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What CMOs Can Learn from a 93-Year-Old Public Radio Station

By Published on .

Peter Weingard, chief marketing officer at New York Public Radio.
Peter Weingard, chief marketing officer at New York Public Radio. Credit: WNYC

Walking around the studios of New York Public Radio in New York City, you're confronted with conflicting realities: one symbolized by a primitive radio microphone from 1924 and the other by an advertising poster from 2016 with the headline, "More Influential than Russia." As pioneers of FM broadcasting, it's not surprising that New York Public Radio is the largest public radio station group in the United States. What is surprising is that the station is one of the largest podcast producers. Its content arm, WNYC Studios, generates more than 36 million downloads a month from over 20 different shows.

WNYC's transformation from a traditional regional broadcaster to a multiplatform media powerhouse offers lessons for just about any marketer, especially those seeking to become content providers. Setting the stage for our extensive conversation, Peter Weingard, CMO of New York Public Radio, explains, "It's like being in a new business all of the time because what the business looks like today is not what it looked like a year ago." This enlightened perspective is just the beginning of Weingard's CMO-worthy insights.

Redefine your category
With a monthly audience of over 26 million people across all of its platforms -- live-streaming, podcasts and traditional radio stations (WNYC AM & FM, WQXR, WJPR) and live events -- the company has moved well beyond its FM roots. But Weingard refuses to define his competitive set as media or content, insisting, "We are in the curiosity business." This broader definition reflects the mission of the organization and its specific desire to create compelling content regardless of the channel. He adds: "We create well-crafted, well-edited stories that have a visceral, emotional attraction to them."

Make the most of your brand essence
New York City is literally in the brand DNA of WNYC. But Weingard is quick to point out the need for a larger mandate. "We can't be your father's NPR," he says. "NYC is more diverse than the rest of the country, and we need to reflect the city that we call home. And we do." This is evident in the diversity of both staffing and programming at WNYC, as well as the organization's collective desire to be "the home of courageous conversations," reports Weingard. He also sees these "real and authentic conversations, the kind you'd have in the streets of Brooklyn," happening at the events WNYC hosts in The Greene Space, a performance space at the base of its Lower Manhattan headquarters.

Involve your audience
As a non-profit organization, New York Public Radio depends on support from its 238,000 members. "We just had a record pledge drive, and we're seeing increasing amounts of giving on the podcast portfolio," Weingard proudly reports. To get to these record contributions, WNYC has made a concerted effort to create opportunities for audience participation, whether it's letting listeners read the credits for its popular "Radiolab" show or designating a listener to share feedback from all listeners at a Metropolitan Transportation Authority public hearing on commuting in New York City. "What we're doing is actually trying to involve people in the stories, the station and the brand in very significant ways," Weingard says.

Expand your purview
As the station evolves, so has the role of the CMO. "I've seen a radical departure from what marketing used to mean then to what it means today," Weingard explains. "When I started in advertising, marketing was mostly about marketing communications, and now I would say that's probably the smallest and maybe the least effective part of the marketing toolkit." In contrast to the old days, Weingard says his time is focused "on the product, the service, the delivery, the customer and all of the other touchpoints."

Iterate your content
As more and more brands join WNYC Studios in the content-creation business, there is growing interest in how to get the most out of any given piece of content. One answer is iteration: creating one primary piece of content and then extending it into other channels. For example, "Radiolab" now starts as a podcast, which can be of variable length and adapted for radio, even though it originally started on radio. "As a marketer, I'm constantly looking across all of these different properties, all of the different consumers that we reach, and trying to figure out how best to optimize the experience for all of the different touchpoints," Weingard says.

Act like a startup
Weingard revels that New York Public Radio is both "a 93-year-old media institution and a really scrappy startup" in regards to how its employees work and, even, how its offices look. "We're building an entirely new business, and that includes developing entirely new business models for the way stuff is created," he says enthusiastically. "Today we're talking about podcasts, but already we're thinking about smart speaker systems and how content is going to adapt to that."

In the spirit of startups and the tech world, Weingard encourages his fellow marketers to "develop agile teams and an agile mindset that can quickly pivot to take advantage of different emerging technologies" in order to thrive in the ever-changing media world.

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