As Public Radio Audiences Decline, One LA Station Finds Success in an Untapped Audience: Latinos

A Martínez. Photo via CSunshine Today

Public radio is at a cross-roads. The New York Times rallies against “NPR voice.”  The Washington Post bemoans the graying aging audience of National Public Radio. Podcasting, so often seen as the future of public radio, may very well be going the way of the blogs. But as the American population that has created and consumed public radio remains staunchly white – aging alongside those who created public radio in the first place – new voices, various advocacy groups, and one radio station in Southern California are tapping into an oft-forgotten market: the Hispanic community.

“You know, the joke when I was going into public radio was that it sounded like something for a fifty-year old white woman driving her Volvo in Connecticut.” Collin Campbell, Managing Editor for Audio Content & Strategy at KPCC Southern California Public Radio, gets precisely at the vision of public radio that exists in the cultural imagination of many Americans. When you think of public radio you may think of Terry Gross and Ira Glass, segments and voices that have over the past couple of decades reflected and stood in for a white affluent audience.

The issue of diversity at NPR (the media organization that serves as a national syndicator to a network of 900 public radio stations in the United States) for example, has come under scrutiny these past few months with a highly disputed study by FAIR. The so-called progressive national media watchdog group concluded “that NPR commentary is dominated by white men,” an assertion that NPR itself disputed in detail if not in principle. In a rebuke to the piece, Elizabeth Jensen noted that while the “specific numbers in the study [are] somewhat arbitrary,” “the broad sweep of its conclusions pretty much echo what NPR already knows via its own work.”

Much like television and the movies, public radio is clearly struggling to reflect the rapidly changing population of the United States. And so, while novelist Daniel Alarcón’s Radio Ambulante has breached new ground in bilingual podcasts, being called “This American Life,” en Español, while NPR’s Latino USA describes itself as “the only national, English-language radio program produced from a Latino perspective,” there’s clearly an untapped market that may be the key to revitalizing this vital cultural venue.

Enter the Latino Public Radio Consortium. They launched their Más Public Media initiative to increase Latino participation in public media. They recently published a “Brown Paper” on the case study of Southern California’s Public Radio’s success engaging Los Angeles’ Latino community. The station began fifteen years ago as a college station and now boasts more than 700,000 listeners every week, becoming the most listened-to public radio news service of any kind in Southern California. On December 5th, they celebrated their 15th anniversary gala, where they are honored the founder of Telemundo, Frank Cruz, and civil rights activist Connie Rice, and celebrated Larry Mantle for his thirty years of being on the air.

By targeting the underserved Millennial Hispanic community, their audience grew by 27%.

Much of what they celebrated (as their choice of honorees shows) is their commitment to embracing the very diversity that characterizes Southern California. As the Latino Public Radio Consortium report shows, following an aggressive move towards targeting the burgeoning but underserved Millennial Hispanic community, their “total audience cume [cumulative audience] increased by 27% while the number of Latino listeners increased by 96%” from Spring 2009 to Spring 2014.”

SPCR’s move from a modest community college station to the most listened-to public radio news service of any kind in Southern California has not been without obstacles. In fact, their push to diversify their newsroom and increase their Latino audience, helped by a three-year grant courtesy of the One Nation media project, was initially met with some bad press following the hiring of A Martínez as a co-host to one of their most successful morning news shows.

A Martínez. Photo via CSunshine Today
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In a scathing 2012 article titled “How KPCC’s Quest for Latino Listeners Doomed The Madeleine Brand ShowLA Weekly’s Tessa Stuart examined how the execs in charge of retooling SPCR found themselves flooded with negative comments regarding changes to the beloved morning show which had all the trademarks of a public radio show ready to go national.

But even amidst the very public break-up between Brand and the station, Stuart pointed out that the changes were already having a positive effect: “The ‘average quarter hour’ ratings among Latino listeners,” she writes “which averaged 4.9 in the months preceding Martínez’s hire, rose to 7.2 in August, and then more than doubled to 15.3 in September.” The numbers have only continued to grow with little effect on their core audience.

SPCR aggressively marketed itself anew with the tagline “We Speak Angeleno.”

The pushback they received only spurred SPCR to aggressively market itself anew with the tagline “We Speak Angeleno.” The changes, both within the newsroom and in their audience, cannot help but feel disruptive. Indeed, Stuart’s piece framed the Martínez and Brand mismatch in terms that coded the change in oddly elitist terms:

“Like Brand, Jorge Martínez grew up in Los Angeles — in his case, Koreatown. But that’s where their similarities end. Where Brand attended Berkeley, then Columbia for her master’s degree, Martínez played baseball at L.A. City College before transferring to Cal State Northridge, where he received a journalism degree.”

What was attacked as a mere corporate grab and a cosmetic change to the station has become a wholly embraced cultural shift in the SPCR newsroom. By the end of March 2014, the reporting corps and Take Two (the Martínez-fronted show that replaced Brand’s show) staff was 33% Latino, 5% Black, 10% Asian American, 19% Multi-ethnic and only 33% White.

“What I’m most satisfied by,” Bill Davis, President and CEO of KPCC told the Latino Public Radio Consortium “is that we have moved in a significant way towards being a more inclusive, self-aware and self-critical culture than we were five years ago.”

It hasn’t been a smooth transition and there are still plenty of hurdles ahead but as Edgar Aguirre, Managing Director, External Relations and Strategic Initiatives told Remezcla, KPCC “has created an approach that has shown promise in helping the public radio system move forward.”