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A Conversation with Laura Walker

We sat down with Yale School of Management Executive Fellow, former President and CEO of New York Public Radio, and newly appointed President of Bennington College, Laura Walker '87 to discuss her insights and experiences as a pioneer in the media industry.

Tell us about your role as Executive Fellow at Yale SOM. How are you involved and how do you hope to get involved with the school?
I’ve been doing a range of things, mostly talking to students. I gave a speech a few weeks ago, mainly around gender parity and issues of messaging: how do we fast forward so that we can reach gender parity in less time than 165 years, which is what the World Economic Forum estimates? It’s fun to talk to students who are interested in that. And then I’m working with Ravi and his team on bringing a couple potential Discovery and research projects in. I’m on the YCCI board, which is a terrific board—you get a mix of practitioners and academics. I’m also working with Jeff Sonnenfeld the Women on Boards program, and the Yale CEO summit.

What customer insights did WNYC have about its audience’s goals, beliefs, and choices around news and media?
We had some built-in feedback loops that we put in place. One of the things I remember when I first got there was research that we did with members and non-members. What we discovered is that members, in particular, identified strongly with being a listener to WNYC, and that only got stronger as time went on. Sometimes it was specifically to a podcast (e.g., I’m a “Death, Sex, & Money” person or a “Freakonomics” person), and sometimes to the larger to WNYC. People self-define as public radio or podcast listeners and there’s so much you can do with that. It’s the kind of loyalty any brand manager would love.

The business model of public radio depends on understanding the listener and particularly, the loyal listener. To build membership, we needed people to pay for something they got for free. That’s a pretty high bar! I used to say that to the staff on the creative side –“We need to produce something so good and so powerful that it creates a strong connection with listeners so  that they will reach into their pocket and give you money even though they listen for free. We built the membership to over 300,000 people. It never stopped to amaze me. It’s such a privilege to be able to work in a place that has that kind of sense of importance and centricity in people’s lives.

We would do insight work around such questions as, “How do you message best? How do you think about how to consider what’s going in the world and in people’s lives and create the case for public radio and a then ask directly for a contribution?” So, for example, the station has been focusing on the need for independent journalism that is speaks truth. That resounds well with many of the listeners.

When we looked at our research about our listeners, we created a map of several concentric circles.  At the center are the loyal members, the next circle out are the people who listen a lot but are not members, and the next are people who listen less frequently and are not members. The goal is to move those in the third circle into the second circle and then move those in the second circle into the center circle and add more listeners to the third. With this information, we would develop campaigns. One on-air campaign we developed was to motivate listeners to tune in one more time a week. If you can get them to tune in one more time per week, they are more likely to become members.

How can marketing in the media industry be used to create positive societal impact?
I think that so much of the marketing in the media industry focuses on improving ratings and delivering an audience to sponsors that we often lose sight of the larger impact a media organization can have and the responsibility it has to try to make the world a better place. Part of what you’re able to do in public media is to connect the things that matter to people—the ideas, issues and interests that people are really passionate about—to the desire to make a bigger impact in the world. I think a lot of the commercial networks miss out on an opportunity to connect with their viewers in this way.

One of the things I am passionate about is using the media to get people to do something that is greater than themselves. That is, in essence, why I devoted so much of my career to public media. Some of the most impactful things we did were about motivating people to vote, doing a series of investigative stories that exposed the NYPD’s use of stop and frisk, and airing factual information in a sea of inaccurate media.

What is one piece of advice that you’d like to give students interested in marketing in media-related careers?
Story. It’s all about stories. And what you learn at YCCI is: what’s the question? What’s the question and what’s the story to answer that question? That’s what media is about. It’s true in life, but also true in media. Media needs people that get that. That’s what you learn here.