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This Radio Story Sounds Familiar

There is a really interesting piece on Slate telling an all too familiar story.

Seeing that the median age of its listeners has been creeping slowly up from 45 to 54, NPR is in the throes of trying to make itself relevant to…yes, you know this one…a younger audience.

In some respects NPR’s problem is worse than that of the non-profit arts. In one case, the person telling NPR’s Foundation they need to appeal to a younger demographic had, unbeknownst to them, been hired away by Amazon subsidiary Audible. He is only one of many that were hired away or choose to strike off on their own.

Just as there is a recurring conversation in the arts that they are too beholden to a narrow segment of stakeholders, NPR also finds itself conflicted between innovation and catering to the demands of its funding sources.

The tumult was touched off in late March, when an NPR executive announced that the network’s own digital offerings—most importantly, its marquee iPhone app, NPR One—were not to be promoted during shows airing on terrestrial radio.

The ban was widely viewed as proof that NPR is less interested in reaching young listeners than in placating the managers of local member stations, who pay handsome fees to broadcast NPR shows and tend to react with suspicion when NPR promotes its efforts to distribute those shows digitally. After the gag order was made public, dozens of public radio and podcasting people set about picking at an old scab—discussing, spiritedly, in multiple forums, whether the antiquated economic arrangements that govern NPR’s relationships with its member stations are holding it back from innovation.

I was totally unaware of the NPR One app but according to Slate author Leon Neyfakh, it is pretty awesome and replicates the car based NPR listening experience- “it makes me wish my commute to work was longer.”

If you have read or participated in any conversations about the problems faced by the arts, you will find that NPR is wrestling with many of the same issues: Trying to appeal to too wide an audience versus focusing on specific segments; losing audience to other media channels (podcasts in this case); addressing serious topics vs. providing entertaining content (which is not to say you can’t do both, but there are some serious topics that require a serious approach.)

In other respects, NPR is way ahead of the non-profit arts in general. They may be playing a little catch up with podcasts and losing talent to other companies, but they are gathering valuable data about their audience behavior via the NPR One app. One of the things they have learned is that people skip the serious news content fewer times than anything else. People see value in one of their core activities and they have the data to prove it.

Certainly thanks to the efforts of many research projects, the arts also have data about what audiences value. The data collection method just isn’t as nimble yet.

Since there are a number of NPR and aligned radio shows/podcasts that take to the road for live shows, I wonder if there is any opportunity for adoption/sharing/development of data collection techniques.

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Stuff To Ponder: Cultivating Creativity For Corporations

I frequently advocate for arts organizations to find ways to help for-profit companies instill creativity and energy in their employees. Last month, the Partnership Movement of Americans for the Arts posted an essay with some case studies illustrating how this might be accomplished.

The Partnership Movement post talks about the benefits of partnering with arts organizations in the context of employee retention and engagement, providing statistics about how companies with engaged employees tend to have better revenue growth and lower employee turn over.

In general, the case studies provide some conceptual starting points for identifying a need and designing partnership programs to meet them.

The Arts & Science Council of Charlotte, NC created a Cultural Leadership Training (CLT) program to help cultivate new board leaders for the non-profit organizations in the region. At one point in the year long program, they hold a “speed dating” session to match participants with arts organizations seeking new board members.

Over the last 10 years participation in the program has become highly competitive and is a tool that the businesses themselves have used to identify potential leaders.

This self-selection process sometimes helps companies to identify ambitious and talented employees whom they might otherwise have overlooked. “Firms absolutely use CLT to identify potential leadership candidates,” says Mooring. “We had one law firm tell us that they would not have picked a certain employee as leadership material, but they transformed their opinion of that employee’s potential within the firm after watching that person go through our program and serve successfully on an arts board.”

Alternatively, companies can use CLT as a low-risk way to test whether an employee who is already identified as “leadership material” lives up to his or her potential by watching how that person performs during CLT and post-graduation on an arts board.

This case study helped assuage some of my concerns about how receptive employees of a business might be to participating in a hands-on practical arts experience. It sounds good in theory, but how do you put it into practice with people who may not see themselves as artistically inclined?

“The first time we tried asking the CLT participants to participate in art, we were kind of terrified,” she admits. “The people in our classes are bankers and lawyers and accountants. What if we put violins in their hands and they freaked out and just refused to participate?”

In fact, just the opposite happened. It turned out that everybody not only wanted to play music—they wanted to try every instrument!

Not only did the executives enjoy the participatory and creative elements of the CLT program, it turned out that the experiential aspects of the program actually made the education part “stickier” or more memorable.

Of course, one caveat to remember. The CLT participants were all self-selected. Mandatory or highly encouraged employee participation may result in a different experience.

The other case study, COCAbiz, a program created by Center of Creative Arts (COCA) in St. Louis is more along the lines of what I initially envisioned when I started thinking about how arts organizations can help businesses cultivate creative practices and thinking in their employees. COCAbiz works with teaching artists to help them create and deliver programs businesses find effective for their employees.

Depending on its partners’ needs, COCAbiz uses teaching artists from a variety of artistic disciplines including choreography, set design, theater, and poetry. Working with the business facilitators, these teaching artists help business people discover new skills and approaches in areas such as leadership, collaboration, communication, risk-taking, creativity, and presentation skills.

A number of the participants have found these classes invaluable to shifting their mindset and practices to be more constructive.

One part of the workshop consisted of improvisational theater. “These improv exercises helped me realize that to be an effective influencer, you really have to listen to other people and incorporate their ideas,” says Boland….Rather than just pushing my own agenda, I had to figure out what the other person wanted to get out of the skit and incorporate their ideas, too.”

[…]

“Much of my job involves synthesizing observations and then analyzing data to create strategies,” says Wurth. “Experiencing how actors and directors use the See-Think-Wonder method showed me a really powerful way to communicate and offer suggestions in a way that promotes dialogue rather than shutting it down.”

When people from COCAbiz talk about how they developed and delivered this program, collecting feedback and revising comes up frequently as an important part of their process. There was a sense that the business community with which they worked had high level of expectations of the program so they couldn’t leave any part unexamined.

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You Can’t Min-Max Board Membership

I have a post about board recruitment over on ArtsHacker today where I call attention to a webinar Non-Profit Quarterly recently conducted on the subject.

My focus in that article was on how the webinar is a good resource for thinking about how you recruit for and structure your board. But there are a lot of philosophical issues raised in the webinar that I wanted to call attention to as well.

Presenter Anasuya Sengupta noted that when the responsibilities of board members are listed, duty of care, loyalty, fiduciary stewardship and compliance are standards across the entire non-profit sphere. She opines that this list sounds as if a lawyer wrote it up. This made me realize that while the purpose of a non-profit is generally service to a cause or community, that isn’t among the standard criteria for responsible governance.

Sengupta also suggests legality can be a low bar for ethics and risk aversion and compliance can be a very low bar for decision making. She notes that risk aversion and compliance are largely reactive orientations rather than the proactive approach non-profits should be taking. She says that these things, along with the legalistic list of responsibilities should be considered basic practices rather than best practices.

It occurred to me that this could be one of the results of the “run it like a business” philosophy we have seen espoused lately. Reduce costs, increase revenue, avoid risk, do the least possible for the most gain (aka low overhead ratio) all seem to be symptoms of this idea.

When your purpose is to deal with people on a social level rather than as consumers of goods and services, things are less apt to be neat and tidy.   The whole endeavor of trying to involve under served audiences requires interactions with people who don’t know all the rules of behavior and possess basic knowledge of the usual audiences. Almost by definition, someone is likely to be discomforted in the process.  Additional time and effort may be required to accommodate and educate them, including providing your services in a non-standard time, place and format entirely customized to the needs of the groups with which you are working.

Another presenter, Ruth McCambridge, said that even if you perfectly followed all rules for diversifying your board, your efforts might fail. This is because the underlying premises are flawed, most of which seem to be based on the idea that filling certain slots automatically solves that problem.

I go into a bit more detail in the ArtsHacker post, but briefly the problems are:

-recruiting members of under served communities:  the person you recruit may be a member of that community, but not representative of that community.

-recruiting people who can raise/give money: In Human Service Non-profits, studies show recruiting board members for ability to raise money actually negatively impacted their budgets. In the arts, it does help build the finances.

-recruiting to fill a skill slot (lawyer, accountant): the person assumes they were recruited to provide that skill, doesn’t focus on general governance, working cohesively with entire board

The other bad assumption McCambridge mentions is that fund raising boards and working boards are mutually exclusive and you can only have one or the other.

Put in this context, I got the sneaking suspicion that the concept of a board of directors emerged during the Industrial Revolution because there seems to be an underlying utilitarian philosophy. So much of board composition seems to be based on the idea that if you find the optimal mix of skills or insights to match your institutional mission, you will realize success. If you are not successful, you must have the wrong mix.

Despite optimism about Millennials being more meaning and purpose driven than their predecessors, I don’t see this changing without focused, intentional effort. The prevalence of video gaming and the attendant Min-Maxing approach to gameplay will only serve to perpetuate this as an ideal.

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Undiscerned Value Hidden In The Cracks and Corners

There have been a lot of library closings in the UK over the last few years so VICE went around and asked people what libraries meant to them and how they were using them.

People they spoke to valued libraries as quiet, distraction free study spaces; as a location to organize meetings; resources for learning and internet access; and as a plain old place to get reading materials and fire the imagination.

This reminded me of a post I wrote around 18 months ago about how the Columbus (OH) Metropolitan Library surveyed patrons asking what libraries meant to them in their youth and what they anticipated it would mean to them in the future.

By and large, the responses from Columbus were similar to those in the UK in that people valued the ability to access information and conduct the important activities of their lives.

As I quoted from a CityLab article in that post:

“The physical library will become less about citizens checking out books and more about citizens engaging in the business of making their personal and civic identities.”

One obvious question I didn’t raise in my earlier post is whether arts organizations can effect a similar change in the relationship the community has with their facilities. A frequent criticism of performance venues and stadiums are that they are only used when there is a performance resulting in a type of waste whereas museums are used more consistently.

While the location of some performance venues is not conducive to easy use due to the lack of sidewalks, foot traffic and general environmental dynamics, there may be other opportunities that would position the venue as more of a resource to the community.

On the other end of the spectrum, sometimes it is difficult to know if trying to improve the environment might be counterproductive. For example, I noticed an increase of people hanging out in our lobby sitting/laying on benches reading and listening to music on headsets. I had considered getting some cafe tables and chairs people could sit at so they had a surface to work on. Since people have mentioned they value the quiet, I wondered if adding more amenities might attract more activity and ruin the environment people had sought out.

In the last two years, I started noticing people hanging out in strange locations that I couldn’t imagine were comfortable to sit in. Even though there were outlets in these places, the people who consistently staked them out as their own didn’t often have devices plugged in. I think it was the fact it was even more quiet and private than the lobby.

Then there is the woman who occupied a slightly more private, though still visible nook to practice yoga.

If someone came by and asked for a room to meet/study in or a place to hold a yoga class, that would be difficult due to the level of activity in the building. But if someone only needs a corner for themselves and a few others, it is available, provided they aren’t picky.

It is in those minute, almost imperceptible circumstances that an arts facility can have the opportunity to alter the manner in which they are useful to the community.

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