Being an authentic person: Talking engagement with NPR’s Bob Boilen

Yesterday, I wrote about NPR’s listener community and wisdom from Andy Carvin. This is part 2 of my NPR chats.

National Public Radio’s Bob Boilen has been talking directly to his listeners since the late ’80s, when he answered by hand the mail he got at All Things Considered. Then and now, he wants to hear what’s working, what’s annoying and what ideas listeners have. Now, as the host of All Songs Considered, he says his work days still almost always include direct interaction with listeners, and he can’t imagine that not being the case.

These days, his responses to listeners often serve to personalize what would otherwise feel like communication with a brand, not an individual. Bob says writers and commenters don’t seem to expect their comments or emails to be read, much less responded to, as evidenced by a frequent rude, impulsive tone. “When I do write them back, it’s somewhat disarming,” Bob says. “They call me an idiot, then the idiot writes them back. That’s wonderful!”

I asked Bob if that was an example of old-fashioned customer service. He replied that it was customer service if someone asked what song he’d played and he responded with the name of the song. But when it turns into a conversation, with questions, answers, personality and feedback, it qualifies as more meaningful engagement.

The cloak of anonymity that’s pervasive in digital communication can be problematic. But overall, Bob seems to truly enjoy the ways he can interact with his listeners. Especially around a topic like music that tends to bring out commonalities and passions.

Bob said engagement is part of the vocabulary at NPR, thanks in part to the efforts of Andy Carvin, senior strategist. Andy encourages colleagues like Bob to build on even the smallest successes, and he consults with the individual programs to come up with plans for listener interaction.

Bob told me what he sees as some benefits to his audience interaction:

— Keeping him honest. An error he made last month was pointed out and corrected within 30 minutes.

— Suggestions from the crowd. He’s done a couple of shows called A Band To Call Your Own, where he puts together shows based on listeners’ favorite little-known bands. He loves it and would like to do more.

— Expanding his own perspectives. The crowd isn’t going to convince Bob to love an album he just doesn’t love. But when the masses absolutely love a record, as they did with the recent Decemberists unveiling, he’ll go back and listen again. Listener input influences his journalistic process.

Bob says he has a goal of interacting more on the show’s blog. The first thing he does every morning is look at the comments on the show’s blog, and he made a New Year’s resolution to engage more. He wishes, though, that he knew whether people even see when he responds to their comments.

Bob has a dedicated community (with almost 20,000 Facebook fans) for All Songs Considered, of people united around common interests. I asked him how working on the music show was different from his years in news. He said he feels like his current listeners are more pliable — they come with open ears, hoping to hear something new. The opinions and perspectives with which listeners approach a news show feel less flexible to him.

He also has the benefit of a relationship that feels personal. His show comes from the heart, and he wants to introduce his community of listeners to music that will provide new experiences for them. They keep coming back, in part, for his expertise and perspective. There’s an authentic connection and investment that goes two ways. So he’ll keep answering that mail himself.

This was originally posted on the blog of the Reynolds Journalism Institute, where I am a 2010-2011 fellow.


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