How WFAE transformed in 5 years

by Julia Haslanger

Summary

Background: In 2015, Charlotte, N.C., public radio station WFAE was doing fine – it had won awards, including for overall excellence from the Regional Murrow Awards. But WFAE hadn’t adapted to the digital landscape, and its staff and audience didn’t reflect the diversity of the area. It was time to evolve. Step one in the transformation of WFAE came in February 2015 with a new General Manager — Joe O’Connor, who came from Rhode Island Public Radio and before that ABC News. Step two came in 2017 when the station hired a new chief content officer — Ju-Don Marshall, who came with experience in digital startups, as well as having worked as director of the Center for Cooperative Media and spent 17 years at The Washington Post. During this period of transformation, WFAE doubled its content staff, increased its digital traffic seven-fold, attracted new members and grew its general revenues. It developed new habits around audience engagement, publishing frequency, hiring and mentoring, and more.

Snapshot

Goals: 

  • Broaden the tent of public radio: Bring in audiences with a greater diversity of age, race, and socioeconomic status. 
  • Become a daily destination for people. In order to do that: Shift the culture within the station to operate at a daily pace (especially on digital), with an appetite for risk-taking and creativity. 
  • Serve the entire community — whether they listen/view/visit WFAE or not. Make sure when people do tune in, they can hear themselves reflected. 

Tools and technology:

  • Engagement/listening tools: GroundSource, Hearken, Google Voice. “You don’t need fancy tools, but they can certainly help,” Marshall says. “If you don’t have a budget, use free tools like Google Forms and Google Voice to give the community an opportunity to share opinions and inform coverage. Make social media a conversation instead of just a platform you post to. We’ve experimented with tools such as GroundSource and Hearken to help us ‘listen’ and track our community engagement.”

How it operates:

  • Staff: Significant staff expansion from around 30 full-time employees in 2015 to around 50 today. The content-focused staff grew from 15 full-time plus 6 part-time in 2015 to 30 full-time plus 5 part-time in 2021. In the past two years, grants have funded 13 positions, including several Report for America fellows. 
  • Budget: Growth from around $4.8M in FY2015 to around $7.4M in FY2020
  • Funding sources: The station has three major funding sources: membership, underwriting, and grants. As of 2019, WFAE had the second fastest-growing membership program of any public media station, according to Greater Public.
  • Expenses: The station spends slightly more on programming costs (including salaries for its news staff and other content-producing teams) than on fundraising and general management combined.

Impact

  • Increased diversity of audience. In the past year, 24% of listeners are Black Americans, double what it was in 2015, according to Audigraphics. Recently, the station hit an all-time high of 31% Black listeners. The share of Hispanic listeners has increased from 1% to 3%. For context, Charlotte is 35% Black and 14% Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census
    • Station leadership attributes this shift to increasing the coverage of the Black community, increasing the diversity of the voices in reporting and as guests on its weekday talk show, “Charlotte Talks,” as well as on panels of public conversations.
    • ”We’ve heard direct feedback from people that our increased, relevant coverage has made a difference in how they perceive us,” Marshall says. “We also have been deliberate about how and where we target specific community engagement initiatives in an effort to be more inclusive.” 
    • O’Connor adds the station has also seen the benefit of engaging through events, partnerships and sponsorships. He describes it as “building a portfolio of connections in the community similar in some respects to building a major donor portfolio, more like a community ‘influencer’ portfolio.”
  • Increased publishing volume and frequency. The newsroom went from producing 4-5 stories a week to 8 local, original stories a day on average. Hiring for new positions focused on people with digital experience and strong journalism experience, and those hires, along with the culture shift, allowed for a greater volume of local reporting. 
  • Increased size of audience, particularly on digital platforms. Unique visitor counts increased sevenfold: from an average of 50,000/month in 2015 to 360,000/month in 2020. 
  • Increased engagement and participation by community. In late 2018 and early 2019, the station launched the Queen City PodQuest competition. More than 300 people in 14 counties pitched podcast ideas, then 33,000 people voted for their favorite pitches. The five finalists got mentorship and equipment to create a trailer for their podcast. Finally, during a live ticketed event, a panel of judges selected the winning podcast, which was then developed and released by WFAE. The intense interest from community members to create podcasts led the station to hold free community workshops to teach the basic skills needed to record, produce and market a podcast. (A Better News case study of the PodQuest can be found here.)

Lessons Learned:

  • Get your board on board. Help the board understand the crisis of local journalism, and the station’s ability to have an impact. Help them see when it’s time to spend from the station’s reserves, or at least what you make off of your reserves, to invest in evolving and growing the station. 
  • Encourage a culture of creativity and risk-taking on staff. Let people know they will continue to have the support of the leadership team even if something they pitch doesn’t work out exactly as expected. 
  • Listen, and get comfortable with discomfort. Invite community criticism. For example, in the months after the fatal police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott and ensuing protests, the station brought in an activist and a community advocate to hear their perceptions of WFAE and the information needs of the community. “No matter how good we think we are, no matter how interesting we think our coverage is, we also all need to fact check that against the community’s expectations in order to remain relevant in order to really meet their needs,” Marshall says. 
  • Target your efforts. For a series of workshops, the station chose to partner with select libraries on opposite sides of Charlotte with an eye for attracting people of different ages, races, and socioeconomic statuses. When doing outreach around a particular topic or story, think about how to reach the people most affected by the story (e.g. prison reentry) and where to go to reach those people. 
  • Collaborate. WFAE currently has 18 collaborations underway, including partnerships with area libraries, the Spanish-language newspaper La Noticia, and other newsrooms across the city and state. Collaborations allow the organizations to lend each other credibility with different audiences, along with expanding reporting capacity and filling content gaps. But, as explained in WFAE’s deck about the power of diverse collaborations, “There has to be an equal value exchange because collaborations don’t have to be hard, but they are a lot of work.”
  • Don’t let marketing be an afterthought. Work with your marketing team to draw the right audiences to particular events and programming. It’s a shame to invest time and energy in good programming only to have it reach fewer people in the target audience than it could’ve reached with slightly more marketing effort. 
  • Hire intentionally, and grow talent locally when possible. Work to establish a local pipeline through fellowships (and then at least with current fellows, bringing them on staff at the end of the fellowship). Local staff can bring to the table different kinds of story ideas. “The weight of what they contribute to the conversation is so much richer than those of us who just may be casting a journalistic lens on the community. They know the stories that we don’t know about sometimes,” Marshall says.

More about WFAE


This case study was produced in partnership with Current as a part of the 2021 Local that Works webinar series that spotlights media innovation, engagement, and collaboration. The series aims to share insights and examples of replicable and sustainable projects that expand and diversify audiences, and deepen news service to local communities. Local that Works is supported by the Wyncote Foundation.

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