When Michael Smith earned his MBA in 1986, there were no podcasts or internet. The cable boom was still a few years away. Yet, throughout his career, he’s helped major media companies stay current, from selling the Disney Channel to cable distributors in the ’90s to bringing Food Network into the digital era. Now he’s jumped to public media.
As NPR’s chief marketing officer, he’s working to attract a younger and more diverse audience. “The average age of the NPR broadcast radio listener is 58 to 59 years old,” says Smith. “So that’s obviously not reflective of America, especially when you look at Gen Z and Millennials, who are 40% to 45% people of color.”
The solution, says Smith, entails NPR building a diverse workforce in editorial and executive leadership, as well as adding more diverse content and voices.
Another challenge is brand recognition. Only 30% of Americans—and 26% of people of color—know about NPR, says Smith, and the company hadn’t previously made significant investments in advertising or marketing. “I’ve been lucky that they’ve been willing to provide a budget to increase awareness,” he says. So far, Smith’s marketing campaigns are working. Awareness is up 9 percentage points since 2020 among the targeted Black and Hispanic audiences.
Smith himself deals with the evolving media landscape through constant education. And he gets others to embrace change by opting for a quietly inspiring leadership approach. “People talk about leading from the front. I’ve always been more about leading from behind,” says Smith. “Great servant leaders get satisfaction from amplifying and lifting up others.”