Of The People, By The People, For The People: Public Radio & User-Generated Content

In the summer of 2010, I was driving through Chicago and searching the radio for something to listen to when I came across an intriguing conversation. Cracking jokes, using local vernacular, and speaking dynamically, the host sounded like a typical commercial radio DJ, but they weren’t discussing celebrity gossip or promoting a new disposable consumer product. Instead, what I heard was an intelligent, balanced, provocative conversation about interracial dating with many listeners calling in to include their opinions and stories. Captivated, I was stilling listening as I entered northwest Indiana. The host, Brian Babylon, wrapped up the conversation, and transitioned to the next block of programing: a montage of audio clips submitted by listeners including everything from local music to high school confessions to slam poetry. I still hadn’t heard a commercial break, so was this public radio?

I had been listening to Vocalo 89.5 FM, sister station to WBEZ renowned for producing shows like This American Life. Both stations are owned by Chicago Public Media, which launched Vocalo in 2007 as part of an initiative to reach a broader public and diversify listenership. In a 2010 press release, Vocalo was described as:
Vocalo.org is a website and radio station committed to fostering conversation between diverse constituents in the Lake Michigan region. The station invites everyone to join the conversation by uploading stories, interviews, and text to www.vocalo.org or by calling the hotline at 888-635-1112. As of 2010, Vocalo.org's online community has grown to more than 6,000 contributors and features more than 40,000 individual content items on the site. (SPL 2010)
The idea was that if access to radio production was democratized, that diversification of content and listenership would follow accordingly (B. Babylon, personal communication, July 26, 2012). Basically, it was believed that if anyone could create content that might potentially be played on air, that everyone would participate. Vocalo would achieve their goal of reaching new demographics by having listeners conceive, produce, and submit the majority of their broadcast content.

Unfortunately, the experiment did not go as planned. Roughly 80% of the user-generated content was submitted by typical NPR listener: older, white, affluent, educated, and male (B. Babylon, personal communication, July 26, 2012). Since Vocalo was failing to reach their goals of a diverse, engaged community of listeners by broadcasting user-generated content, Silvia Rivera was named the new Managing Director in March 2010. Rivera was brought in to restructure programing, and realign the station to meet its mandate. Host, Brian Babylon, who has been with Vocalo since its inception, said Rivera had brought “new vision”, and that he was “excited for her leadership”. Although, Vocalo still accepts user-generated content via their website and hotline, UGC is no longer the focus of their broadcast. Instead, Vocalo has had more success connecting with new and diverse audiences through social media, community partnerships, and live, on-location broadcasting.

User-generated content offers significant promise for public radio. It’s a low-cost source of material that can engage listeners, and align stations with the interests of local communities. However, as Vocalo demonstrates there are issues and drawbacks to UGC. Moreover, there is a variety of techniques and forms of content that can achieve the mandate of public radio, and stations must explore all options. This paper aims to explore the potential uses, drawbacks, and advantages of incorporating user-generated content into public radio broadcasts. Drawing from the findings of an extensive literature review and feedback from public radio professionals, the foundations of public radio and UGC are explored, and solutions for successful integration of the two mediums are proposed.

For The People: Public Broadcasting

In 1967, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act, a pioneering piece of cultural legislation that created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting as well as National Public Radio (Avery 2007). During the signing he stated that the initiative would “get part of its support from our Government. But it will be carefully guarded from Government or from party control. It will be free, and it will be independent – and it will belong to all our people” (CBP 2000). From its inception, public broadcast media, a term that included both television and radio, was intended to be for the benefit of the people, all people. It was a utopian success story of idealistic and skillful leaders coming together to protect at least a portion of the public airwaves for the noncommercial interests of the public. There was an understanding among policymakers that commercial stations reliance upon advertisers affected their programing. Commercial stations were likely to keep content light and entertaining to align advertisers’ brands with positive feelings or luxury lifestyles. They would also create content that targeted demographics that advertisers wanted to reach, and that had broad appeal. There was little room in commercial media for educational content, minority voices, or niche markets.

Hence, the public broadcast system was formed with a mandate set forth in the Carnegie Commission’s landmark report, Public Television: A Program for Action, which included goals such as:
• “Provide a voice for groups in the community that may otherwise be unheard”
• Serve as “a forum for controversy and debate”
• “Help us see America whole, in all its diversity” (Carnegie 1967)
Although the Public Broadcasting Act has been amended since it’s signing, its essential nature remains the same. This paragraph is from the current “Goals and Objectives” section of Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s website.
The fundamental purpose of public service media is to provide programs and services that inform, enlighten, and enrich the public. CPB has particular responsibility to encourage the development of programming that involves creative risks and that addresses the needs of unserved and underserved audiences, particularly children and minorities.
Clearly 45 years later the original purposes of public broadcasting remain valued, guiding principles for the work of the CPB. And, when we consider that America is now more ethnically diverse than ever before, and that the widened economic gap reduces access to equal education, the value of a public medium that attempts to address these changes seems self-evident.

However, although the ideals of public broadcasting were pure, the language and context of the Public Broadcasting Act were based on the Carnegie Commissions report, which was primarily authored by wealthy academics concerned with educational issues. In the chapter, Moving Beyond the “Vast Wasteland”, from The Television Studies Reader, Laurie Ouelette and Justin Lewis examine the sociocultural context that gave rise to the formation of American public television in the early 1960s (Allen 2004). The 1950s mass media debate equated advertising control with the pop culture of the masses, and public service with the culture privilege of educated niches. Consequently, public television was created for the purpose of providing uplifting culture to the masses by the sheer force of its alternative existence (Allen p55). This dynamic resulted in a bifurcation in television that made public television dependent upon wealthy donors and their tastes, and privately owned television dependent upon advertisers and the perceived tastes of the masses (Allen 2004). Essentially, one can argue that because public broadcasting was founded by a specific demographic profile (White, wealthy, and educated), the content of public broadcasting outlets has been crafted to cater to that same demographic, rather than promoting diversity or serving under-represented communities as intended.

Robert K. Avery, who has written several articles on public broadcasting, takes this analysis even further. He suggests that in fact the actual language of the report and act relegates public broadcasting as the “other” media format from its initial establishment (2007). By using phrases like “a source of alternative telecommunications” and “all that is of human interest and importance which is not at the moment appropriate or available for support by advertising” to define public broadcasting, the language of these documents marginalized the CPB to only provide content that commercial networks did not want to cover. It also inherently assumes that this content has no broader economic value, thus making it a charity case reliant upon government funding and private donations.

Furthermore, the Act failed to guarantee a steady source of funding for the CPB, despite the Commission’s recommendation for an excise tax on televisions to support public broadcasting (Avery 2007). The television tax model is used to fund the BBC, which has allowed British public broadcasting to play a leading role in that country’s culture, while minimizing government influence over content (Avery 2005). Conversely, the CPB is monitored by a board of fifteen members, all presidential appointees, which allows partisan politics to exert a considerable influence upon content (Avery 2007). This lack of independent leadership has limited the CPB’s ability to produce content that fosters controversy and debate, a key mandate of the Commission’s report.

Similar issues have impacted the mission and structure of National Public Radio specifically. William Siemering was the first program director of NPR, and he also wrote the organization’s first mission statement, which envisioned a forum for various, opposing opinions with minimal mediation from traditional gatekeepers (Reader 2007). However, NPR’s most recent audience demographic data shows that the median household income of on-air listeners is $93, 100 annually. That’s roughly $40,000 more than the average household in the US (NPR 2012). Additionally, the percent of the NPR audience with college degrees ranged from 81% of users who downloaded podcasts to 57% of NPR.org visitors. Both statistics are significantly higher than the entire US population, of which only 25% graduated from college (NPR 2012). Evidently, NPR delivers content which appeals to an elite niche of the US population, educated and affluent. Yet, this is not in line with the founding mission of NPR, or with their current mission as listed on their website as of July, 2012, which includes lists reaching new audiences as a goal, and states that its mission is to inform the public with a deeper “appreciation of events, ideas, and cultures.” It should be noted that the words “cultures” and “ideas” are both plural, thus implying multiplicity. Accordingly, as an organization born out of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, NPR also struggles to reconcile a generally homogeneous audience with a mission for diversity. The medium of radio does not change the common realities that the CPB, NPR, and PBS all face, such as a lack of reliable funding and competition with for-profit corporations in the media landscape.

In brief, economic reliance upon a specific demographic of private citizen, and control by a politicized board has severely hampered the CPB’s ability to reach their goal of providing a mediated public sphere for a diverse range of opinions to exchange ideas and information. Though the government only provides a small portion of the funding for public broadcasting, its founding structure remains a persistent problem. However, in today’s increasingly diverse American and saturated media-environment, the need for an independent media for the people remains as relevant and necessary as ever (Hoynes 2007). Although reform is needed, public broadcasting has the potential to become more important than ever as media evolves exponentially through new technologies. As the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Public Broadcast Service, and National Public Radio move forward it is essential that they find a way to overcome structural obstacles and succeed in their mission for diversity and debate.

By The People: User-Generated Content

The phrase user-generated content has become ubiquitous with Web 2.0, the social web, in which the lines between user and producer become blurred and independent voices challenge and compliment traditional media (Leung 2009). However, although the term had yet to be coined, user-generated content existed long before the internet. In an interview with Brenda Barnes, President of KUSC, the largest public radio classical music station in the country, she pointed out that radio shows comprised of listener-requested songs, and air talk programing that relies upon caller commentary and questions are both time-honored forms of user-generated content (B. Barnes, personal communication, July 24, 2012). Additionally, letters-to-the-editor, which is a frequent on-air component of several NPR shows, is also a means for users to participate in content creation, and provide independent commentary on public issues. If we broaden our understanding of user-generated content to include any way in which someone who is not a traditional producer or media gate-keeper participates in a mediate public sphere, thus generating conversation i.e. content, the potential uses of user-generated content for public radio multiple tenfold.

That said, there are limitations, and certain demographics are far more likely to participate in UGC, whether a form as traditional as letters-to-the-editor or as novel as YouTube journalism. Similar to the demographics of NPR listeners, those people most likely to submit UGC and letters-to-the-editor are also most likely to be White with an above average income and education (Jonsson & Ornebring 2011). In their 2011 analysis of UGC and online newspapers in the United Kingdom, Jonsson and Ornebring point out the role of media producer usually has more power, or gatekeeping privileged, than the role of consumer. Their study concluded that despite more active participation in news media creation, UGC creators still perform the role of consumer, and therefore the inherent power dynamic remains unchanged. Gatekeepers, producers and publishers, were far more likely to allow UGC in infotainment sections of their online publications, such as travel, because these sections address their readers as consumers. Moreover, the addition of UGC to these types of sections adds value to the publication’s brand by aligning the audience with advertisers (Jonsson & Orenebring 2011). Although the authors find considerable potential in the power of UGC to empower citizens, they maintain that it does not currently serve that function. The conclusions of this study should be unsurprising. Since the media outlets are controlling the extant that citizens can submit UGC, from full-product reviews to comment sections on headlining stories, they are opening themselves up to feedback rather than empowering users to participate.

Jonsson and Orenebring’s study supports Bill Readers 2007 analysis of listener letters submitted to NPR. Reader also points out that “most published letters are written by people who are middle-aged, upper-middle income, highly educated, and White, as well as the power issues related to journalists’ role as media gatekeepers. When journalists imagine the audience and community they are creating content for, they are often adhering to the norms and standards of the journalist community, not necessarily their audience. “It suggests that imagining community is as much a process of journalism as a product of it, a process that is largely defined by the sociology of the news profession” (Reader 2007). Reader concludes that most of the NPR producers that he interviewed seemed genuinely interested in including listener feedback and fostering community; however, perhaps unavoidable human bias and necessary reduction of the 27 million weekly listeners of NPR resulted in an imagined community that was not representative of the whole. Although these shortcomings may be understandable, they are severally detrimental to NPR’s stated goal of reaching new audiences. They also undermine the potential of UGC for public radio, by inherently screening out voices that do not confirm to the social and professional norms of NPR journalist. Though accurate reporting and journalistic integrity must be maintained while incorporating UGC into NPR’s programing, it is clear that better systems for eliminating unnecessary selection bias are needed. Otherwise, public radio cannot truly serve as a forum for all voices.

Perhaps the form of UGC most applicable to public radio is independent podcasting, because both formats are primarily aural in nature. Although most adults are capable of writing a letter to the editor or calling into a talk radio show, podcasting production, like radio production, requires certain technical skills and equipment. Kris Markman’s 2011 extensive survey of podcasters found that most podcasters were 35 to 44 year old males with college degrees and above average engagement with online content. Markman found that podcasters were often inspired to start podcasting after listening to podcasts, and enjoyed the convenience and freedom of the medium, but the primary motivation was to ‘do radio’, to perform radio with production values similar to commercial talk radio. Most continued to produce weekly podcasts for multiple years, because they felt they held the attention and expectations of an audience, based on listener feedback (Markman 2011). Podcaster demographics and motivations are similar to other UGC producers, as well as NPR listeners. This suggests that NPR can easily connect with the podcasting community to elicit content, but such UGC initiatives will not allow NPR to reach new audiences.

Besides Vocalo, an outstanding example of user-generated content in public radio is StoryCorps. Funded by the CPB, and broadcasted on NPR’s Morning Edition, StoryCorps is an oral history project dedicated to collecting and archiving American voices (StoryCorps 2011). Here is how the organization describes itself in its 2011 Annual Report.
“StoryCorps is an independent nonprofit whose mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives. Since 2003, StoryCorps has collected and archived more than 40,000 interviews from nearly 80,000 participants. We do this to remind one another of our shared humanity, strengthen and build the connections between people, teach the value of listening, and weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that every life matters.”
The interview process is essential to the collection of these oral histories, and although the resulting audio segments are recorded and produced by professionals, often someone close to the interviewee is asked to conduct the interview. The result is an intimate conversation about a range of personal experiences and stories. It is ancient art of storytelling as user-generated content with online distribution.

Moreover, in order to achieve their commitment to diversity StoryCorps reserves 50% of interview openings for the members of community organizations, like the Korean American Historical Society and National Coalition for the Homeless. In 2011, 16% of interviews were conducted with African Americans, 11% with Hispanics/Lations, and 7% with people identifying as LGBTQ (StoryCorps 2011). Such diversity is made possible in part due to the many points of access that StoryCorps provides. Interested interviewees can recorded their stories at established StoryBooths, located in NYC, San Francisco, and Atlanta, at MobileBooths that visited 15 different cities in 2011, through a door-to-door interview, or by renting a StoryKit (StoryCorps 2011). The mobility and versatility of StoryCorps recording equipment is crucial to achieving their diversity goals, because they provide a myriad of access points to interested users.

Through innovation, NPR syndication, and community partnerships StoryCorps has created unparalleled, commercial-free audio content that achieves CPB’s mandate to foster debate and include voices that would otherwise be marginalized. Although they partner with the CPB and NPR, it is important to note that StoryCorps is an independent organization. Consequently, they are not confined by the structural issues of public broadcasting. Instead, StoryCorps identifies as a nonprofit charity, though 34% of their funding, $2,166,460 in 2011, came from the government (StoryCorps 2011). Comparatively, NPR receives 4.6% of their funding from federal, state and local government and 11.4% from the CPB (NPR 2010). In the future, StoryCorps may serve as a model for user-generated media endeavors, with ample financial support from the government, but minimal interference.

Of The People: UGC & NPR Recommendations

Edward R. Murrow and his team’s coverage of WWII for CBS is often held in the highest esteem, the golden age of foreign reporting, or as a plaque at the CBS headquarters’ describes Murrow, “He set standards of excellence that remain unsurpassed” (Cozma 2010). What has since become a familiar format for original radio news, foreign correspondent communication, and the safeguarding of journalistic integrity with limited resources, was first established by the Murrow Boys (Cozma 2010). However, in an comparative analysis of CBS coverage of WWII and NPR coverage of the Iraq War, Cozma found that “the NPR correspondents use more sources overall and give more voice to average people in particular, cover a more diversified pool of stories, and do more original foreign news gathering” (2010). This is in fact more consistent with Murrow’s journalistic philosophy than even Murrow was able to achieve given the commercial constraints of CBS and the lack of telecommunications infrastructure at the time (Cozma 2010). Cozma’s findings suggest that the so called “golden age” of journalism is largely a function of nostalgia, and that NPR still plays a valuable role in maintaining journalistic standards as well as providing the American people with international news.

The value of NPR programing is reflected in their growing listenership: 28% of Americans regularly listen to NPR (Cozma 2010) that’s nearly 30 million listeners a week, and “the number of listeners to NPR Newsagazine station in the top markets has increased by 48% since 1998” (NPR 2010). This growth is due partly to increased international news coverage at a time when many news outlets are decreasing their foreign correspondent staff (Cozma 2010), and due to a shift away from local programing toward nationally syndicated programming (Reader 2007). However, a key finding of Cozma’s should not be overlooked: NPR is more likely to give voice to a diverse range of average people (2010). This finding suggests value in interpersonal discourse, as well as local perspective, and such content is best created, or at the very least supplemented by UGC. If NPR or its local public radio stations can successfully leverage UGC, they can increase listener engagement, affordably enrich content, reach diverse new audiences, build local brand relevance, and create a forum for multi-viewpoint debate.

Based on my review of academic literature pertaining to public radio and user-generated content, along with interviews conducted with public radio professionals, I would like to propose four elements essential for efficaciously implementing UGC campaigns, and integrating the collected content into public radio broadcasting.
• Organic community with feedback systems
• Minimal and balanced gatekeeping
• Limiting barriers to entry by providing equal access to technology
• Reliable and adequate funding
There is evidence to support that a UGC system incorporating these components would foster a broad and diverse community of content generators with high levels of participation, consumption, and production. Moreover, it would create content that would prove invaluable in achieving the mandate set forth by the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967.

Organic Community with Feedback Systems

It is very difficult to manufacture community, because human connection cannot be forced and often requires a performance of authenticity and establishment of sincere trust. Rather than struggling to construct a UGC community from scratch, public radio should endeavor to create an environment that fosters community and UGC submissions, and then partner with existing communities to bring them together within that environment. This environment could exist dually online and in the local community that the station exists in. For example, public radio could partner with an online network of podcasters and a neighborhood civic council. Both of these communities already exist with established social networks and value systems, but might not ever interact to produce content. However, public radio could provide an invaluable common ground on which the two communities could come together to create innovative, diverse content. Perhaps, podcasters could be appealed to voluntarily conduct interviews about a specific topic of local interest at a community center, and community leaders could organize the event.

In a 2009 study titled “User-generated content on the internet: an examination of gratifications, civic engagement and psychological empowerment”, Louis Leung identified four factors that motivated internet users to produce content: recognition needs, cognitive needs, social needs, and entertainment needs. In particular, recognition needs can only be met if users are part of an active community that can easily provide feedback on content generated, thus fostering connections and creating a measurement of what is valued by group members. Social needs, which included factors such as willingness to share information (Leung 2009), can also only be fulfilled wit in a strong, engaged community. Users must feel comfortable and safe as group members in order to be open to new interpersonal connections. In order to create a fertile environment for trans-community collaboration to grow organically, public radio must provide opportunities for all four of these types of needs to be met.

Minimal and Balanced Gatekeeping

Several of the academic articles included in this literature addressed issues of gatekeeping in USG and public radio (Avery 2007, Hoynes 2007, Reader 2007, Jonsson & Ornebring 2011). Some level of gatekeeping is necessary to maintain journalistic standards, and production quality. However, excessive gatekeeping creates an uneven power dynamic that disenfranchises certain types of users, and creates an audience with demographics unrepresentative of the whole community. Gatekeeping can take many forms from personal bias to censorship fears, but it is essential that systems are established to minimize and balance gatekeeping. Otherwise, communities will fail to grow, lack diversity, and produce more mainstream and homogeneous content.

On a macro scale, one initiative for reform would be to repeal the “objectivity and balance” requirement of the CPB’s annual review, which was established in the Public Telecommunications Act of 1992 based on unsubstantiated claims of liberal bias (Hoynes 2007). Coupled with the oversight of a politically appointed CPB board, public broadcasting is often pressured to stick to more innocuous programing, rather than fulfill its mission to provide a forum for controversy and debate. Although this does not constitute censorship per say, it does create an aura of scrutiny that would restrict the creative potential and topical scope of a public radio UGC community.

On a micro scale, journalists can overcome their tendency to imagine their audience as a community of journalists (Reader 2007) by directly reaching out to marginalized communities as the StoryCorps project has successfully done. It is clear that when news organizations passively receive UGC, they overwhelmingly receive content from a more affluent, highly educated, predominately White and male demographic. Therefore, public radio stations must actively breakdown gatekeeping barriers by working with local community organizations on their own terms, and preferably on their own ground.

Limiting Barriers to Entry by Providing Equal Access to Technology

Another element necessary for integrating UGC and public radio that StoryCorps has successively achieved is the need to bridge the digital divide by limiting barriers to entry and providing equal access to technology. StoryCorps achieves this by offering a myriad of access points for users to record their stories. Additionally, with the exception of renting a StoryKit, most points of access have technology professionals present to help facilitate recording and production. This means that anyone who would like to participate in that UGC community can, whether or not they have technical skills or recording expertise. The cost of owning recording equipment, access to high-speed distribution channels and opportunity for digital education still serves as barriers to entry to certain communities in America, usually the marginalized voices public broadcasting is mandated to serve. Consequently, it is unsurprising that most podcasters are middle aged, middle class, educated, White men (Markman 2012). Thus public radio will have to provide ample opportunity, intentional outreach, and assistance as necessary if they want to make UGC production accessible to all communities.

Vocalo has attempted to offer ubiquitous access for UGC participants through their hotline, which anyone can call and record content on. However, they do not receive much usable content through this medium (S. Lu, personal communication, July 26, 2012). Instead, they’ve had more success connecting with a local Chicagoland community through their Barber Shop Show, which is broadcasted live each week from Carter's Barber Shop in Chicago's North Lawndale neighborhood. Vocalo Partnership Director and Barber Shop Show Producer, Sarah Lu believes it is unrealistic to expect everyone to learn how to become a sound engineer in order to produce UGC (S. Lu, personal communication, July 26, 2012). Besides the goal of Vocalo isn’t teaching technology, but rather broadcasting local voices. The Barber Shop Show achieves Vocalo’s goals by bringing the production tools and expertise directly to a community, thus reducing barriers and improving access.

Reliable and Adequate Funding

It is difficult for an organization to grow new programs, such as UGC initiatives, sustainably when it’s long-range funding is unreliable. NPR is reliant upon dwindling government funding. Consequently, member station dues paid for the right to syndication NPR programming on local public radio stations has become NPR’s primary source of stable funding. Government funding and support from the CPB only account for 16% of NPR’s budget, despite the fact that 28% of Americans are regular NPR listeners and that audience is growing (NPR 2010). Reallocating NPR’s costs to member stations via dues does not assuaged the burden of fundraising, but rather transfers it to local public radio, which may or may not have the infrastructure and audience to support it. Consider how different fundraising and membership drives must be for an NPR station in San Francisco versus West Virginia.

Both Robert Avery and William Hoynes identify funding as a key structural weakness of public broadcasting in their 40-year retrospective analysis of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 (Avery 2007, Hoynes 2007). Avery best sums up the negative consequences of insufficient government funding support upon content and audience demographics.
“It is the audience member with disposable income who must be courted with programs that keep the checks coming in during the periodic on-air fundraisers. The same audience demographics are equally attractive to corporate underwriters, who want to reach upscale viewers and listeners.” (2007)
Thus a vicious funding cycle has been formed that squeezes out the voice of people who do not have enough discretionary income to afford philanthropy or other luxury goods. Hoynes proposes several fiscal solutions to liberate content from funding, thus allowing for more voices and UGC. These solutions include taxing broadcast advertising, annual commercial broadcast license holder fees, broadcast licenses sale fees, and endowing a trust fund from the money generated by auctioning off new broadcast spectrums (Hoynes 2007). How likely any of these funding sources are to materialize is debatable, but the need for need for reliable and adequate public broadcast funding is evident.

Limitations, Discussion & Conclusions

Organic community with feedback systems, minimal and balanced gatekeeping, limiting barriers to entry by providing equal access to technology, and reliable and adequate funding are all elements that will help synergistically integrate UGC into public radio. However, these proposed elements are based only on preliminary research. A more extensive study of successful public radio UGC initiative is needed to conclusively prove the essential value of components highlighted in this paper. In the future, I hope to return to this subject, and perform a more extensive study.

One question posed to several of the public radio professionals interviewed for this paper was “What will the future of public radio look like?” Perhaps it would have been better to ask what it will sound like. However, all respondents agreed the new media technologies were likely to continue to change the nature of public radio. Brenda Barnes, President of KUSC, was hopeful that new media technologies and public radio could be used to strengthen each other and leverage the unique characteristics of both in order to build better programing platforms (B. Barnes, personal communication, July 24, 2012). Both Sarah Lu and Brian Babylon of Vocalo where confident that the future of public radio would sound more like the programing they create (personal communication, July 26, 2012). This would both reflect a better fulfillment of public broadcasting’s mandate, but also conform to economic realities. As Brian Babylon pointed out, his show is produced with only two people, whereas shows produced at their more traditional sister station, WBEZ, often require as many as five people. Essentially, Vocalo does a better job of achieving certain public broadcasting goals at considerably less cost. Therefore, the initial feedback on this question suggests that posing the question of what public radio will sound like in the future would generate discussion useful for innovative initiatives.

In conclusion, public radio requires reform in order to meet the mandate of its founding Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. Current sociocultural, economic, and mass media realities make this mandate as relevant and necessary as ever. NPR audiences are growing, and UGC projects like StoryCorps and Vocal are changing the sound and audience for public radio. Though there are many options and avenues for public radio reform, and UGC has limitations, more active and engaged user feedback and participation has potential to help public radio achieve its mandate for fostering a forum for diversity and debate. Elements to consider when integrating UGC into public radio should include: organic community with feedback systems, minimal and balanced gatekeeping, limiting barriers to entry by providing equal access to technology, and reliable and adequate funding.

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