t promise that all ideas will see the light of day but we
can promise that they will all be considered and that the best ideas no matter
where they come from will be pushed forward.

So what are we looking for?

As we outlined at the Renewal presentation in early December, the first phase
of program development will center on the following:

The National
World Report
Newsworld primetime
Newsworld daytime
Local Service

Each area has different challenges so the development process for each of them
will be different. We will soon be publishing development guides that will spell out the individual processes and how you can get involved.

But right now we can outline what each of them will have in common:

Fresh Thinking

Different platforms and different times of day demand different approaches. We
know from the audience research that the news consumer in Canada is looking
for something that no one is providing at the optimal level. So, let's seize
this opportunity to really push ourselves out of the box. Let’s not be afraid
to experiment with innovative treatments, controversial formats and larger
than life personalities. The challenge is to make it all hold together as a
program or segment, to make a connection with audiences.

Meeting Audience Needs

Audiences have many ingrained perceptions of CBC News. Those perceptions drive
their behavior.
The research shows that half of news consumers in this country do not use CBC
News. We know that more and more audiences are consuming news from multiple
sources and across platforms. They tend to “graze” more than tune into
appointment viewing. What can we do as programmers to make them sample us and
How do we make sure that they are getting a consistent CBC experience no
matter where they get their news? One of the most striking findings of the
research is that most Canadian news users see us, along with all our
competitors in the same way: kind of old fashioned and not very exciting. How
do we break from the pack and differentiate ourselves? And what do we do to
tackle this thirst that the audience has for getting the real story? We
think we do that already. What do we need to change to make that more evident
to audiences?

New Audiences

This is an important and separate point. As it stands now, our audiences
overall are very narrow. By that we mean they are all within a certain age
range, a certain profile and disproportionately from specific parts of the
country. We need to change that. CBC News is a service for all Canadians.

So, what does this mean? This doesn’t mean we only want young audiences or
want to change everything so that we are more relevant to, say, the West. It
might mean that we need specific strategies to connect to specific audiences
where we are not connecting. It most definitely means that we need to look
more like this country. Canada is in a constant state of change and we need to
evolve too. It is as simple as that. No one program or idea can do that but a
series of great ideas and concepts over time can move us in the right

So What Can I Do?

We are hoping this note gets your juices flowing. Maybe over the holidays you
will have the time to percolate some ideas and begin putting them to paper.
We will be looking for ideas for segments, for treatments, for “the look” of
our programs and, of course, for fully-fledged programs.

They don’t have to be fully formed just yet (we can help with that). In
January, there will be a more specific call for your input. At that time, we
will spell out the specific criteria and how decisions will get made.

Development will begin early in the new year. World Report will be the first
to implement changes. The National and Newsworld daytime will be part of a
longer development process. Ideas will be piloted and tested through most of
next year with a launch date of Fall 2009.

If you have any questions or ideas you cannot wait to share, please drop us a
line at We promise to get back to you.

I wish McGuire well. There's nothing wrong with ensuring that public broadcasting news and information is regularly reinvigorated.

What concerns many inside CBC News is how resources from news have been moved to other parts of the organization, especially to non-news television departments, where the stated goal is to have the largest mass audiences possible by heavy investments in what is dubbed "reality entertainment."

The fear is that CBC News will just end up doing "entertaining reality."

Compare how public radio in the US is looking at sustaining and growing audiences while deepening news content:

Israel Smith and Deborah Blakeley are consultants who work with public radio. They have authored an important study called "Grow The Audience for Public Radio".

While you're at it, look at an adjacent article entitled " Five Tenets for Public Radio's Future." It's by Bill Buzenberg, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, DC. He is a former head of news at NPR and at Minnesota Public Radio.

Articles like these leave me more optimistic. It reinforces the urgent need for high quality and reliable news and information as can only be provided by public broadcasting. Especially now.

McGuire's note, on the other hand, leaves me less certain.

On that note, a happy and hopeful '09 to all.

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