Whatever your politics, it was easy to recognize that the moment Tina Fey appeared with her devastating performance as Sarah Palin on SNL, you knew she was cooked. The best parodies are the ones that most closely resemble the truth, and Fey's send-up of Palin immediately crystallized opinions about the Vice Presidential candidate. And once anyone gets tagged by SNL, it's hard to overcome it.
Over a decade ago, SNL aired a parody featuring Alec Baldwin as “Pete Schweddy,” who appeared in a spoof of public radio programs called, "The Delicious Dish." The program's hosts were parodied as monotonal, nerdy “granola” people, lacking in both irony and common sense. The massive double entendre foisted upon them, as Baldwin promoted his "Schweddy Balls," was both hilarious and memorable.
On a recent SNL show hosted by Betty White, it happened again, this time with her “muffin” as the double entendre keyword. And the result was the same. A hilarious bit that mocked public radio’s straight-laced style and persona.
As Arbitron’s Pierre Bouvard is fond of saying, “Perceptions are like glaciers – slow to form…and slow to melt.”
As we’ve learned over the years, that’s absolutely the case. So as public radio operators cringe when they see these SNL bits, it raises the question about whether entrenched brands have the capability to turn their image 180° around. And given the success of public radio, does it matter?
When you think of bad images, you think of American cars. Has there been any more negative, in-cement image than the K-Car or the Chevy Vega or the Ford Maverick – and the image of Motor City clunkers? It seems that just about everyone has a story about being burned by an American car.
And yet, the latest Automotive Lease Guide’s consumer attitude study shows that Ford now leads all manufacturers in perceived quality. By the way, Chevrolet is in fifth place.
Now some of this improvement has come at the expense of Toyota, which finished in last place as a result of its recall nightmare.
But as Jim Farley, Ford’s head of marketing, points out, “Perception of brand is just as important, or even more so, than fact. But what I’ve learned over 20 years is, the truth comes out. What we are starting to see this year is about 84% of Ford customers are satisfied with their vehicles.”
True enough, but it starts with perceptions. Perhaps not taking government loans was a positive step for Ford turning around its fortunes. But the quality of the cars is still at the root of customer perception, and that’s where Ford is now winning the war.
For public radio, while perceptions may at times echo these SNL skits, you cannot argue with the positive trajectory of their results, especially when terrestrial radio has taken its knocks. Since Pete Schweddy’s appearance, public radio has enjoyed nothing but success. There are around 32 million weekly listeners to public radio stations’ iconic programs like "Morning Edition," "Wait Wait . . Don't Tell Me," “This American Life," "Fresh Air," and "All Things Considered."
As newspapers are fading and opinionated cable channels proliferate, public radio continues to stand alone as a pillar of truly balanced – and calm - journalistic excellence.
And despite the portrayal on SNL, public radio has led the industry in digital innovation. NPR’s podcasts have long been in iTunes’ leadership positions, NPR Music is a progressive initiative that focuses on music discovery, and their new iPad application is another indication of leading rather than following.
So should public radio be concerned by yet another viral SNL parody? On the one hand, it has become essential listening to many Americans – an independent voice that is dependable, rational, and untainted by corporate control, advertisers, or other outside forces. So, you take a funny SNL bit in stride.
But on the other, public radio has the same pressures as many other traditional media outlets – an aging audience, and an ongoing need to innovate and stay relevant to a rapidly moving fickle audience.
To continue to be essential to an audience that believes in its core values and to quietly counter those SNL perceptions, public radio will need to keep experimenting with digital, while developing new talent and different shows. The success of a news/entertainment program like NPR’s “Wait, Wait” or PRI’s “This American Life” with Ira Glass are indications that public radio has what it takes to stay ahead of the curve.
But the system also is faced with many mature shows and “maturer” hosts. Every franchise needs a viable succession plan, and public radio companies and stations are no exceptions.
The SNL bits are forms of flattery, but they are also humorous shots across the bow. Credible, calm, and rational are all desirable qualities. But so is vibrant, energetic, and engaged. Marrying them is part of a great recipe.
And by the way, the muffin was delicious.
Full disclosure: We have done considerable research and consulting work for NPR, PRI, and public radio stations for more than a decade.