Deabler, 44, is NPR’s director of audience engagement and new ventures. Generation Listen is her strategy to woo millennials, a potential audience of 75 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 34. Like Deabler, many of them were introduced to NPR as “backseat babies,” strapped into a safety seat in the family car.
“My parents always had NPR on,” says Deabler, who grew up in Fredericksburg, Va., an hour southwest of Washington, D.C. She now lives in Arlington, Va. “What I remember is the calm voices and sort of these soothing tones, yet at the time it didn’t make much sense to me and didn’t interest me. … [NPR has] this nostalgic connection to my family and driving around in the car listening.”
That’s a common theme in Deabler’s audience research. But so is this: When that captive audience gets a little older and can make its own choices, it often listens elsewhere. And bringing millennials back to NPR for their news fix poses a special challenge.
“There are so many more choices for them than even I had growing up,” Deabler says. “With the surge of social media, that’s where they are getting their news, and NPR has done a great job with making sure that our journalism and our programming is getting out through social media channels. That said, I have noticed a little bit of pulling back by millennials. They’re craving real-life human connection again.”
Generation Listen aims to satisfy that craving through old-fashioned “listening parties.”
NPR chooses a theme each month (reflection, habit and transformation in January; love and relationships in February) and provides links to relevant stories to get the conversation rolling. There’s even a party kit online, with sample invitations and tips on everything from choosing a venue and eats to fostering conversation.The idea is to gather a small group of friends to listen to an NPR story and then discuss it. These days they’re more apt to gather around a digital device than an actual radio, but either way, it’s an intimate gathering intended to foster conversation and community.
An NPR team tested the strategy on a Los Angeles-to-D.C. road trip last summer, partnering with member stations along the way to co-host listening parties and outreach to young listeners.
“They loved it, found it deeply engaging and a fun social experience where they were able to convene and connect with like-minded people,” Deabler says. “They want to be informed about what’s going on in the community and around the world. They had a deep connection there, and sort of found their tribe, if you will.”
Another national listening tour this spring and summer is planned to get millennials talking about the 2016 presidential campaign. NPR is also showing member stations how to launch Generation Listen programs of their own. Though Deabler says it is not a primary aim, the outreach could bring a payoff for the stations’ fundraising campaigns.
“Young donors actually want to be engaged with where they donate their money and their charities versus simply writing a check at the end of the year,” Deabler says. “There is a connection between these activities and community building.”
Deabler, who majored in public relations at NC State, brings broad professional experience to public radio. She has worked as a publicist for Warner Bros. Television, in corporate communications for First Union bank, and as senior PR manager for Nordstrom, Inc. She joined NPR in 2008.
“I see this as a PR 2.0 for my personal evolution,” she says. “It’s not just about pitching and writing press releases now. As a PR practitioner, you should be adept at social media and have some experience with engaging thought leaders and with forging partnerships, some experience in marketing and in community building. You have to be more versatile and well-rounded than ever.”
And, Deabler says, you have to be positive. Though some at NPR initially questioned the Generation Listen concept, she didn’t let the naysayers do it in.
“It’s really important not to let the negative voices get into your head,” she says. “You know you’re onto something if you get a few objections. Don’t walk away.”
—Carole Tanzer Miller