Public Radio on Social Media: Take Off the Clown Costume

Aug 8, 2012

When was the last time you took a good, hard look at public radio on Twitter or Facebook? And no, I don’t mean a glance at the posts as they fly by randomly across your stream or down your wall. I mean a good, long look.

Prepare yourself.

What if you subtracted all the “Good morning twitterverse!”, the “Check out our 10 part series on the dulcimer tonight at 7!”, the “Senate bill SB1067 promises to change forever how the subcommittee of the committee publishes its minutes. What do YOU think?”, the “We’re starting the news meeting. Tweet your story ideas” - what’s left after you sweep all that stuff away?


Four years ago, I wrote a blog post about using Facebook and Twitter in a manner that fits the core values of your station, and I was met with snickers, some derision and “What’s Twitter?”

Four years later, Hi, I’m back to ask essentially the same question: What are you giving your audience of value?

Roughly half of public radio’s communication on social media amounts to the equivalent of “I’m wearing a clown suit and dancing on one leg, please talk to me!!!”

But check the NPR Facebook page: smart posts with a minimum of editorial comment, really compelling, shareable stories. And guess what - thousands of people like them and share them and can’t wait for the next post. Check the Fresh Air Twitter feed: amazing interview quotes that make you want to discover more. Check out the Word of Mouth blog at New Hampshire Public Radio: where did they find some of that cool stuff?

Melody Kramer was a social media wizard at Fresh Air. Did she fill the Twitter feed with questions for the audience? Did she beg for people to click the follow button? Did she spew an endless stream of show promotions? No. And Yes. She found interview quotes that stop you in your tracks, and then linked to the full conversation. She was snappy and smart and funny in responding to user questions and comments. She found intelligent, sometimes fascinating content around the web that she knew the Fresh Air audience would love, and shared it. She did it every day, and every day, Fresh Air added to its loyal following on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. The quality of her work demanded attention.

Over 40 years, we have built the strongest, most respected broadcast service this nation has ever seen. We’ve succeeded, in part, because pioneers like Bill Siemering cared about tone: we are light on formality, but respectful. We know how to have a good laugh, and we understand the complexity and nuance of human emotion. But most of all, over 40 years, we’ve discovered hundreds of thousands of important, informative, uplifting, sometimes totally frivolous, driveway-moment-inducing stories and we’ve shared them with our audience. It’s amazing work and the result is that millions of people say they can’t live without us.

Social media is an opportunity for us to get even closer to our audience, to find new fans, to build even stronger relationships, to be more personal and intimate and occasionally hilarious. But, just like radio, it starts with - wait for it - really great content. 

Here’s something for the to do list: put down the megaphone, turn off the carnival music, and take off the clown costume. Find five really interesting stories, smart ideas, or memorable moments from your radio station today, or anywhere on the web actually, and share them with your audience of curious fans on Twitter and Facebook. Resist the urge to say “What do you think?” or “What’s your take on that?” Just share things that you think will interest and fascinate your audience. And when they start chatting, join the fun. Then, do it tomorrow. Do it the next day. And the day after that.

I could say you’d be surprised by the results, but you won’t be. We have a pre-existing model of success, as they say.