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WBEZ’s Birther Controversy

In what’s been referred to by The New York Times as a “saucy” new marketing campaign, Chicago’s venerable NPR affiliate is pushing procreative sex. Advertisements plastered around the area, including on the sides of buses, are asking Chicagoans to “do it for the city” and “make babies today” in an effort to create a new generation of WBEZ listeners.

Like much of old media public radio knows it desperately needs to appeal to a new generation of potential listeners who have a smorgasbord of options that were unavailable to their parents and grandparent. If you believe WBEZ’s marketing department, the campaign is satire, designed to be provocative and grab attention. That it did, in a “what the hell were they thinking” sort of way.



For the most part, the public radio brand is associated with in-depth, high-quality coverage of and discussion about politics, policies, and issues that impact the lives of its listeners, who tune in because they assume a half hour later they’ll come away a bit smarter about their community or their world. It’s for that reason public radio – like public television – has consistently attracted substantial support from foundations that believe it helps burnish their brands.

I can understand how that cultivated image of self-restraint makes it difficult to gain traction with the Instagram generation, who seem to demand a slice of your soul in exchange for their attention.

But this campaign could be for Doritos or Snapple or, for that matter, the Howard Stern Show. Every organization wants their customers to pass along their brand loyalties to their kids. Even if it’s all tongue-in-cheek, the campaign has the hallmark of a battle between old and new that neither side won. It fails to sell anything.

In addition it’s remarkably tone deaf. Public radio is one of the few news organizations that seriously covers the environment and other issues closely associated with population growth. That’s yet another reason it gets a fair chunk of funding from private foundations that are financing efforts to limit over-population and its deeply negative impacts on the planet.

I’ll keep listening to WBEZ because it rises well above the news and talk claptrap offered by money machines like Clear Channel. But it’s put a dent in its brand by launching a campaign that does nothing to highlight its distinguishing virtues.

Communications Network board member Mitch Hurst is founder of MH Communications and a frequent contributor to our blog.


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