Listen Deeply: The Public Radio Mandate

Speech delivered by Laura Walker, President and CEO, New York Public Radio at the NYPR Gala on November 14, 2016

Laura Walker at NYPR Gala on November 14, 2016. Photo By: Michael Priest

Thank you all for being here tonight.

When my son Evan was five years old, I took him to see a ventriloquist in a small, dingy theater in Brooklyn.

Evan was transfixed.

Kenny the ventriloquist sat with his wooden friend on his lap. They were seemingly engaged in animated conversation, arguing back and forth. Of course, we all knew that Kenny was talking to himself. When we left, Evan said “Well, that was kinda creepy.”

What we witnessed in that Brooklyn theater is what many are saying was the greatest flaw of the campaign we just experienced:

We were talking to ourselves. And talking past each other.

We thought the free access to information available through the internet would somehow allow facts to rise to the top, would somehow knit us all together.

Instead it has actually helped us retreat to our own cultural and intellectual camps.

It’s the antithesis of a thriving democratic conversation.

That concerns me.

I believe in the power of facts and the willingness of the receiver to take them in.

So how do we prevent a repeat of the “talking past each other” phenomenon and build a real coalition for connection and understanding between people who have distinct visions of what this country should be?

What is the role for the journalist on behalf of the electorate and the greater cause of democracy?

I’ll offer up some thoughts about the way forward, and I welcome yours.

Mine are inspired in part by the great journalist Gwen Ifill, who we mourn today, and who said: “Change comes from listening, learning, caring and conversation.”

We listened to peoples’ voices during this election… and we can do even better. Together with our partners in communities around the country, we opened the phones to hear in real-time from Americans of all backgrounds. During the primaries and on election night, we connected with voters from Florida to Ohio, Wisconsin to North Carolina. We heard from many Trump voters, Clinton voters all around the country. We heard hope, hate, fear and love.

I am particularly proud of a series we produced for podcast and broadcast called The United States of Anxiety with The Nation magazine. It’s a serialized, character-driven look at what lay beneath the campaign slogans and the polling and the rhetoric. We embedded ourselves in Suffolk County and LISTENED, carefully and in a sustained way, and created portraits of people whose lives have been disrupted, whose sense of the American Dream has been shattered. We talked to white voters and black and brown voters. Many were Trump voters.

We looked at the immigrant struggle and we looked at the death grip of opioid addiction in white communities.

We LISTENED actively and reported what we heard.

The result was work that reflected this segment of the electorate in all of its complexity — it was journalism with the magnetic power of reality media.

And we set the course for a future WNYC — with greater connection to the many communities we serve.

If we don’t take all of this on, who will?

I believe that public media has a strong mandate right now. We can be a powerful bridge of understanding, between people in urban centers and in every state — red, blue and purple. But we must serve many more, and a greater mix of people.

WNYC hosts Brian Lehrer and Jami Floyd taking listener calls on election night

Some of you may remember when WNYC reached the milestone of 1 million listeners. Today, we reach more than 22 million people each month. In fact, New York Public Radio is the second largest podcast producer in the country and major producer of national public radio programs as well.

And we have a specific plan — a vision and clear steps — to serve 45 million people within the next five years.

Here is how we’ll get there:

FIRST, WE MUST REPORT DEEPLY, FAIRLY AND WITH COURAGE AND TENACITY.

And it’s more needed than ever. Consider these four announcements in the last weeks:

The Wall Street Journal announced it will publish its final Greater New York section this week.

The New York Daily News announced another round of layoffs last week.

The New York Times wrote this weekend that it is “rethinking its own Metro coverage as the paper seeks to lure global audiences.”

And the New York Observer revealed on Friday that it’s ending its print edition, leaving only the-observer-dot-com. The words “New York” will disappear from the brand.

Again, if we don’t take this on, who will?

No one believes in the power of reporting about New York more than the brilliant Julie Sandorf, who we honor tonight. Thank you, Julie! We love you, Julie!

SECOND, WE HAVE CONVENING POWER and WE SHOULD USE IT.

A week before the vote, President Obama asked, “How do we create a space where truth gets eyeballs, and is entertaining? How can we create a common conversation?”

Our answer to those questions is to invite more people to sit at the table.

As we are here enjoying each others’ company here tonight, a team at WNYC is on the air with a live show. It’s a “common space” for New Yorkers and the nation to express their anger, their hope, their anxiety and to find a place where we can hear each others’ versions of the truth.

We will keep this show going as we turn the corner into a fractious new political environment and keep the concerns of ordinary people at the forefront of the conversation.

THIRD, WE MUST USE ALL THE TOOLS AT OUR DISPOSAL.

We must find ways to engage more people. Through more podcasts, shows, social media, through humor, and story.

And through the power of music to bring us together, to give voice to emotions even as words fail us.

Tonight we celebrate Jonathan Schwartz of the American Songbook. Jonathan, thank you for sharing your passion for music. We love you!

Never has journalism been under such severe threat yet never has it been more necessary to the life of the nation.

Never have so many people retreated into their circles of self-reinforcement, yet never has it been more necessary to listen deeply to one another.

So, starting right here tonight, I pledge to strengthen a public space where truth gets eyes — and ears! Where authentic voices are heard. We will ask the tough questions, demand accountability and tell stories that enlighten. We will build that common conversation.

No talking to ourselves, no algorithmic bubbles, no creepy ventriloquists. Instead, the real, powerful, unfiltered, authentic voices of New York and of America.

We will need your help. With it, we can be that solution. We will shine light and tell truth.

Thank you for supporting our work and for being here tonight.

About the Author: Laura R. Walker is the President and CEO of New York Public Radio, one of the largest public radio station groups in the nation and a leader in audio content creation. The organization owns and operates 8 radio stations including WNYC and WQXR, and produces more than 25 programs for local and national radio, and digital audiences.