We’re living in a new golden age of audio, by almost any measure. Every week, broadcast radio reaches 93 percent of American adults (228.5 million weekly listeners) and 30 million people watch, listen to, or download a podcast, up 157 percent since 2014. In public media, the top 20 largest public radio news stations together reach a weekly average of 11 million listeners, up from 10 million the prior year. In case you think that radio is mainly for older adults, in the midst of digital upheaval and proliferating ways to find and listen to audio, Nielsen reports that 97 percent of Millenials and 98 percent of Gen Xers listen to the radio every month.

Digital streaming services, for-profit and not-for-profit podcast companies, and independent podcast producers are creating a proliferating number of dynamic general interest and niche-audience podcasts on everything from the daily news to mushroom hunting, while targeting every conceivable demographic group. The February announcement that music streamer Spotify would purchase the once-scrappy podcast start-up Gimlet for $230 million was another indication that there is money, and audience, in the creative audio space.

Grantmakers and the cultural organizations they fund are taking advantage of the flourishing creativity, reach, and impact in today’s audio field to build new intersections for communities and cultural organizations to engage. This year’s Media Impact Forum explores the ways grantmakers and cultural organizations are investing in audio and media across traditional broadcasting, podcasting, and on-site properties in order to foster greater context, reach, and conversation with constituencies.

This year’s program hearkens back to the 2017 Media Impact Forum, when grantmakers gathered in Washington, D.C., to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Public Broadcasting Act through a series of dialogues and presentations about remaking public media. At that event, we heard from public media leaders and NPR founding board member Bill Siemering, exploring the accomplishments of public broadcasting’s first 50 years and offering fresh ideas for new services for new generations. Siemering, who drafted the language, reminded attendees that NPR’s original mission statement included this: “In its cultural mode, National Public Radio will preserve and transmit the cultural past, will encourage and broadcast the work of contemporary artists, and provide listeners with an aural aesthetic experience which enriches and gives meaning to the human spirit.”

This year’s Forum showcases the ways grantmakers have invested in “enriching the spirit” since then, taking advantage of new ways to listen and watch, and exploring the work of cultural and community activists who are using audio and media tools to connect in new ways with myriad communities.

Want to amplify new voices and ideas locally? Radio excels.

Peter Buffett of Radio Kingston and Sara Lomax-Reese of WURD are independent radio station leaders who are using their media properties to build and engage local communities. Both stations present a mix of news, music and cultural programming intended to serve very local audiences, to amplify local stories, and to build community connections. In WURD’s case as the only African-American owned and operated talk station in Pennsylvania and one of the few in the U.S., Lomax-Reese is building a powerful platform to promote “progressive Black thought and activism locally, regionally, and nationally.” Buffett’s WKNY, now a nonprofit, is dedicated to “a vibrant, healthy, just Kingston.” Today, Buffett and Lomax-Reese will share approaches and outcomes, and explain why radio remains one of the most effective bullhorns for community engagement.

Wish independent musicians had more avenues to reach audiences? Public media music excels.

Philadelphia is home to two flagship public media music stations. WXPN focuses on roots, folk, singer-songwriter, and contemporary rock, while WRTI offers classical music and jazz. Leaders of these two stations came together to help build a new service offering digital distribution of their streams, programs, and artists. VuHaus is the resulting online visual platform that showcases independent music in all genres. Soon to become part of NPR, VuHaus is one of several imaginative, multi-station efforts to support independent musicians and bands, and to engage local communities in live performance and artist discovery in ways that strengthen local cultural and creative ecosystems.

Want to help your local communities tell and share stories? Podcasting is a great tool.

The Barr Foundation is helping community members in Boston learn podcasting skills via the PRX Podcast Garage and the PRX organization’s multi-year effort to train and develop new independent media voices. The Garage is a community recording studio and classroom teaching the art of storytelling to dozens of area residents.

Surrounding these core presentations, this year’s Forum will examine other recent funder innovations in support of cultural media. The Nathan Cummings and Ford foundations came together to create Critical Minded, which aims to bring diverse voices and perspectives to arts and cultural criticism. Elizabeth Méndez Berry of Nathan Cummings will discuss the necessity for ensuring that a more diverse group of cultural critics is placed in leading roles in U.S. journalism outlets. She’ll be interviewed by the new president of Grantmakers in the Arts, Eddie Torres, along with Salamishah Tillet, a cultural critic, activist and professor at Rutgers University in Newark. These and more conversations build the case that innovation in cultural programming offers new ways to bring meaning and value to artists, cultural organizations, and their audiences and communities.

Like every other field, the arts and culture sector faces new opportunities and new challenges as the unrelenting march toward our shared digital future progresses. Unless we are willing to cede digital platforms and programs solely to the commercial sector, there is a critical role for philanthropy in helping to build a shared cultural commons that is as diverse, as complex, and as penetrating as our nation’s multi-faceted, multicultural, and multi-dimensional forms of cultural expression and engagement.

Throughout the Forum, organizers hope to show how funders are having an impact on the flourishing of local cultures using digital platforms. Just as journalism and news is a critical component in fostering a democratic society in which voters choose who and how they are governed, so also is cultural media an investment that supports democratic values, gives voice to diverse artists and cultural agents who are not likely to be part of the commercial cultural mainstream, and offers communities and audiences access to the fullest human expression of art and creativity.

We are so pleased to see Media Impact Funders explore the role of culture in a just, vibrant and humane society and look forward to spending the day with you.

About the Author

Sarah Lutman

Senior Advisor, Wyncote Foundation; Principal, 8 Bridges Workshop
Sarah Lutman founded Lutman & Associates, now 8 Bridges Workshop, in March 2012. Since then she has pursued a wide variety of projects with clients in cultural, public media, and philanthropic organizations. Her experience as an entrepreneur and innovator is well-documented in projects across these sectors in the Twin Cities as well as the Bay Area, where she spent her early career.