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Public Radio’s Two Cultures

About a year ago I asked Jack Mitchell how he would describe the typical public radio listener. Jack Mitchell was one of the founders of NPR. He was the first producer of All Things Considered and he's now a professor of mass communication at the University of Wisconsin. He told me the typical public radio listener is "a person who attended college and enjoyed the experience.?

I should have also asked him to describe the typical public radio employee. His answer might have been the same. I've spent a lot of time working in this business. My colleagues have tended to be people with college degrees who, on some level, wish they could keep going to college. They love learning and playing with ideas. They believe there's a deeper truth that transcends commerce and the mundane realities of daily life.

But if you look a little closer, there are actually two distinct cultures within public radio today. I'll call them the "academics? and the "newsies.?

The academics represent the roots of public radio. They remind us of a time when we were called "educational radio? and when classical music was the predominant format. Most public radio academics majored in the humanities and have a strong artistic sensibility. Shows like Fresh Air and To the Best of our Knowledge speak to their values.

The newsies joined the party a little later. They arrived with the maturation of NPR's news magazines and increasing expectations for news coverage. The newsies may have their roots in public radio, but they're just as likely to have cut their teeth at CBS or in the newsrooms of daily newspapers.

It's tempting to say that the newsies have taken over public radio. The growth in news/talk formats seems to speak to that. But the academic culture remains a very powerful force. Some would say it's the thing that defines public radio and makes our coverage unique. It is the part of our culture that demands in-depth coverage, rejects sensationalism and excessive coverage of crime.

There is a certain level of conflict between newsies and academics. The newsies think if it weren't for them, public radio would be nothing but long-winded interviews with college professors and performance artists. The academics think if you left it up to the newsies, public radio would be nothing but five-second sound bites and pro/con discussions about politics and sewer infrastructure.

What Jack Mitchell said is true. The sweet spot of our audience is still college-educated people who want to keep learning. But our tent is big and expectations for us are high. Our audience today wants us to cover the news and talk about big ideas. As long as we continue to grow, that shouldn't be too much to ask.

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