John Barth's Leo C. Lee Award Acceptance Speech

Jun 30, 2016

 

PRNDI gave John Barth the Leo C. Lee Award at our annual conference in St. Louis in June. Below is a transcript of the speech he gave at the ceremony.

 

Thank you George Bodarky and the PRNDI Board for this honor. It is very meaningful and I am extremely grateful…

I’m humbled by this award because so many people share the honor — friends like Mary Ann Zeleznik, Tripp Sommer, Tanya Ott, Jim Russell, Bill Buzenberg, Doug Mitchell and John Dinges. Tonight I also want to pause to remember a friend to many of us, Max Cacas, who died last year much too soon

There’s a special place for my fellow award recipient Bill Siemering.

 


Bill gave me my first home in public radio. He hired me as a very green reporter and I entered a scrappy newsroom at WHYY in Philadelphia. My career was forged in that crucible of reporting, editing, hosting, and producing.

The dream job came with the astounding privilege of learning from Terry Gross, Danny Miller, Dave Davies, Tia O’Brien, Carol Anne Clark Kelly, and Nick Peters. But, especially Bill…a beacon of leadership, public service and kind, close friendship. He is why I am standing here, and why each of you, too, have a job in something called public radio.

I urge you to read Bill’s founding document for NPR; it’s on Current. It really does explain the values of public radio in a way no one has been able to since. Bill, like many of us, believes that public radio can make the world a better, more humane, place.

This was probably the best PRNDI conference and I’ve been coming almost every year since 1985. I’m struck how many themes you have discussed here many times — collaboration, digital storytelling — that are finally, finallygetting some traction in public radio.

The original journalism at stations has never been better — from powerhouses like WNYC and Michigan Radio, to here in St. Louis and Kansas City, to WGLT in Normal, Illinois, to Marfa Public Radio, NHPR and WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama — nine first place AP awards, congratulations, Rachel Lindley!. I do not envy being a PRNDI judge this year.

But great journalism will not be good enough if we as public radio are going to survive.

We are up against an existential crisis if you believe The Wall Street Journal — — That’s a nice philosophical term for ‘the challenges are so complex you’ll get vertigo if you think about it too much.’

Let me simplify it: the greatest threat to public radio is not money or politics or even our competitors. It is public radio itself.

And we can boil it down too two questions: Do we want to be the Oldsmobile of media? Or the Tesla?

For now the answer rests a lot with station managers, even more than with NPR or APM, PRI or PRX. And we all know that the audience has the final say — because public radio is the public we serve. They vote with their ears.

I want to be riding in a Tesla. I hope you do too.

Let me give you a sense of one aspect of what we’re up against.

Most of you know I used to work at AOL back in the day when AOL was as hot as Facebook, but with a dial-up modem.

 


First, the people at Google, Facebook and Amazon are super smart. And they will work with anyone. But they have no allegiance to what came before. The ability of what technology can do, comes first. They know that nostalgia is not a strategy. Their mindset, for good or bad, is very different from Lake Wobegone.

Here’s how they look at legacy businesses like public radio:

a) can we buy them

b) can we partner with them, make money, get data about their audience and steal those customers away or

c) can we crush them, because after all, our technology will outpace whatever they are doing and in the end they will not be that relevant.

No wonder that one analyst says when the numbers are in, 85% of every new online advertising dollar for the first quarter will be spent on two companies: Facebook and Google.

Our public radio world puts public service and respect for audience at the center. That other world of technology…is only about business, period. Not the integrity of our form of journalism.

And while some of our audience (I love how we call them “our audience” like we own them) will stick with us no matter what, the next generation of listeners, the ones really in charge — are NOT loyal. They want choice, they have choice and they will exercise that choice faster than you can say Netflix. Unless we give them a reason to choose what we do more often. And that is so much bigger than the tiresome podcast versus radio debate; I would argue the issue is listening at all versus every other awesome media choice consumers face.

Thursday at 6AM, Periscope…owned by Twitter …had to shut off all comments for the live streaming of the sit-in by Democrats in the House, so many people were chatting. If I wanted to catch up on that historic event live, I went to a platform owned by a commercial company and a video stream controlled by the people in the event.

The professional news business itself has been in a constant existential moment since Al Gore created the Internet. Because who defines news, who defines credibility, is on an equal platform with professionals like you. We need to fight for the role that used to come with a press pass and a microphone.

In fact, as Facebook becomes the dominant news distribution site, their algorithms, their presentation…their medium controls to come extent, your message and who sees it. And who sells it. This is one reason PRX launchedRadioPublic .

 


We need more control over the next digital platforms that touch listeners, as public radio stations do now. This is another reason why NPR One is so important, too.

Anyone with eyes and earbuds can tell the next wave of listening is mobile, it is digital and it is here. You know that, but I’m afraid many people in public radio still want to debate that point. These early wild west days of podcasting are only one sign. And it, too, will, morph and consolidate.

Ask NPR and almost any station leader how challenging this situation is –the whole structure of how public radio works is at stake. What that means for how public radio sounds, appears, reports in different media is existential.

I’m sure some of your station managers still think, well that digital stuff is nice, the kids get it…but we have a radio station to run first. Newsweek it could dabble in digital, yet still concentrate most of its energy on its weekly magazine. I met their publisher once: brilliant man in a great office with an eagle’s view of Manhattan. He’s gone. The nice office is gone. The whole building near Columbus Circle is gone. Newsweek is still around, but it is a footnote of its former self.

Public radio is hair-pulling slow and bound up in its legacy way of doing things –that’s one reason why so many talented people quit and make podcasts. Who can blame them? Our budget cycles often drive our projects. That craziness has to end. When Susanne Reber, Kerri Hoffman and I cranked up Reveal with the Center for Investigative Reporting, the first budget was nailed six weeks after we shook hands and the first show was created in four months.

 


That is what we used to call Internet time.

I find this moment utterly thrilling, more Tesla than terror. My favorite tag line is the one that Fast Company magazine stole from Hunter S. Thompson: “Where the thrill of speed overcomes the fear of death.”

If you produce essential, must-have-now work you have a better chance of survival. If you produce it with an audience first, digital mindset, you are closer to that Tesla.

More of our reporting has to be original, more inquisitive and more relevant. Context matters, Connecting the dots matters. Investigations matter. WNYC this week did an incredible story on who was purged from voter roles in Brooklyn — it combined data, audio, graphics into a powerful, digital-first story that uncovered apparent widespread racial targeting.

The days of packaging the news in a formulaic, reasonable radio narrative is not enough.

You also have to develop a voice that is genuine and credible and you alone. Dan Rather did it in my generation.

 


Adam Gopnik does it. Rachel Maddow does it. Tamara Keith, David Brancaccio, Al Letson and Ari Shapiro do it. Authorship — the special quality of trusted editorial voice and informed experience, is key to credibility. It always has been.

We’re all doing more with text, images, graphics and live engagement. But those new forms are still bolted on most of the time — silos of separate ‘digital units.’

We need a new generation of leaders and visionary editors — YOU — to break down the walls and get our journalism everywhere, faster and more conveniently. PRNDI is pushing this message hard.

So how do we do this? Well, NPR, Transom, the Center for Documentary Studies, PRX and Third Coast are all trying to up the game when it comes to storytelling innovation. That is fantastic.

I’m looking at a lot of pros in this room, we know what good is, you do the impossible on deadline every day. That sort of gutsy, confident newsroom spirit needs to infect every station at every level.

The other way we can win is to stop thinking small.

Getting there starts with taking risks. A story: Before The Moth came to PRX, they met with at least one other network. And the reason PRX created that show and one other network in particular did not is that PRX found — get this — $5000 for a pilot. A measly $5000. Now, it took a lot more after that to build the show, but someone had to say yes first. And do so quickly. We did not hesitate to act audaciously. It has paid off for stations, paid off for The Moth and paid off for listeners.

The thrill of speed overcomes the fear…of failure.

Ok, let’s talk about the D-word..not digital but diversity.

We all know our newsrooms are too white, too male, too straight, too English-only, too homogenous of both class and education to keep our commitment to journalism. After all, look around this room.

NPR’s Doug Mitchell, Keith Woods, CPB, AIR and more of you are making strong efforts to change this.

But they will not solve this problem alone. Each of you will.

How? The answer is blunt: hire more diverse talent. How hard is that? Hard. A talent search is a daily exercise, a daily opportunity. And we can’t keep hiring from within public radio — open up your circle. Like any difficult story you have had to report, you will have to throw yourself into this and look for people not like you.

The long term goal is to create a new pipeline of talent to change the stories we cover, how we tell those stories and reach the audiences we must serve. New talent is the atomic unit of our future.

This is part of what it means to be transformative.

Ok, we’re in the fact business. Reality is our beat.

Part of that reality are stories based not on institutions, but on the core of who we are — That side of public radio — like StoryCorps, Snap Judgment, On Being, The Moth, Death Sex and Money, Kind World at WBUR, Us &Them from West Virginia Public Radio and Trey Kay, the Otherhood podcast from WGBH and PRI — all of them are as important as your very best journalism.

 


These stories explain what motivates us to behave irrationally, or as members of a humane, connected society.

Finally, I want to talk about courage. If journalism can claim a cardinal virtue, it is courage.

The deaths of David Gilkey and Zabihullah Tamanna remind us of the high cost of doing this work. And we all appreciate the remarkable dedication of our NPR colleagues who have persevered through this gut wrenching period with professionalism and grace.

 


I am humbled by all the global reporters at NPR, APM, the BBC, PRI and among the independents.

It takes courage to report in the face of danger. It takes courage to stand up at your stations, to hostile sources or in your communities. You each make personal sacrifices, big and small. And all I can say is thank you, and that each of you needs a long vacation.

We all make mistakes. Find a way to come to terms with that frailty in yourself and within your colleagues. You are not an algorithm. Thank goodness.

Let’s be less quick to aim our arrows inward and remember this small tribe called public radio has created a form of media never seen before.

We have each experienced that dark night, alone with difficult facts, up against a relentless deadline and our own doubts. Is the story right? Am I up to telling it? Will anyone listen? Will anyone care? Will it even matter? …How many times have you asked those very questions?

We come back, to the existential.

You help others find meaning with verifiable facts in a confusing world. You explain life as it is lived.

To paraphrase Edward R. Murrow, there is a lot of courage in this room.

 


Please, join with many of us working to move public radio forward to new audiences, new channels, to a more essential meaning.

I hope you too can feel the thrill of speed.

I am grateful every day to be in public radio with you. Thank you.