Some Takes on Latino Public Media Growth

A new study should put conversations about diversity and audience in public radio upfront.
Our collective future hangs in the balance.

I love my public media folks, but sometimes it seems like we’ll talk about anything excessively but diversity.

Case in point: when the Latino Public Radio Consortium recently released its Brown Paper [PDF] on efforts by the Los Angeles-based public radio station KPCC to build its Latino listenership, the news was greeted with some interest, though not as much as we should expect.

The report, released in early July, should be a part of our conversations beyond the news churn. I’m as guilty as the next public radio type for bloviating about podcasting, but really? I know the money in podcasting is big, but let’s be real. Public media is still seeking to figure out how non-commercial media can win over America’s emerging demographic, the people who will fund public media in the not-too-distant future. As one quote in the Brown Paper study goes, catering to old, affluent white people is a formula for irrelevancy and insolvency. The KPCC story should have more public media attention than it does. A lot more.

I have remarked previously, as have many others, that it is urgent for public media to make inroads with Latino communities. The statistics about Latinos closing the digital divide, and about English-language news consumption are critical to understand in this context. What we as public media leaders and innovators do, and don’t do, over this next few years will determine a lot of the fate of public media. From federal money becoming more focused on service to an aging base, the non-commercial media wakeup call came through awhile ago. We have no option but to act.

In all, the Brown Paper should be required reading for anyone interested in current studies on diversity in public media. There are a few key take-home points, however:

Public media has an important opportunity to deliver English-language content to Latino audiences. Extensive research by KPCC and Radio Bilingue, the nation’s foremost Spanish-language public radio network, revealed the English-language dominant Latino is “the most frustrated media consumer.” The reasons are obvious: Spanish-language media does not provide the information these listeners are seeking, and English-language media by all accounts ignores them. Further research suggested there were profound differences among first-, second- and third-generation Latinos on a host of matters. These findings echoed previous studies, which indicate Latino and younger audiences want more welcoming content as opposed to explicitly ethnic programming. Multiplatform access, greater integration of music and a more conversational tone were among the things these audiences talked about. As the Brown Paper notes about these underserved Latino media consumers, “they want an invitation to the party, not a different party.”

In this regard, KPCC’s engagement efforts at reaching the many Latino communities was also noteworthy. From civic leaders to Latino bloggers, the radio station offered area forums and event oriented toward contemporary Latino issues. With a nod to Latinos being “ahead of the digital curve” according to Nielsen, digital distribution and social media were prominent in the radio station’s plans. It also underwent a content shift, focusing on less one-hour-long topics that appeal to a limited audience, and more on shorter, conversational subjects, with music bumpers and more humor. In these ways, and others, KPCC was able to get Latino audiences interested in its programming by large and small changes, but not needing to resort to breaking away from what it does: sharing great content.

Community radio needs to shift focus to stay relevant. KPCC’s experience has been exactly the opposite of what the hyperlocal community radio sphere has oftentimes done, to far less success. In many areas, community radio has opted for Spanish-language programming to attract Latino audiences. The problem is that the competition here is tremendous, and diverse. In addition to the big media dogs, such as Univision and Telemundo, there are many local and regional outposts sharing content. They have the relationships community radio does not, because their investment in the audience is often more significant than a single show or even two or three programs. As well, the web has flattened out access to media. Audiences can now find Spanish-language content from across Latin America via smartphones, which are themselves cheaper and more accessible than ever before. Like English, these listeners don’t need a radio station for reporting from around the world.

For community radio, the Brown Paper magnifies a crucial issue. It’s a mild case of cultural arrogance to suggest community radio, with its meager resources and lack of connection (beyond a person or two) to monolingual Spanish-speaking communities, can somehow provide more intelligent, sharper analysis than home countries, local journalists involved in these local communities and the array of online and other media. A bigger challenge is that the audience has no relationship for the most part with public media. It isn’t reasonable to think the community can trust an outlet because it does one, five or ten hours of Spanish-language programming, when competitors offer more of their 168 hours each week, and trust in that programming and public media as a whole is built organically anyway.

A change model must be central. The Brown Paper should also be a strong reminder for public media that Latino audience growth is a longterm commitment. Growing that listenership, especially among young people, is more than adding Spanish-language programming or even a podcast. It involves looking at one’s sound and striking a tone that resonates.

While KPCC has dynamic staffing, its growth in Latino listenership is the result of a holistic effort to remake the organization. From board buy-in to a management commitment to stay the course, even when things got difficult, the effort to grow Latino engagement in the radio station and its vision was strong. The results proved impressive. In five years, KPCC doubled its Latino cume, and increased its total cume. Listener and underwriting support also grew. These numbers are encouraging for other public media institutions with the courage to take that leap.

For community radio and those few others invested in Spanish-language programming in particular, a slightly uncomfortable strategic exploration must happen. While a community media outlet may have a Spanish-language program, quite often the organizations themselves, from boards to staff, don’t have a means to engage monolingual Spanish-speaking constituents. If these communities listen to a Spanish-language show on a station, can they call the station and get information in their native language about programming or producing a show? How about go to a board meeting and participate, read minutes, etc.? Due to such infrastructure limitations, Spanish-language programming can be hence a service in name only. At worst, it’s tokenism.

Within the Brown Paper is a bigger commitment more of public media can embrace: a focus on deciding the Latino audience most needing attention and going for it. KPCC determined it would have the most success appealing to the English-language Latino demographic, and it has paid off. Community media needs to determine in its signal area what fits best and similarly reach out, unite and build, for all of us.