Southern California Public Radio’s Kristen Muller believes the key to the future of audio content is making stories “more essential, more relevant, more magical.”
Story By Lian Dolan Photo by Shannon Cottrell
There is a Post-It that hangs in Kristen Muller’s office at Southern California Public Radio in Pasadena, a visual reminder of Muller’s mission for all of the programming she oversees at KPCC and other SCPR-operated stations across the region. It reads:
How did it make me…
– Create Connection
– Generate conversation
– Make me want to get involved!
That’s a checklist that almost any media business could use to create meaningful content. For Muller, the list represents the building blocks of every show, every segment, every story that gets produced at KPCC. As the Managing Director, Content Innovation and Programming, she spends her days ensuring thought-provoking content on air, on the web, on mobile and on social, now and in the future. That’s a lot of real estate to cover on one Post-It.
Kristen Muller says she “literally grew up in a newsroom.” She is the daughter of Judy Muller, a single mom and an award-winning journalist—a Peabody, an Emmy and a duPont-Columbia to her name—who worked in radio and television for CBS, ABC, NPR and has been teaching at USC Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism since 2003. For daughter Kristen, news was more of a calling than a choice, “I didn’t really know anything else. Growing up, I would read three newspapers every morning and listen to
my mom file her reports.” A degree from UC Berkeley and experience working weekends at KPIX, the CBS news affiliate in San Francisco sealed the deal. For the next decade, she worked at CBS News where she was a producer for CBS Evening News and an associate producer at 60 Minutes II. Early in her career, Muller says she learned the journalistic skill of “dogged persistence,” telling a time she pursued a potential subject for days to get the interview she needed to pull a story together for 60 Minutes. “I loved convincing people to talk to me, not giving up.” Like her mother, Muller is also the winner of an Emmy and a duPont-Columbia .
Muller made the jump to public radio, first to NPR and then to KCRW as a Producer for Which Way L.A.? and To the Point. In 2010, she moved to SCPR as Senior Managing Editor for News, and Senior Producer of Take Two and the Madeleine Brand Show. In her current role, Muller oversees the content across all platforms to make sure it is fulfilling SCPR’s mission to inform, educate and entertain with a potential audience in the millions. The company programs for radio stations in five counties—Ventura, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino- encompassing a huge geographic area as well as a broad spectrum in almost every demo, from income to education to race.
But Muller says the rich diversity of the LA area is an asset, not a challenge, when it comes to storytelling. “The diversity of voices that we try to bring to the air is defining. We make a concerted effort to get people from different communities on the air. And not just to have them on and then say goodbye. Public radio is a relationship with people. It’s about continuing conversations with people. Our challenge is to make sure that voices and communities that have not traditionally been represented by pubic media get that chance.” Muller notes that getting the mix right on the air starts with hiring. “The diversity of staff leads to a diversity of conversations in the building.”
In the summer of 2016, Muller was named Head of Content Innovation, tasked with expanding the Southern California Public Radio’s branded content in new and fresh directions, like creating on demand podcasts, expanding opportunities for existing shows digitally and looking for new technology on the horizon that will bring new listeners. Prior to assuming her new role, Muller did something a lot of executives wish they could do mid-career: she went back to school.
For nearly twenty years, she’d been doing the grind of daily news, and, as she says, “I was losing track of what was happening in the broader media landscape. To quote Wayne Gretzky, ‘I was so busy playing the game, I didn’t know where the puck was heading.’ I felt like I needed to step back and get that perspective in order to take teams forward.” Muller spent a year at Stanford University as a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow developing the tools she would need to navigate change and to drive the innovation process at SCPR.
Muller said it was one of the best years of her career and the academic work was invaluable in preparing her to think differently, “You get to a certain point in your career by solving problems or achieving something or getting to whatever goal you’ve set. Part of being able to lead change is not knowing the outcome when you start. For anyone who is a Type A, you’re hardwired to get to the thing you need to get to next.” Muller learned to focus less on creating multiple solutions and focus more on defining a specific problem. Or, as she puts it, “I spend more time making sure that we’ve identified the problem. Is this the best way to tell that story? Is this the best content for this show? How are you helping people?”
As the radio audience ages and shrinks and the on-demand podcast audience grows with a younger demographic, innovation means servicing your current listening audience while anticipating the needs of your potential audience. But research shows that the two audiences are very different in taste and listening habits. Similar to the Netflix Revolution in television, where viewers get to choose where, when and how they watch, more and more audiophiles are turning to time-shifting of radio favorite shows and abandoning the traditional dial altogether in favor of downloadable content. Muller wants to SCPR to be a full participant in what she calls “a golden age of audio,” but to do that, she needed to re-think the pitch to pilot process. Plus, Muller says, you have the ongoing issue of funding in public media, “People pay for something they can get for free? That’s such a crazy business model.”
Muller believes transparency and time are the keys to innovation. “In this job, it’s been about nurturing the right culture and creating space within the organization to allow for more creativity. There’s no shortage of interesting ideas in this building. They come out the windows.” Muller ‘s goal is to get producers to conceive of an idea and then think outside “four minutes on Morning Edition.” She says, “It’s not thinking outside the box, it’s making the box different.”
And while the box may be different, the content still has to meet the standards of Muller’s Post-It. A good story still has to serve the audience. “The goal is to make it more essential, more relevant, more magical.” Muller believes that rigors of the creative process are undervalued. “Making something good is really hard.”