As brands reorient amid the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement, partnering with a trusted media organization is more important than ever. At NPR, Chief Marketing Officer Michael Smith helps shape those partnerships and direct the organization's own outreach. To encourage a diversity of voices, he said NPR is expanding both its content and distribution platforms.
Smith, who is African American, brings a unique perspective. A veteran of agencies, cable, and digital media, he is new to audio, having joined NPR in April from Scripps Networks, where he was most recently senior VP and GM for digital channels. In the latest installment of MediaVillage founder Jack Myers Leadership Conversations, Smith noted that NPR uses linear and digital audio to connect to more diverse audiences. At a time when Americans are looking for credible news sources, that effort has taken on increased importance.
"[At NPR], we've always been about taking that deeper dive into the facts behind the story," Smith said. "By getting to the truth and the facts allows people to be better informed, to be better citizens, and make better decisions on their own." The proof of NPR's success is in the numbers. This spring, digital traffic has tripled, Smith said. Demand for news podcasts is so strong that NPR launched an afternoon, COVID-19 centered podcast, Coronavirus Daily, which has grown to 1 million daily listeners. As news of racial injustice has taken center stage, NPR's linear and podcast listening continues to grow.
"When times get tough, you're looking for real information and that's what we've always offered," he said.
NPR is aggressively expanding its digital portfolio, Smith said. In May, it claimed eight of the top 20 podcasts, per the latest Podtrac rankings. Also, to reach younger audiences, Smith said NPR is increasing its audio and video content for social media platforms, including Instagram, YouTube and TikTok.
That tilt to digital is causing NPR to recalibrate its approach to programming. In the past, flagship linear shows, such as Morning Edition and All Things Considered, were the primary focus and new topics might be folded into those shows. Now, those ideas spawn their own podcasts, such as Guy Raz's How I Built This or Planet Money,Smith said. These efforts aren't static; For instance, he revealed Coronavirus Daily will evolve into an afternoon news podcast, Consider This.These podcasts are "daily habit-type shows" and Smith said more are on the way.
That digital focus helps NPR's brand partners connect with younger and multicultural consumers. NPR's digital audience has a media age of 34 years old, Smith noted. (NPR's sponsorship arm, NPM, helps brands develop campaigns through their award-winning creative agency, NPM Creative.)
"If you're a marketer, you're looking to reach the next generation of younger consumers," he said. "And the great news is that we have pivoted our business through our podcasts to basically deliver the same quality audience with a younger demographic."
Across media and advertising, Smith said companies need to encourage diversity within their ranks. When he started his media career 30 years ago at ad agency Young & Rubicam, Smith recalled that there were only two African Americans among 1,000 account team members. More recently, a survey by The Myers Report found that the ad industry at large employs about two percent African-American men and five percent African-American women, still a dramatic under-representation.
In a study of Harvard Business School graduates 20 years after graduation, Smith said, researchers found 40 percent of white alumni had climbed to executive success, while just 11 percent of black graduates had reached the same level. Those statistics are a stark reminder of inequality, he said, but today's execs can reverse the course. Simply put, real action will bring about necessary change.
To improve diversity, Smith sees three necessary steps: Improving education, increasing access to job opportunities, and promotion from within. A good education is the first part of the pipeline, he explained, but then companies need to recruit minority candidates. The third component, which he calls the "hidden step" is promoting from within. A stumbling block there, Smith contends, is that many execs hire from within their familiar circles or ask colleagues for recommendations, and minority candidates are often excluded. He welcomes calls from colleagues asking to recommend a black candidate for a programming or marketing position.
Said Smith: "When I see the CEOs of companies, you know, issuing these 'we stand with' statements and 'Blackout Tuesday' statements, that's nice. But I say, look at your direct reports… look at the direct reports to people down from you. These are decisions that you actually have a specific influence over.
"If you're really serious about this, then you're going to have to step out of your comfort zone."
NPR's CMO Michael Smith Promises Truth and Diverse Audience Reach by Phil McKenzie
Watch Now: Jack Myers Leadership Conversation with NPR's Michael Smith
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The opinions expressed here are the author's views and do not necessarily represent the views of MediaVillage.com/MyersBizNet.