While newsrooms across the country are halving their staffs and facing budget cuts, WNYC, New York’s most popular public radio talk station, enjoys continued financial support from listeners. The shrinking resources of traditional news media and the growing significance of non-profit journalism means that PR professionals need to discover how to pitch non-profit media outlets, like public radio stations, effectively.
Non-profit listeners, of course, are repelled by content that reeks of sales, or is the clear result of advertising. Because WNYC is largely funded through listener support, listener satisfaction is squarely the station’s priority. WNYC program director Chris Bannon knows what the audience wants.
“[The audience] is looking for non-commercial sound and non-commercial information,” he says. “They want information that’s objective, that’s been researched, and is not full of hyperbole.” In other words, in order to snip the scent of sales from your pitch, spin a story.
Public radio shows have longer formats than commercial radio shows because they don’t lose time to advertising. A longer format means that hosts have more time to spend with guests or expand on a new idea or trend. WNYC in particular places an emphasis on programming rather than relying on syndicated shows.
“We are a little unusual in the public radio system in that we create more original programming than most stations do,” says Bannon.
Shows that WNYC produces include morning show The Takeaway, syndicated by PRI/Public Radio International; The Brian Lehrer Show, which covers public policy, government and economics; Leonard Lopate, devoted to culture and the arts; and Soundcheck, WNYC’s music program. WNYC is able offer original shows because of both its listenership and its market.
“By many measures,” Bannon says, WNYC is “the largest public radio station in the country.” In addition to producing local programming for New Yorkers, WNYC is also the producer of programs that are broadcast across the country, as well as shows that are available internationally.
Although WNYC may not be perfectly typical of public radio, it is characteristically anti-sales. The common anti-sales sentiment in public radio not only makes product pitching difficult, but it can also be rather difficult to gain exposure for guests and books. When asked about product opportunities, Bannon answers flatly, “No products.” But the reality is that while product placement, per se, doesn’t have a place at WNYC, stories always do. And sometimes, products have stories, too.
Making the Pitch
Public radio listeners do “not want to be sold anything,” Bannon says. The topic, guest or book has to be presented as an idea, or something interesting to learn about. “If you have time to explain something that seems like an interesting idea, they’ll [the audience] spend hours with you.”
Growing as a citizen of the world is a theme in WNYC programming because of the stations’ status as a non-profit. Bannon explains, “Because we have a social non-profit mission, it has to be good for the world in some way.” WNYC audiences have a thirst for books, CDs, films and theater that are both socially beneficial and intellectually stimulating.
And, of course, WNYC listeners love food. “Food is really huge,” Bannon adds. “Our audience loves to cook, loves to think about how they eat.” Movements in organic and local food, then, certainly have a home on WNYC.
Bannon recommends pitching WNYC shows directly through their producers. But in order to come away with a measure of success, you’ll have to know the shows that you are pitching.
The key is listening to WNYC shows. “If you’re a listener of the station you have a much better chance of getting your client some space because you’ll understand better where the fit really is,” Bannon recommends.
To get in contact with show producers, e-mail works. But Bannon also encourages using the phone: “There’s so much e-mail that floats in the world that if you have time to make a phone call in a way it might be better.”
The Brian Lehrer Show mainly offers public affairs-oriented discussion, but the show will also entertain specific lifestyle topics. “Lifestyle in the sense of: how can you be a better citizen?” Bannon qualifies. “They’re very driven by community engagement,” he says of Lehrer’s show. Eco-friendly topics, for instance, would be of interest to Lehrer’s listeners.
Opportunities for guests are plentiful, especially those individuals connected to arts and entertainment. The afternoon program Leonard Lopate regularly features world-class writers, filmmakers, photographers or painters, while Soundcheck showcases music writers and performers of all kinds.
According to Bannon, form letters are the enemy. The form letter makes it only too obvious that the pitch hasn’t been tailored to a specific show or audience. “It’s worth taking a personal approach,” Bannon says, because the teams working on WNYC’s major shows are very small.
Chances of success also lessen if you’re pitching Bannon. “I’m almost the last person you want to bother, because I’m two layers, at least, removed from the booking.” Having worked in public relations himself, it’s clear that Bannon sees value in many of the items he comes across. He thinks many of the ideas might have worked had they had been presented differently.
A bike ride benefit, for instance, was sent to Bannon as a public service announcement. Because WNYC does not accept PSAs, the e-mail and event were easily dismissed. Had the story been framed differently, however, it might have stood a chance. Bannon says that the appropriate method would have been to pitch The Brian Lehrer Show, “With questions like: Do these [benefits] work? and, What does it take on the level of participation to make something like this successful?” Then Lehrer could have positioned a story around benefits and their effectiveness, and mentioned this bike ride benefit as an example or side-note.
The bike ride benefit is one among many failed pitch attempts that fill Bannon’s deleted mail folder. But he also offers a shining example of how to pitch a product successfully.
“We’d do a segment about compact fluorescent light bulbs, for instance, on Lehrer. But we wouldn’t necessarily do it from [the point of view] of a particular manufacturer.” Instead, the show would highlight compact fluorescent light bulbs by comparing and contrasting various types and demonstrating the product’s utility. In short, the show would package the story of the ‘product’, instead of promoting it as such.
Lehrer wouldn’t be pushing a product, but offering up the story of a useful new invention and providing listeners with information through an interesting anecdote. Gaining exposure for a book, guest, or even product happens on WNYC by telling a story about it.
As Bannon says, “Everything’s on the table—but it’s going to be put through the filter of: How is it going to help or inform me as a listener? That’s the most important filter.”
If pitches are presented in such a way that they answer this question, they’ll be considered. Even if they’re product pitches.
Useful information told through stories is WNYC’s focus. “Sometimes you get that through books, and sometimes you get that through a great, new compact fluorescent light bulb,” Bannon says.
Books and guests are often featured in order to deliver information to WNYC listeners. And products can tell a story, too. The trick is that listeners—and WNYC staffers—be turned on by the story of the great new light bulb, and not be turned off by the solicitation of one.
Chris Bannon, program director
Send pitches to:
Mark Effron, executive producer
Mary Harris, senior producer
Femi Oke, senior editor
Megan Ryan, senior producer
Lisa Allison, assistant producer
Melissa Eagan, executive producer
Blakeney Schick, associate producer
Gisele Regatao, executive producer
Joel Meyer, associate producer
Brian Wise, producer
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