Sense of Place: The Value and Values of Localism


The Sense of Place project was part of PRPD’s Core Values project, with reference to the value and values of localism in news and information.

In its proposal, PRPD stated three goals:

  • To gain a better understanding of the value and values public radio listeners hold about Sense of Place
  • To articulate a vocabulary that clearly and concisely defines those values and qualities      
  • To explore how a deepened understanding of the value of place can help us improve both public service and public support

PRPD set three criteria for participating stations:

  • Have already made a serious commitment to local news and information programming
  • Have made an attempt to sharply focus their local programming around Sense of Place
  • Represent a range of geographical regions, size of markets and newsroom resources

Nine stations were chosen from an application process.  Focus groups were recruited from listeners of these stations, which provided funding and other research support:

  • KNPR, Las Vegas – Lamar Marchese and Flo Rogers
  • KNAU, Flagstaff – John Stark and Geoff Norcross
  • WUNC, Raleigh – Joan Rose and George Boosey
  • KNOW, Minneapolis - Erik Nycklemoe and Sarah Lutman
  • WUWM, Milwaukee – Dave Edwards and Bruce Winter
  • WHID, Green Bay – Phil Corriveau and Anders Yocom
  • KUOW, Seattle – Wayne Roth and Jeff Hansen
  • WBUR, Boston – Sam Fleming and Paul La Camera
  • WSLU, Canton - Jackie Sauter and Ellen Rocco

The research was conducted by Walrus Research. National Public Radio provided major funding for this project as part of the Local News Initiative.

What Listeners Told Us: Focus Group Comments

It's intelligent
It's international
It's all levels
It's individual
It's countries
It zeroes in…
It takes some little piece that you think would be irrelevant
But they take a person
In a situation
And they can make it global

- Public radio described by a listener in Canton, NY

We talked with more than 375 listeners in the "Sense of Place" Project. Here are some of the major themes that emerged in those conversations - as voiced by the listeners themselves.

Sense of Place: Flagstaff - Poverty with a View                   Click here to listen (:55)

We found that the mental map or Sense of Place in the minds of public radio listeners does not match standard geographic or political boundaries but is based on other dimensions like history, environment, and culture. And while there is lively debate about whether or not we are becoming a cookie-cutter, "placeless" nation, we found that public radio listeners across the distinctly different communities we visited all feel a strong Sense of Place. They were eager to tell us about their sense of place and there was no disagreement in any group. For example, Flagstaff listeners told us they love the beauty of their community but lament its high cost/low wage economy, calling it "poverty with a view."

Newspapers - Things are Looking Up for Trees                  Click here to listen (1:45)

Our listeners strongly believe that metropolitan daily newspapers have deteriorated in the quality and quantity of their coverage and are instead going to the Internet and actively using sites around the world like the New York Times, BBC, CNN, and Manchester Guardian. This came up spontaneously in virtually every one of 36 focus groups and was true for both small town papers and nationally known papers like the Boston Globe.

First Some Good News about the Value of Local               Click here to listen (1:24)

Our listeners would value a station that covers their place with depth, intelligence and a global perspective just as NPR covers the nation and the world. There's no doubt that they like the CONCEPT of a station that does local news with the same attributes that they associate with NPR. They like the idea.

Talk Shows - Splitting the Core                                         Click here to listen (1:00)

Unfortunately, the actual performance of locally produced news and information programming too often fails to deliver on its promise. When we played program examples (from both their own local station and from other project stations), we heard a lot of disappointment. In the case of local talk shows we found that the call in format itself tends to alienate an important segment of public radio listeners.

Local Shows - A Case of Hit or Miss                                Click here to listen (1:12)

Many stations are investing considerable time and resources to produce local, stand-alone showcase programs. We found that these shows too often fail to deliver - even on the selection of topics. "Hit or miss" was a phrase that came up over and over and over, across the markets.

Newscasts - The Jury is Divided                                       Click here to listen (1:27) 

When we started this project we already knew that our listeners assign personal importance to news and information programming that resonates with their Core Values--intelligence, depth, civility, authenticity and a global perspective. That resonated in their reactions to cutaway newscasts when the message we heard was that listeners would rather have fewer stories, each story in relative depth.

Part of a Greater Whole                                                 Click here to listen (:34)

The phrase "global perspective" is very important. Here's a listener to North Country Radio in Canton, NY talking about what he values form his local public radio station - context, perspective and connection.

They Like to Connect the Dots                                     Click here to listen (1:32)

Our listeners will not value a story that has been approached from a merely local perspective. If we are not thinking about local happenings as they do - from a wider, even global perspective - then we fail. In order to frame our local news programming to appeal to these listeners we need to ask questions that emphasize context and connection.

Facts vs. Fluff                                                              Click here to listen (2:21)

Rigorous, consistent work on the selection and shaping of our content, talent and craft of our work is required to achieve program quality. We know listeners trust us - to respect their intelligence and curiosity, to make interesting choices on their behalf and to enrich their time not waste it. But too often in this study, we heard listeners say they didn't learn anything from the local program examples we played - they want programming rich in facts and data not "fluff "built on conjecture, opinion or pitches to our emotions.

Story Anglers                                                              Click here to listen (3:15)

Our "Connect the Dots" Listeners also took us to task for failing to cover subjects from the variety and range of angles they felt were warranted. We jokingly said that very quickly, our project began to feel like the world's longest editorial meeting with listeners who deconstructed what they heard with amazing speed and were very articulate in describing what they thought could be done better! Local reporters and hosts need to give the subjects they cover the depth and complexity our listeners demand.

Hosting - the Good, the Bad and the Ugly                Click here to listen (2:27)

The second programming filter that divides great programming from everything else is the selection and shaping of talent. Listeners judge the talent we put on the air at our stations - our reporters, our local hosts and the guests they invite on their programs by the same standard set by their favorite national shows. They don't cut us any slack just because we're local.

Sound Rich - A Mixed Bag                                         Click here to listen (1:47)

While gathering listener reactions to production style was not a project goal, they told us plenty about it. We all know that sound can be an extraordinarily effective tool for storytelling, but listeners told us that it can also be a distraction and an annoyance when not used well and with a clear purpose.

Localism and Morning Edition Research

How listeners evaluate local newscasts, breaks and segments within NPR's Morning Edition

Morning Edition is public radio's most important program, yet what listeners actually hear varies widely as stations insert their local newscasts and news features.

In consultation with the Morning Edition Grad School, Walrus Research designed a series of program testing sessions to determine how listeners evaluate the local coverage that stations insert into Morning Edition. Over 300 listeners used electronic response units to enter their moment-to-moment reaction to a variety of airchecks carefully selected from NPR stations around the country.

The overall goal of this research was to build audience for NPR's Morning Edition and to enhance the value of NPR's Morning Edition to listeners, thereby increasing revenue from listeners and underwriters.

The research was funded by NPR through the Local News Initiative.