Nashville Public Radio expansion prioritizes workforce diversity with goals to better serve the growing city

As Nashville Public Radio launched a CEO search in 2018, its board of directors agreed the organization needed leadership that would expand its service to the community.


Curt Thorne, an entrepreneurial investor who chaired the search committee, was among the board members who believed the city needed more from its community-licensed public radio station. WPLN, Nashville’s public radio station NPR News, was subsidizing the operations of its money-losing all-classic service. And the station’s staff and audience did not reflect the changing demographics of the metropolitan area.

“Nashville has grown rapidly,” Thorne explained. The city’s population had grown 2% per year since 1991, and the station served a market of nearly 2 million people with 25 full-time employees. Nashville Public Radio’s membership program was not keeping pace with growth, he said.

Board members saw the underperformance as a sign “we had a big opportunity,” Thorne said. They also believed Nashville Public Radio had a public service mandate to do better.

“The big driver was our imperative to close the gap left by for-profit media outlets,” Thorne added. “At the local level, public radio is arguably the last chance to meet the need for independent media in a functioning democracy.”

The CEO search ended in the spring of 2019 with the hiring of Steve Swenson, a veteran CBS Radio executive who led a rapid expansion of WPLN’s newsroom and the launch of Triple-A music station WNXP. .

The changes are part of a larger strategy for Nashville Public Radio stations to grow audiences while expanding the size and diversity of staff. Swenson sees workforce diversity as essential to creating the public service the region needs.

“We were a mostly white organization living in Nashville,” Swenson said. In Davidson County, where Nashville is the county seat, 45% of residents identify as BIPOC, according to the 2020 census. In 2019, only 15% of station staff identified as BIPOC, a- he declared. “We had no voice inside [the organization] that we were meant to serve [in the community].”

Possibility of “musical discovery”

After analyzing growth opportunities in the market, Nashville Public Radio made its first major change in late 2020, replacing the classic format on 91.1 FM with Triple-A music. The research had highlighted “the opportunity for a new music discovery station,” Swenson said.

“Our classic [format] was losing revenue every year, and we decided that as an organization we couldn’t afford that,” Swenson said.

Nashville Public Radio has added five new positions for the launch of WNXP. The costs were partially covered by the annual commitments of ten founding members and patrons. Initial concerns about financial losses from the switch have eased as WNXP doubled its enterprise support revenue in the first year.

Viewership growth has lagged behind revenue gains. But Swenson, who attributes the slow growth in part to disruption triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, sees signs of progress.

WNXP targets Nashvillians ages 18-49, a demographic that expands beyond Nashville Public Radio’s existing channel audience – 45+ for classical music, which continues as a digital stream and HD channel Radio; and adults ages 25-54 for WPLN News.

“As the world reopens and people get back in their cars, they find [WNXP],” he said. “We’ve seen growth in the 25 to 34 age group every month for the past five months. We think things are picking up.

“Dramatically younger organization”

Another audience growth strategy that Swenson brought to the board early on was the launch of a daily hour-long news program on WPLN News. A strong local news presence is a common anchor for public radio stations in similarly sized markets, which was noticeably absent in Nashville.

“We had three hours of content on National Public Radio during the morning and evening commute, and the only locally produced content people heard were short segments,” Swenson recalls. A daily local news program would help increase appointment viewing, and in turn would increase business support revenue and time spent listening, leading to membership gains.

However, the strategy for a daily news program took longer to plan and implement. Vice President of Content Anita Bugg advised Swenson against launching the program without first building the newsroom’s capacity to produce more content.


Neither Swenson nor Bugg wanted the new show to be “just a host and a producer and long-running interviews”, Swenson recalled. Instead, they wanted it to give WPLN reporters an opportunity to showcase their journalism.

So, from 2019 to 2021, the WPLN newsroom grew from eight employees, including a reporter who covers health care and another assigned to state politics, to a staff of 26. The number of stories has grown to include education; criminal justice; the environment; metropolitan government; and music, arts and culture.

A combination of corporate sponsorship, foundation support, and a major gift from a family trust funded the addition of new rhythms. Proceeds from the station’s endowment, which saved funds during the development of the new show, supported part of the newsroom’s operations. When WPLN News hosts began speaking on air about their ambitions to launch a new daily show, at least one foundation asked to support the effort, Swenson said.

WPLN News has hired key personnel to This is Nashville last summer. Executive producer Andrea Tudhope flew in from Kansas City, Mo., and host Khalil Ekulona flew in from KUMN in Albuquerque, NM. The duo spent their first seven months conducting interviews to better understand the issues in the Nashville area. They also sought feedback from community members, many of whom were unfamiliar with or uninterested in Nashville Public Radio, as to how the show fulfills its mission of being “community driven.” , for the community.

Through a survey, in-person meetings, a community focus group and a virtual listening session, participants said they wanted media coverage that highlights shared values ​​and how multiple groups contribute to the community, Tudhope said. Many asked for coverage that would “help all of our different neighborhoods feel more connected as one city.”

Since its beginnings at the beginning of March, This is Nashville produced programs about nurses suffering from burnout during the pandemic, “navigating Nashville when you have a disability” and black country music.

To create a team that intentionally represents “old” and “new” Nashville, Tudhope and Ekulona hired five additional employees who already lived in the city. Having that tension within the staff allows the team to be in touch with how that dynamic is playing out in the community and create a blanket that connects those experiences, Swenson said.

The show’s crew also reflects a shift in the diversity of the entire Nashville Public Radio staff, which is now 35% BIPOC. Nearly half of the station’s on-air voices identify as BIPOC.

“We’re a considerably younger organization,” Swenson observed. “Most of the new people we’ve hired are probably in their 20s and 30s. It was energizing.

But the growth of Nashville Public Radio’s staff and program departments has posed challenges. Many of the changes happened while staff were working from home during the pandemic. When employees return to the office or join their colleagues in person for the first time, they discover a different organizational culture, and one that is still in flux.

“I realized a few years ago that I like change and not everyone likes it,” Swenson explained. “I see myself as an agent of change, and I realize that means you have to work hard to bring everyone in. Sometimes you need to push a little to help people get there, and sometimes you need to relax a little. Just as we talk about our mission to the public, we also need to talk about it internally.

Nashville Public Radio has retained Culture Shift Team, a consulting firm specializing in multicultural marketing and DEI education and strategy, to train staff on how to have meaningful conversations and develop the skills to resolve conflicts when they arise. “It’s hard work for everyone – for the employees, for the leadership.” Swenson points out.

For the next phase of its audience development process, Nashville Public Radio plans to develop marketing and event strategies. And in the fall, staff and management will begin working with Poynter Institute’s digital transformation program.

As its growth and diversification continues, the organization grapples with the shifting demographics and cultural shifts faced by many public media stations.

These changes can seem scary, Swenson acknowledged, adding, “We needed to help our culture be less risk averse and less afraid of trying new things.

Ellen Guettler is Senior Manager, Content and Projects for Greater Public, which supports and challenges public media to adopt best practices and innovations. Prior to Greater Public, Guettler worked at American Public Media as a content producer and developer. She reported and contributed to this piece following Steve Swenson’s participation in the l‘Moving from Preservation to Innovation’ Leaders’ Roundtable which was part of General public Audience Development Summit.

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