Benjamin Wagner participated in the Media Transformation Challenge at Poynter (formerly operated as the original Punch Sulzberger Program at Columbia) in 2014 when he was senior vice president of MTV News. From his half-decade helping launch Facebook’s Journalism Project globally and his tenure transforming MTV News, to his award-winning PBS documentary, “Mister Rogers & Me,” and podcast, “Friends & Neighbors,” Benjamin’s focus is the essential nature of our shared human experience.
In the first in a series of Friends & Neighbors episodes sponsored by the Media Transformation Challenge at the Poynter Institute, newly-installed Freakonomics Radio Network’s Executive Vice President Neal Carruth walks us step-by-step through his exceptional career and provides a deep dive into how his MTC experience helped him drive transformation at NPR, catalyzed personal and career growth, and provided immediate value in the early days of his new role.
Welcome back to Friends & Neighbors. I’m Benjamin Wagner, and this week, Freakonomics Radio Network’s, Neal Carruth.
In 2014, as I wrestled with what to do next in my media career, I happened upon, applied, and was accepted to be a year-long fellow in a program now called the Media Transformation Challenge at the Poynter Institute for Journalism, provides a set of transformation-oriented tools, expert instruction and coaching within a top-notch community of peers, all pointed towards a fellow’s specific, outcome-oriented challenge.
In my case, my challenge was to transform MTV News from a nine-to-five, broadcast first news organization, to a 24/7, digital first, socially engaged newsroom while increasing measures like revenue and audience share. With the program, its coaches and my colleagues’ support, I exceeded my goals in under a year, before decamping to Facebook.
While driving real, measurable outcomes is a unique value proposition amongst similarly marketed programs, what’s made MTC so unique and meaningful to me is that, not only have those tools been useful in my roles since, they’ve been useful in the rest of my life as well.
Moreover, that community of coaches and peers has become lifelong, trusted friends and allies – the kind I see at conferences, sure. But also the kind that I call for advice, guidance and connection.
Freakonomics Radio Network Executive Vice President, Neal Carruth, is a member of the MTC family. As a 2019 fellow, Neal’s challenge was to make NPR the leading daily producer and distributor of daily on-demand audio. If you’re paying any attention at all the to public broadcasting or podcast space, you know that, in the end, Neal delivered.
Neal was born and raised in the Twin Cities, and was so captivated by a local talk radio WCCO’s theater of the mind, that he began creating his own imaginary radio show on his dual cassette boombox.
Neal dove headlong into radio journalism, parlaying a psychology degree from the University of Michigan and a pair of key public broadcasting internships into a 23-year career at National Public Radio. There, Neal rose through the ranks from Weekend Edition’s Editorial Assistant, to Senior Director.
In nearly two and a half decade at NPR, Neal worked as a booker, field producer, director, line producer, business editor, and programming executive. As Senior Director of On-Demand News Programming, Neal oversaw popular shows like Planet Money, Hidden Brain, Up First, and Rough Translation, and helping build NPR into the nation’s largest podcast company.
In May, Neal joined the Freakonomic’s Radio Network as Executive Vice President. The network, born of Stevens Dubner and Levitt’s groundbreaking 2005 book, explores the hidden side of things you always thought you knew (but didn’t) and things you never thought you wanted to know (but do).
Still in his first 90 days, Neal is tasked with developing the burgeoning network’s audience, business, and content strategies.
This week, in the first in a series of special MTC-sponsored episodes of Friends & Neighbors, Neal walks us step-by-step through his career, and reflects on the synthesis of his disparate interests and influences: news, radio, movies, psychology and journalism.
Neal shares the value of mentorship to his career growth, key lessons learned from colleagues like WDTW’s Jarome Vaughn (who is himself a 2022 Fellow) and NPR’s Don Gonyea, and the upside of making mistakes.
We go deep into Neal’s experience in the Media Transformation Challenge, how its tools and community helped drive real, measurable transformation, audience and revenue at NPR, catalyze his personal and career growth, and provide immediate value in his still early days at Freakonomics.
Neal Carruth: I participated in the Media Transformation Challenge in 2019.
BW: What was the MTC challenge for you and NPR?
NC: Basically, that we wanted to make NPR the leading producer and distributor of daily on-demand audio. And to create, not just a show or two, this, this ecosystem of shows that that covered different topics, different day parts shows that could kind of. Uh, communicate and, and, and speak with one another and, and pass the audience from, from one to another. Shows that kind of made sense as this portfolio as well.
BW: It’s really kind of what MTC does well, which is help organizations be transformational as opposed to iterative. And it was an ambitious north star!
NC: It was ambitious and one of the reasons that this was challenging for an organization like NPR is because it’s a membership organization. And, uh, and that’s very important to the identity of the organization. I would say that’s very important to the, the flourishing and functioning of American society and democracy and the future of local news.
Those aren’t trivial things that you want to take lightly. I would say top of mind for me in executing on the performance challenge was making sure that there was something in it for stations and in, and in fact, we actually ended up creating, uh, as, as far as we’re aware, the first localized daily news podcast, a show called Consider This, which is still done in partnership with a dozen member stations. And so when you listen to that show, the top of it is produced by the team that produces All Things Considered. And then depending upon where you’re listening to it, if you’re listening to it in a city where we have a localized option, it serves you the national local blended version of that podcast.
And the national local blend has been a really important element of NPR’s success for decades, right? When you’re visiting a new town and you turn on the radio and you listen to Morning Edition or All Things Considered, what you get is this kind of seamless flow, interspersing national elements and local elements.
And if, and if, uh, if it’s done right, um, you, you. You can’t really tell where, where one ends and the other begins, but it’s all useful. You’re getting, you’re getting news about the world. You’re getting news about the state of politics. You’re getting news about your community. And so our goal with Consider This was to try and do that in the within the constraints of, of an RSS feed and and a traditional podcast. And so that was an, an incredible capstone to the, to the year of work on this performance challenge.
BW: You’re dealing with all kinds of stuff there: the national dynamic, the local partner dynamic, but also product development, leadership, editorial, right. That’s a lot of folks to get on the bus!
NC: Yeah. I had been involved in some complex projects. But never had I been involved in anything so complex as on Consider This. I couldn’t have tried to tackle that one at the beginning of the MTC year because I I needed the education and the experience with thinking about constituency maps and different kinds of stakeholders.
Because as, as you say, this one was incredibly complicated, right? There were the national producers, there were the product people, there were, there were stationed people who were going to be involved in it. There were stationed people who weren’t gonna be involved in it. There was the NPR board, there were NPR executives.
We were also doing something that had never been done before. And with good reason: it turned out, it was incredibly hard to do it and, you know, kind of messy and kind of imperfect. And so when you’re, when you’re in that zone too, That makes things that makes things incredibly hard.
BW: Before we dive into the specifics of your MTC challenge, back me up to how you got to NPR. Tell me about growing up in the Twin Cities, and sort of what makes Neal, Neal.
NC: The real memories start early eighties, 82, 83 around there. ET was in theaters. The Thompson twins were on the radio. Cindy Lauper.
I was into all the things that other kids were into, but there was one thing that was a little odd, which I credit my parents for, which was this devotion to attachment to this talk station, in the Twin Cities, which is, which is still around.
It was called WCCO. And it’s a powerhouse in the Twin Cities.
But these folks at WCCO were very clear descendants of the early days of radio. They used sound effects. They had characters. They did impressions. And I think all that stuff kind of activated my theatrical imagination. There’s this idea of radio as theater of the mind. The folks at WCCO were, were very much in that camp.
My parents were not public radio people. I didn’t, I didn’t start listening to public radio until much later.
They were both public school educators. teachers who both ultimately became administrators, and they were involved in the efforts to desegregate Elly the, the public schools in Mississippi in, in the late sixties, which was a high stakes, dangerous effort, many years after brown versus board of education.
BW: Did you have an early interest in journalism?
NC: We left Minnesota eventually moved to Williamsburg. I started writing for the high school paper. I eventually became the editor of the paper. I loved and still love movies. I was a movie critic, teenage movie critic for the, the real non-student local paper called The Daily Press.
My parents gave me boombox with a couple tape decks, which would allow you to kinda layer in sort of a crude way, sound effects. I would write little scripts. I had like a little radio studio set up in the basement.
And some point during high school, I got an internship at the college radio station, which was just an, an incredible thrill, like hanging out with college students. There was like all this, you know, all these CDs and LPs sitting around, you know, made, made new music discoveries. And, you know, I got to hang out with college kids and got an FCC license at some point.
BW: Oh, wow.
NC: I was in college at the university of Michigan, and had just discovered public radio, had started listening to Talk of the Nation and All Things Considered and Fresh Air.
Talk of the Nation which was hosted in those days by Ray Suarez. There here were a few people who became real role models for me in terms of, if not the kind of broadcaster I wanted to be since I’ve mostly been a behind the scenes guy, but at least the kind of broadcaster I wanted to support and and advance: Ray. Robert Siegel, Scott Simon, Terry Gross. And, you know, I got to at at least meet, if, if not get to work closely with, you know, all, all those people at some point. Um, and so it was a real revelation for me when I discovered them.
One summer I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do, but had this portfolio of newspaper articles and had always liked radio from early days and played around with it.
I thought, Hmm, maybe I should go work at an NPR station. So I drove into Detroit, met with Jerome Vaughn. I’m Isure I wore a tie for the occasion, which I would later learn is totally unnecessary in most public radio newsrooms. I brought my like portfolio of movie reviews with me, which was also probably totally unnecessary.
Jerome, who’s very courteous guy looked and then basically said, “When can you start?” And I said, “Let’s start right away!”
Jerome believed in giving people real world experiences, sending them out to cover news conferences or fires. And so I got, I got to know the city of
Detroit I got to know what it meant to be a boots on the ground journalist and, and to go out and talk to people and then figure out how to craft an intelligible story out of what you’d gathered.
I was always impressed by Jerome’s kindness by his command of everything that was happening in Detroit. And his ability to get so many things done across the course of the day. He was a real inspiration to me as a budding journalist. I will always have a, a special place in my heart for Jerome. He’s an incredible journalist and a wonderful human being nice.
BW: How did some of those early experiences come together at NPR?
NC: I’ve always kinda struggled to sort of find the invisible connections between these different interests of mine between the movie stuff and the radio stuff.
And one day when I was editing the work of my friend, Don Ganyea who’s a long-time labor and politics correspondent at NPR, who I got to know when I, when I was an intern at the NPR member station in Detroit during my college years. I used that phrase theater of the mind earlier. Don used to say that he thought of his pieces as little movies for the mind basically. And when he sat down to write a script, he kind of imagined that he was writing a little movie.
So that was, that was kind of a a key connection for me making it clear that these things that seem like they might not directly relate to one another actually probably kind of connected at at a very deep level.
BW: You get a leadership position at weekend edition in 2000. What’s the first hard lesson you managed well and learned from?
NC: I got my first opportunities to occupy a leadership role in those early days at Weekend Edition, I would occasionally fill in as the editor of the show.
And when you’re doing that, it’s all on your shoulders, right? Like every, every word that’s that’s coming outta the radio during that show is your responsibility. And it’s a heavy weight. It’s a great responsibility. And it really, it really stings when you make a mistake.
And of course, you know, it’s journalism. Things are fluid and fast moving. You’re gonna make mistakes. Other people are gonna make mistakes that you’re not gonna catch. Whenever I’ve been managing someone who makes a mistake, obviously you have to have a conversation about what happened and what people are gonna do to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
But, you know, I, I know from my own experience making mistakes, you need to be a little bit gentle because that person is probably chastising themselves more severely than anything you as a manager could do. You know, if they’re conscientious about the work then they’re probably, you know, beating themselves up basically.
It’s important to have those experiences, right? It’s important to know that you’re not, you’re not perfect, that you are gonna make mistakes. You should learn from each mistake and hopefully you don’t make the same kind of mistake too many times.
One of my early bosses, a woman named Sharon Ball told me that after I made a mistake early on, she said, “Well, let’s just make sure you don’t make that one again. Just keep, keep making new mistakes.”
BW: How did you feel about MTC as you entered? Did you have a sense of what to expect? what was your sort of mindset as you entered and proceeded through that first few weeks.
NC: I had a sense of it because my boss on your Grumman had participated in it and, and with, without calling it out had, had even sprinkled in here and there, some of the concepts. So, you know, we, we talked about, uh, balcony, dance floor. We talked about assumptions to knowledge.
I never heard her use the phrase constituency map, but looking back on it, it was clear that she had that in mind when we would conversations that needed to happen before you could tackle something big. So I felt like I had a sense of the material.
I was nervous. I was a little bit intimidated, especially when I looked at the list of who was participating in the program; it was an impressive group of people. I knew a couple of them because there were several people from public radio in the group. But the, the, the range of organizations was impressive.
The level in organizations that people were coming from was also impressive. So I remember being, you know, nervous, intimidated, grateful that I’d been given the opportunity. Determined not to screw it up. Right. That was the mix of emotions.
BW: It turns out that everyone’s a little bit scared and a little bit intimidated, but you end up realizing how much common ground there is. And then you end up having this incredible shared experience of having been through the program together. How did you determine the, the shape of your challenge and break it into parts and steps broadly?
NC: I benefited as I think everyone who participates in the program, from a great coach, uh, Quentin Hope, who because of his public radio background and public radio bonafides ends up working with a lot of the public radio folks who go through the program.
And Quentin was really meticulous and thoughtful and, and clinical in, in working with me and figuring out how to break apart and sequence the various components of the challenge.
BW: Can you give us a little bit of detail on how you stepped through your challenge over the course of those next two quarters?
NC: A tool that I found really useful was the, was the opportunity matrix, which was something that Quentin and I spent a lot of time on. It was a really useful way to think about this, this portfolio challenge that, that we had, how do we build a portfolio that, that does a lot of different things.
I was able to identify some sort of low hanging fruit that were right there in front of us. And so a couple of our existing shows that didn’t publish daily were turned into daily shows and, our, the core conviction of this challenge was that you can build a different kind of relationship with a listener by publishing short, digestible content every day, as opposed once a week or couple times a week.
BW: How did those Quentin calls go? What kind of stuff did you cover in those.
NC: They were amazing. I remember a comment Doug Smith made in one of the early sessions before we actually got paired up with our coach. He said, “We chose the word coach very deliberately. This is not, this is not your mentor.
He said just as a coach in a professional sports context might occasionally need to get in a player’s face a little bit, he said like that, that might happen here too. Quentin is actually a warm and lovely person, but, you know, there were times where I could sense that he didn’t think I was pushing hard enough or that I was working hard enough between sessions.
And obviously they understand there’s always going to be life and your, your job is very demanding and your life is very demanding. There’s a lot of things to get in the way. But they wanted to make sure — and he never had to say anything. You know, he had a very subtle way of communicating this to me.
We would spend a few minutes at the top of the call just sort of briefly catching up. And then it was like down to business. And he’s very focused and he’s, and he’s very rigorous. And he has a way of, without telling you explicitly, but still telling you that, okay, you’re not quite there yet. You’re gonna need to push a little bit harder before we see one another again.
BW: Are there some insights you can share in terms of how you helped your, your various stakeholders and the folks on your constituency map to move their thinking?
NC: A phrase that we started using a lot was, was, was daily habit And my boss who had gone through the program was, was really masterful at, um, at deploying that language in a very consistent and disciplined way.
And so it was pretty cool to see it take hold. Everyone sort of intuitively understood what we were up to with this.
BW: Language is powerful, right? Especially shared language when you’ve got the signal of someone like. Your manager on your side, it takes that repetition and it has to connect to core values
NC: Right. It’s really important. And you have to, you have to be very disciplined about it. Right. Um, but, uh, but it can really help when you’re trying to move people over on a, on a constituency.
BW: What was an example of challenges, whether they were forseen or unseen that you managed over the course of the fellowship?
NC: You know, in, in any big organization. And I don’t think NPR is unique in this regard. There’s, there’s a lot of com competing priorities. There’s a lot of competing demands for, for, for resources. There’s there are limited numbers of people to carry out good ideas, you know, even if there are, uh, Intentions.
I don’t think anything I encountered was unique to NPR or, or exceptional in that way when you’re, when you have a vision and, and you have other people bought into that vision, sharing it with you. Sometimes you can be impatient to kind of get to, to, to move, move faster. Then then the organization can, uh, but you know, one of the lessons for me of the program was, was the importance of the constituency map in getting and not getting out ahead of people.
But then even once people are convinced and, and on your side, you know, you still have to make the case for, for resources. You still need to execute. And so, um, again, I think back, you know, marketing back to the opportunity matrix, that’s where it was helpful to find some low hanging fruit. You know, early wins, uh, in, in the jargon of the program, um, where, you know, you, you felt like you were moving and you were creating some momentum.
Even though maybe you, you weren’t, you weren’t quite executing on, on the biggest ideas yet, but you weren’t, you weren’t standing still either. Uh, so I think time, time, Uh, resources, uh, competing, demands. Those, those are all things that, you know, you sort of feel getting in your way, but those are, those are natural in, in any big organization.
BW: And those early wins are so key, it’s a good shot at dopamine that everybody shares then reorients around, oh, this is a thing to align to and align with.
NC: That’s right. I think Anya, and I started using the phrase daily habit portfolio before there really was like a daily habit portfolio. But then, you know, once you’re pulling these existing shows in, and then you create another new show suddenly before you know it, there are, there are a half dozen shows in this portfolio. It’s kind of becomes a thing. And that, and that was really exciting.
BW: One of the means for measurement or understanding progress within the context of any challenge is this thing we call the S-curve, right? How did you know you’d reached the beginning of the end?
NC: I think it was the point where we, where we had kind of a critical mass of shows where we felt, we felt like this was a real portfolio that was reaching, across the portfolio, a significant audience base day in and day out weekend and week out. That was the point where it felt like, okay, we’ve, we’ve really accomplished something here. we’ve moved beyond. Just having a, a couple shows and now we have a real portfolio.
BW: How did the challenge turn out and, and how were you measuring and identifying success?
NC: Obviously, I’m not gonna give precise numbers, but I could say that we exceeded the audience targets that we’d set for ourselves at the beginning of the year. And we also exceeded the revenue targets we set for ourselves at. And on the revenue side, more than paid for by a significant multiple, my participation in the program.
BW: In my experience, in addition to this sort of explicit ROI in regards to goals that are set and so forth, there’s this shared experience with your team back at NPR HQ that all kinds of colleagues benefit from a lot of these tools and tactics.
NC: I started using the language of the program with my colleagues. So even though they weren’t directly participating in the program, I think they benefited from the intellectual frameworks that, that, that are at the heart of the program.
BW: With whom did you build affinity in your class or broadly in the alumni network and how, if at all, has that endured?
NC: I really gravitated toward the folks from the BBC, in part, because, you know, in NPR occupies sort of the same status in American life as the BBC does in the UK. There were a lot of people in the program, including people from very different corners of, of media and journalism, who I found that I connected with.
And the group has stayed in touch since then. There was a kind of mini reunion a few weeks ago. And we all stay connected via Slack. Whenever anybody has big personal or professional news that ends up in the Slack channel and people cheer on one another. And there’s been discussion about trying to get the group together again here in the coming months.
BW: How would you characterize the transformation within yourself?
NC: I think I’m a more confident person. I think when it comes to approaching challenges at work, I’m more thoughtful, rigorous, systematic, strategic, uh, tho those, those are all things that, that I feel like the program gave to me and that I’ve been implementing in my, in my new role at Freakonomics.
It’s been, it’s been enormously helpful to use some of these tools in, in. Wrapping my mind around a, a new professional context. There was, there was a lot that I already knew at, at NPR. Now I’m in a situation where everything’s new and, and I’m having to figure it out for the first time. And so it’s, it’s been helpful to use, to use some of the tools of the program to orient myself.
Authenticity is, is an important trait for a leader too. So you don’t wanna sort of put on errors or create this completely artificial mask in your interactions with your colleagues. But I do think that being in the program does kind of give you this seriousness of purpose. It encourages you to think about the organization through the lens of the CEO, even if you’re not the CEO, which I think, which I think is very, is very helpful.
But I, but I think people sense that seriousness of purpose about what you’re about, what you’re trying to do to extend the reach of an organization, improve its culture, expand its resources and drive the business.
BW: Think back to that kid with his boombox and his two cassettes, like, what would you tell him today? If you could like go back and share with him, you know, a little bit of your journey, what would you tell him?
NC: I would tell him that there’s a new golden age of audio over the horizon and you know? Stick with it. into what you love. There’s a real career there.
It’s interesting. Psychology is, is very much part of the Freakoconomics world, not just economics. I think Dubner was drawn to Levit’s work in part because it explains human behavior, you know? At the individual level and at the group level, you know? It’s not about inflation and, currency movements. It’s about how people tick.
So I, I guess in a way I’ve finally woven together all the themes that have been present throughout my life and my career that might have seemed like they were isolated.
That’s what I would tell that kid sitting in his basement on a snowy Minnesota afternoon, to just hang in there, you know? You can have a really meaningful life doing this.