“One of the things I hear a lot is that public radio can be boring,” says Robert Sanchez, Nashville Public Radio’s Chief Operating Officer and programmer of news/talk 90.3 WPLN, which takes the spotlight in this week’s Inside Radio “By The Numbers.”
Since taking the reins in July, Sanchez has worked to combat that listener perception, and the numbers show it. According to Nielsen, WPLN’s persons 6+ share rose 31% Aug.-Sept., while during weekdays 6am-7pm, average quarter-hour persons 25-54 spiked 50%, propelling the station from ninth-ranked to third. Driving this growth were increases in daily listening occasions, with time spent listening up by nearly 20 minutes per day.
Leading WPLN’s mission to stamp out boring public radio is its midday news show “This Is Nashville.” “We loosened it up to give it more of a personality and an edge,” Sanchez says. “Host Khalil Ekulona has a vibrant personality that bursts out of the speaker box, [so] we’ve leaned into his unique skill set and given his team license to experiment, and it’s paid off. It started to sound different from the typical public radio fare and we saw the ratings tick up, so we nudged it a little more, and the September book yielded the best ratings since the show launched in March 2022.”
One example of “This Is Nashville’s” unorthodox approach is its coverage of a recent city council meeting – by reenacting it with voice actors and a soap opera backdrop, with commentary sprinkled in, as opposed to the usual reporting. “Public Radio hasn’t historically done things like that, certainly not in Nashville,” Sanchez says.
WPLN has clearly benefited from its increased commitment to local news. “We strive to be the primary news source for Middle Tennessee, [and] the September numbers are the culmination of many months of extraordinary news coverage,” Sanchez says. “The ratings upswing tells us our dual strategy of deep contextual reporting and breaking local news stories is working for us.”
Without spending on traditional advertising, WPLN has still managed to get the word out. “What we have is lots of boots on the ground,” Sanchez says. “Our reporters are visible, [and] the stories we tell have impact and get noticed. Nashville’s new mayor in his inauguration speech called out ‘This Is Nashville’ and Ekulona.”
Additionally, the station recently launched daily newsletter The NashVillager, which, Sanchez says, “has grown quickly and generated a lot of interest. [It’s] a daily reminder that WPLN is there for you. We highlight our best stories and make a point to tease what’s coming up on that day’s ‘This Is Nashville.’”
WPLN has also leveraged other digital platforms in a significant way, with senior investigative reporter Meribah Knight’s “The Kids of Rutherford County,” a podcast produced in partnership with Serial Productions and The New York Times, focused on a local news story that resulted in the resignation of a judge who had been illegally jailing children. “No other organization in Middle Tennessee is doing this kind of deep and impactful reporting on so many levels,” Sanchez says. “We aired a one-hour special which included broadcasting the first episode, and we’re planning an in-person event around the podcast.”
As WPLN continues to grow its news staff and widen its focus – with dedicated reporters covering criminal justice, education, healthcare, metro government, urban growth, and arguably Nashville’s biggest export, music – Sanchez sees a promising future ahead. “There’s an opportunity for public radio to step into roles that newspapers have traditionally filled with investigative reporting and quality journalism,” he says, noting, “reading [listener] comments, it hit me that we’re not just a public radio station. We are a civic and cultural institution in Middle Tennessee.”
– Rich Appel