Radio Days: Brian Lehrer on the connection between ‘user engagement’ and ‘listener support’

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Brian Lehrer. ()
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One of the great things about local radio, according to Brian Lehrer, the 57-year-old, glasses-wearing host of an eponymous WNYC talk show for the past 21 years, is its smallness.

"I think the irony today is that the non-for-profit public radio model may be more actually viable than the commercial-advertising driven model and it is because of the direct connection to the local community," Lehrer said.

He was speaking last night on the penthouse floor of OpenPlans, the not-for-profit described by its founder Mark Gorton as "a technology-driven social enterprise" that "spots the seams in the world where opportunities for transformative change exist."

For any creative content enterprise, conventional wisdom would run something like: If your product is really good, your devoted listeners will pay to help sustain it. But what if the fact that you ask for sustenance from your listeners actually makes them stakeholders, makes them into devoted participants? It seemed that's what Lehrer was suggesting: "When we do our fund-raisers and go on the air and we ask for listeners to contribute. They do feel a sense of community, a sense of an oasis."

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That is part of why Lehrer's show is so laser-focused on local issues: The audience that cares about the state's distinction of having the lowest volunteerism rates in the country, about a new state bill challenging the police stop-and-frisk policy, about an arborist's tips for tree maintenance probably self-selects for an audience that cares about local, listener-supported radio.

Personalities like Terry Gross, who interviews celebrities and movie stars, probably gets National Public Radio sponsorship meetings in the highest courts of American capitalism, but for listener support, the local affiliates are in the drivers' seat.

In January 2009, WNYC finished its four-year capital campaign to raise $62.9 million from local organizations including the Jerome L. Greene Foundation, the City of New York and more than 8,000 listeners.

More than 50 percent of WNYC's donations are made through their website.

"Not that a national program can't build a community, they certainly can," Lehrer said. "But the fact that we're out there reporting for what's going on on people's block and things like that and doing it in a way that really lets their voices in, I think we've accomplished that."

Lehrer, wearing a bright orange and purple striped button down shirt, was sitting next to Douglas Rushkoff, the author and resident media and tech pundit at The New School and The Daily Beast. They were both asked by the Personal Democracy Forum to lead an evening discussion about "Local Radio in the Networked Age."

(Editor's note: This publication has its home office in PDF's Soho headquarters.)

Floor-to-ceiling windows gave panoramic views of Tribeca and Chinatown to the few dozen 20-to-30-something professionals in suits and trim day dresses sitting politely in chairs and couches in the sparse space to listen to their stories.

"One of the reasons that I got into AM in the first place is that, as a kid, radio meant community to me," Lehrer said. "Coming up in the late '60s, early '70s, listening to the old New York stations defining the alternative youth community around music and some other kinds of artistic or political expression. And BAI in those days—listening to people like Steve Post in his old talk show—he was really creating community in the middle of the night."

He would dial around on his radio box to get better signals for jazz and talk shows beaming from Rochester and even further upstate, and feeling the silent presence of the listeners who were tuning in to the same signal. "Wow, there's a world out there of people like me," Lehrer said.

Commercial radio arrived in New York in 1921 with RCA's WJZ. It aired the World Series of the New York Yankees versus the New York Giants four days after it first launched. A year later, Grover A. Whalen, the city's Commissioner for Plant and Structures, proposed a "Municipal Wireless Broadcasting Station" and got approval for $50,000 in funding. On July 8, 1924, 86 years ago yesterday, WNYC began broadcasting with a second-hand transmitter shipped from Brazil.

Today, WNYC has more than one million listeners and has the largest public radio audience in the U.S. The Brian Lehrer Show, which currently airs at 10 a.m., now has "several hundreds of thousands of listeners" daily, according to its host.

Of course, the Internet "fixed" the problem of local radio's scalability—by enabling producers to post podcasts, programming and additional content online and reach a wider national audience. Instead of the one-way message of the radio, with a radio host calling out to a pool of listeners, Lehrer could engage with them through live chats, buzzy social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter, crowd-sourcing projects like his Anecdotal Census Project, which gathers stories and photos from New Yorkers about how their neighborhood has changed in the past decade.

When the Web came along in '95, WNYC was one of the first radio stations to experiment with this new meshing of mediums. Lehrer set up a bulletin board right away called 'The Soapbox.'

"It was immediately flamewars," Lehrer said. "So that was a little bit of an instant education to me about the openness and the fact that it was a little bit out of my control."

In July 2007, Lehrer took things a step further: He asked his listeners to look out their windows. "We just asked everybody to go right out on their own block and count the number of cars, regular cars vs. SUVs on your block, and just post it. We set up a comments page," he said.

About 300 or 400 people participated in the week or so that he promoted the project on air.

"We weren't learning anything statistically new that we couldn't look up," Lehrer continued. "But I think we created some community in an elementary kind of way because we got people to do something that was not passive—not just listening to the radio and hearing a debate and deciding which side they were on. People were looking outside their window—doing something."

Rushkoff, who hosted a radio show called The Media Squat on WFMU until November 2009, noticed that people truly were engaged when the economic crisis hit New York.

"The Internet community, particularly right now, is ready to return to a more local sensibility about their menus," Rushkoff said. "One of the things that was originally great about the net was that you were kind of everywhere at once, you were scaled up, everything was national and international. And now is the problem is that everything scales up, everything is national, everything is competing on the same sort of one layer—one Facebook layer, one Google search layer—world."

"I really believe that we've reached the very end of that cycle of local diminishment," he said.