One year in, WUNC leader Paul Hunton shares insights on growth, audience, DEIB progress and soon-to-launch shows

By Catherine Komp,

NC Local Newsletter Editor

Paul Hunton says one of the greatest surprises about his first year as president and general manager of WUNC is the job “came as advertised.”

“What the search committee had talked about and what the search firm had talked about was really the reality I found on the ground,” said Hunton. “That this is a station that is run really, really well and has a very loyal listening audience and donor base who really love and value what we do.”

Licensed to UNC-Chapel Hill, WUNC has eight radio stations (including the recently acquired WZCO in Whiteville) that cover a large portion of the central and eastern part of the state and reach about 276,000 listeners each week. In the Raleigh-Durham market, WUNC is consistently the #1 station. And, with 62 full-time employees and cash reserves of more than $20 million, WUNC is the largest public radio and non-profit news organization in North Carolina. 

Hunton came to North Carolina after serving as general manager of Texas Tech Public Media. Ahead of his first anniversary at WUNC, we recently chatted about how the organization is using those reserves; its upcoming launch of a new daily radio show (name reveal below!) as well as a new podcast; how it’s responding to declining radio numbers and building audience; and its ongoing work to improve diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) within the organization. 

And, as one of the only* public media executives with a popular TikTok account, we find out the origin story of @thepauler and Hunton’s suggestions for how local news organizations should approach the platform. 

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. 

*Quite possibly “the only” — but I hedged since I didn’t have time to survey the entire public media system 🙂 

Catherine: Could you share four or five adjectives that describe your first year in North Carolina? 

Paul: Exciting. Fruitful. Surprising in some ways. Joyful and a lot of fun. 

Has anything surprised you about North Carolina? 

My family and I just immediately fell in love with North Carolina. I think the thing that surprises me is that more people don’t know how great this state is. I mean, don’t get me wrong, people are flooding into North Carolina. But it is sort of a well-kept secret in a lot of ways because we just can’t believe how wonderful it is. We’ve been up to the mountains and went to Asheville; we went to Wrightsville Beach a couple of times this summer; and everywhere in between people are so kind, there’s so much to see and there’s so much to do. We have really fallen in love with the state. 

Could you tell us a little bit about your first year at WUNC? How did you approach getting to know the staff and the audience? 

When I first got here, I went on a listening tour and basically sat down with any employee who wanted to speak with me. Within the first few months, I had met with over 30 folks on staff as well as board members and that was really, really great. 

When you’re applying for a job and what you hear during a search process — when you get on the ground, you’re always like, “OK, how close were the things I was being told and the information I was learning during that process, compared to boots on the ground, talking to folks and really getting to know the station.” And one of the great surprises was that it came as advertised. What the search committee had talked about and what the search firm had talked about was really the reality I found on the ground: that this is a station that is run really, really well and has a very loyal listening audience and donor base who really love and value what we do. And so I think that that essential information was really awesome.

Those one to one conversations, you just always learn so much more than you do in an all-hands meeting or meeting with just leadership and management. Meeting with basically as many people who wanted to meet with me I think was the number one best way to get to know folks, get to know the station, get to know the history. There’s this huge field of experience that people have at WUNC to really learn from. It was great to sit down with someone who had been here 20 plus years and hear the history going back to the ‘90s, and then sitting down with someone who had started in 2020 and just kind of knew the station through the pandemic. That was a really great process, being able to see what the difference was between those experiences, how they feel about the organization and how things operate just from those two very different types of experiences. 

And did you do any listening with audience members? 

I’ve been going and meeting with donors basically over the last four to five months and I’ve been taking to lunch different donors from our leadership circle, people who have just given for a long time, different corporate sponsors and foundations and just learning about the station from that perspective as well. Where the inside perspective and the outside perspective match is that WUNC is poised for a lot of growth and a lot of impact in the years to come built on this beautiful foundation over the past, since we went to all news. 

The station went all news right before September 11th, 2001, it was within days of that happening. The station had been classical and news, and they switched to all news. And one of the stories that people tell about that time is that after the awful, tragic incidents that happened on September 11th, 2001, that any of the folks who were kind of questioning the mission of what WUNC was doing by shifting to all news completely changed and people realized, “Oh yeah, this is very important to be able to get news and information through the station at all times.” So that’s interesting. 

I think we’re in a really great position. I think our donors and our listeners really see all the things that we’ve done in the last five to seven years as really positive and setting us up to take a leap. Obviously the pandemic slowed down every media organization in the country. There were a lot of unknowns, a lot of things we weren’t sure of how they would play out. But I think as much as COVID is still very real, we are still in the midst of COVID and what’s going on there, we are starting to see the other side of what it looks like for us as an organization where we head. 

I’m sure you’ve been reading public media analyst Tim Eby’s posts about drops in listenership in some of the major markets. What about WUNC? 

Yes, we are not immune to that drop. Some of the culprits that people are identifying are news fatigue, that really the period of 2016 through the last year plus, that people are just tired of the beat down of the news. There’s a lot of negativity out there. There’s a lot of challenges out there. There’s a lot of things going on and I think there is truth to the fact that some people are ready to turn something else on and I understand that. 

The other is that commuting has changed, right? For a lot of people, when you think of your NPR habit, it’s turn it on on your way to work, turn it on on your way home. Listen to it maybe at lunch if you’re driving around. And commuting has changed, work from home is here to stay, and so a lot of people’s habits have changed. Not going in five days a week, having some sort of hybrid schedule between at home and work — that’s another big piece of it too. 

The third thing is there are so many choices out there, right? Between all of the different ways that people get their news and information, there’s just a lot of options out there. One thing that we need to do is really remind people of our core mission and what we stand for, that WUNC and NPR national, that we still are the leaders in bringing you objective fact-based news and information and that tuning in to your NPR station every day gives you the essential information you need to make important decisions in your life for now and into the future. 

A lot of public media stations and NPR have been trying to reach beyond the typical, white, middle and upper class, college educated audience. I’m guessing that’s probably mostly the same audience for WUNC too. What are you doing to try to reach new and different audiences? 

That’s a great question and that’s something that public media specifically, but all media has really tried to grapple with, not just in the near past, but for years now: how do we attract the audiences of tomorrow? How do we attract diverse audiences? So younger folks, but also the different communities that NPR has never reached out to or tried to to build things around. 

For us, we are going through a strategic planning process. We’ve done some things in the past. We’ve partnered with Nnenna Freelon and her great podcast, Great Grief. We’ve tried to find partnerships with folks who are already serving those audiences and then using our platform to give voice to those audiences through those different content creators and distributing that content because we have such a big platform. 

I think the question that people are kind of grappling with is: if for the last, let’s say 50 years of the history of public radio, we’ve never really done the work to make those underserved audiences feel comfortable with our main product, which is our terrestrial broadcast signal — just putting that type of content on the air doesn’t necessarily do the work needed to actually connect to those audiences. So the challenge for us is, if in this world where there’s lots of media choices, if we have built a product that for 50 years we haven’t done well enough to get those communities to come and listen, we actually need to take what we do to them and that looks a couple different ways. One I think is just focus groups, listening sessions, town halls, knowing about what’s important in those communities and how we can connect our great news team to those stories, to those issues and can help tell those stories and bring those voices to our platform. 

But I think the other thing is what type of news products do we need to build out into this digital world that we all live in? If you have never been a public radio listener over a broadcast signal, you may never at this point, why would you? I know that if I put my 16 or 18 or 22 year old in a car and said, “Hey tune in to WUNC,” I don’t think they would even be able to do it because radio is just not their language, right? That’s not only true of younger audiences, it’s true of diverse audiences, right? And so really understanding, where are they getting their news, what type of news do they want and how do we distribute what we do to those different platforms with those different products: is it newsletters, is it events? What does it look like to truly make an impact in those communities, to tell their stories and to bring what we do to them.

Related to that, public media through Public Media for All and individual station initiatives has been trying to address diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) within stations. WUNC put out the Commitment to anti-racism in September 2020 and formed an Inclusion Diversity Equity Accountability committee. So I wanted to ask, why do you care about DEI, what’s the progress you’ve seen at WUNC and what else needs to be done? 

I think obviously in 2020 there was a lot of reckoning with the work that hadn’t been done for stations and organizations across the country. And where I was at Texas Tech Public Media, we had that reckoning and at WUNC, they had that reckoning. And there was a lot immediate things done right? A lot of different trainings, a lot of soul searching, a lot of discussions and those types of things. And I think what a lot of stations are grappling with and what WUNC is working with is what are the next steps, how have the conversations changed, how have things changed since 2020? Where have we made progress, where have we not made progress and then how do we truly do the work and continue evolving that work and meeting the needs of the workforce today, meeting the needs of our Black staff and our other staff from different diverse communities. What do we need to get there? 

The one thing that I really believe is you have to be able to measure before you can make anything better. There’s a lot of great companies and organizations and consultants you can work with. One of the things that a lot of folks have been doing that’s becoming sort of a best practice, and we’re working with the cohort of other public radio stations, is doing a survey of inclusion and belonging within your staff: how do people feel about the organization? Do they feel their needs are being met? Do they feel like they’re giving upward mobility? Do they feel like they’re getting training? Those types of things and basically taking a measurement across all of these different verticals of how people feel about working at WUNC. That survey work is broken down by demographics and age, and those types of things. And then it calculates a number for you of where you’re at as an organization and it gives you a bunch of bullet points and different things that you can be doing to make progress and things where you need to meet the needs of folks in your organization. And we just undertook that survey work and got those results back. And so I think one of the things that we’re focused on is taking that measurement and understanding where people are, because you can’t really, truly do the work unless you know where people are at. 

And then I think the next step for us in a lot of ways is thinking about the life cycle of an employee at WUNC. So from the moment they start to mid career to advanced career and everywhere in between, how do people operate and function at WUNC? How do we look at promotion? How do we communicate all of those things across the organization so that people truly feel like they belong, so that you truly are looking at are you hiring a diverse workforce that looks like the communities you serve, and all of those different metrics. And then being accountable to those measurements, to that feedback, to those surveys and implementing what you can and getting things done. So that’s the process we’re in right now, taking the survey work, looking at what came out of it and then meeting the needs of our employees. 

What company was helping you with the survey? 

It’s called Kanarys, they are out of Dallas and they’re working with Greater Public who is doing a cohort of that survey work so that we can track public radio and media as well. 

You’re all launching a new daily talk show soon, so a couple of questions. Is there a name yet? 

We do have a name. It’s Due South. I can’t tell you a launch date yet, but I can say that we hope to have it on the air this Fall. We’re very, very excited about it. Our audience obviously was very supportive of the State of Things, the daily show that had gone on for many, many years. I think one of the signs of a strong local public radio station is having a daily show, to have local voices on the air talking about local, regional, and state issues on a daily basis. That’s something that audiences really look to in what they want to support at a local station is to have that daily news. 

We’re excited to get the show on the air. It’s going to be very different from the State of Things. Jeff Tiberii and Leoneda Inge are both well-respected, well-known journalists who have been at WUNC for a very long time, and they bring two very interesting perspectives to this work. Jeff has been at the Capitol in Raleigh for many, many years as our Capitol Bureau Chief and has done incredible work. Leoneda has been on our race and culture beat for many, many years telling incredible stories across the state. So you have that hard news, political driving style of Jeff mixed with Leoneda’s human touch and telling those deeper human stories. There’s just a nice balance there that we’re very, very excited about. We’ve done some pilot shows just to get a feel for what it’s going to sound like on air. And I think everybody’s really, really excited for the potential of what that show can be for us at WUNC and for our listeners. 

You have this upcoming daily talk show and you recently bought WZCO in Columbus County. So I wanted to ask, how does WUNC see itself, both within the state’s public media, but also the larger news ecosystem? 

When we think about who we are and who we serve, we think of the entire state of North Carolina. When it comes to strategy around purchasing more signals, as they become available, we look at if it’s a service area that currently doesn’t have NPR public radio. We look at our different partners, other NPR stations throughout the state, and if it’s a coverage area they are in or that we that might impede into theirs, we have those discussions and make sure that someone is looking at buying it. I think it’s important that those signals, when they become available, that if they are a desert for news and public radio specifically, that some NPR station should buy them and fill the airwaves with news and information. So we have those conversations with the other stations to see. But yeah, for us, we truly see ourselves as a statewide news service.

One of the things coming out of strategic planning— WUNC has always been a great partner to other news organizations, but we want to double down on that and really, truly collaborate with other public radio stations and with other news organizations as well. We’ve had and are continuing to have conversations with a lot of different news partners, and I don’t want to say any names, but we’ve talked to legacy media, new media, digital startups; we’ve been in conversations with all of them about ways we can do work together, and different projects that we may undertake. And so I think there’s an exciting future there.

In my past in Texas, there’s a lot of collaborations. You have the Texas Newsroom and a lot of different products that came out of all the public radio stations working together. That model, that idea is something that I think North Carolina stations have done in the past and continue to do, so it’s not like this is something brand new, but how can we — as the media environment continues to change, as broadcast listenership continues to go down, as news media becomes whatever it continues to evolve to be — how do we meet the needs of our audiences? Where can we work together and share resources? So that we can make sure that our public radio stations and the news that we create can get into the most households that we can reach. 

Could you talk about WUNC’s strategy of broadcast versus digital? 

When we have these discussions in house, I always like to first ask people what are your habits and where do you listen and what do you listen to there? It’s very anecdotal but understanding your own habits and how you consume news is very important to understand. And then of course we look at audience research if we can. The one thing that you see that’s kind of obvious that most people would know is that, digital media or podcasts in our case or social media and those types of things tend to skew to younger audiences. 

There was a recent Pew survey showing there’s a large swath of young adults who use TikTok as their number one news source. That’s where they get their news from. And they go and they search whatever topic they want and they watch videos that tell them about that certain topic, right? And so how do you as a public radio station reach those audiences and how do you build out products that can reach all those different platforms? For us, and I think the larger public radio system, the big question has been OK, do you have the amount of resources needed to truly reach everyone where they’re at? And the answer is just no. 

I would say 7-10 years ago, there was this thinking that with podcasts reaching a national audience, we should be telling national stories and really going big. And I think what we’ve all kind of found out and are learning is that to compete with the companies that truly do have a national profile, like the New York Times, that we just don’t have the budget or resources. And so in a lot of ways the conversations that we’ve been having are how do we serve the state of North Carolina, how do we serve more people in North Carolina and how can we do that through our digital content. That’s kind of the thing that we’ve been talking about as it pertains to strategy: how do we truly make digital products that we can distribute to our local audiences and tell North Carolina stories. 

We’ve got a podcast that’s going to be coming out soon, called The Broadside, that’s sort of a magazine, deeper dive into the issues of the past, present and future; that sort of contextualizes our “now” and tells the stories of North Carolina. And so we’re excited about that. 

The strategy is we’ve got our beat reporters, we have the daily show Due South that’s gonna unpack different stories that you might hear throughout the day, that’s building more context around those, and then we have the Broadside podcast that’s going deeper into stories that aren’t normally told on broadcast. And so we truly see that as a way that we can tell as many North Carolina stories as possible and do it across all the different platforms that we have access to. 

So you might be the only CEO in public media with a popular TikTok. And your baby is absolutely adorable and I LOLed at a number of your videos. Why did you want to get on TikTok and how do you think public media could use it? 

I’ve always been an early adopter of technology. I think it’s important to be where the media is and even if it turns out that it’s not the right place for what public media should be doing, I like to get my hands on it so I can know first hand and know how it operates. I’ve just always really liked technology and that kind of thing. 

For TikTok, what happened was when the pandemic happened, I joked with my family, I should make a TikTok account that just tells Dad jokes and that’s all I’ll do is tell Dad jokes. I never got around to doing it. And so then my daughter Emma, she’s 18 now, but she as a surprise made me a TikTok account and made the first video for me and it blew up. The video is essentially her introducing me, it’s like, hey, here’s my Dad and here’s kind of what he does and everything else. And I guess people just thought that that was so cute and people followed it, and it really kind of blew up there. 

And then I kind of curated the content around Dad jokes, what are family issues, what are things that we can put out there that will be funny and fun and positive. That was the other thing, is what kind of positive, fun content can we make? So that’s kind of how it all started.

For public media, you know there’s been some great uses of it. NPR has started to do some interesting videos. (Editor’s note: check out these recent examples on student loans and a video made with content from a 2022 Ted Radio Hour segment; yes, recycle your content!) I think there’s been some really engaging storytelling that’s gone on there and I think that’s true for public radio as well. How do we take those stories that we tell, how do you take that two-minute story that we did on education or housing. But then how do you translate that, right? You can’t just take that story and put it on TikTok or have someone read it on TikTok. You have to transform the way the message is presented and you have to transform the way that story is told. 

For public radio stations, I think the real magic there is understanding the rhythm, understanding the types of stories that are told. You could probably diagram how a successful TikTok story works right? And then all you got to do is translate the content that you make to that diagram. Now that’s challenging, but it’s twofold. It’s 1) understanding how to tell TikTok stories and 2) knowing which stories matter for a TikTok audience. The TikTok audience is not going to be interested in every story. So it’s truly focusing on matching the stories that fit that audience most and then translate that story to fit the TikTok model. And that’s just what you do, how you kind of break down all digital media and how you tell those stories across those platforms. 

Your Youth Reporting Institute is using TikTok a bit.

Yes, they are and they’re doing a really great job. I’m big on prototyping and piloting things so a lot of times what we’ll do is, one of our departments will want to test something out and then we take that data that we learn from that and see if it can be applied to other areas and if we can grow it. And so yes, our Youth Reporting Institute has been doing a great job trying to take the stories that we tell and then breaking them down for a younger audience. 

WUNC has a reserve of about $20 million, is that right? 

We have a reserve fund of about $20 million, that’s correct. 

Any plans to sort of tap into that for innovation as the station plans its next five years?

We are already utilizing some of that reserve funding. This year we’re in a deficit budget by about $3 million so we’re spending around $3 million out of that reserve. We also want to invest some of that, we want to have that money come back to us. That money is in a reserve account and we’d like to put it to work for us and create some form of return on that investment so that we can use that money and invest it in new strategic projects. 

We are using it to fund the new daily show and to fund some of the other things that we’ve got going on this year, new capital expenses, those types of things. But then we’re also utilizing that funding to create revenue back to us that then we can invest in future projects. 

One of the things we’re looking at is what types of new digital products can we build for different audiences. We have WUNC Music. Is there a potential future where we buy a broadcast signal for our music streaming service? Is there the potential to build out a lot of new digital strategy through newsletters, events, marketing, all of those types of things. 

It used to be that you looked five years in advance. Now you have to look two to three years in advance because the environment is changing so fast. And for us, I think the next three years is truly focused on how do we invest in our audience and audience development. It’s an audience driven world now. There’s no more passive experience of us just putting our news out there and knowing that people will come and consume it. We’ve got to do the work to understand where the audience is and then we’ve got to make products for them. 

For us, I think that is truly leaning into a lot more digitally focused products, but that doesn’t necessarily mean podcasts. Sometimes public radio stations tend to think “Well when you think digital, it’s podcast.” But I think there’s room for thinking about newsletters and different types of strategies around that. I think there’s all types of audio storytelling that isn’t particularly a podcast, but might be outside of the scope of that. I think more social media investment in the way that we tell stories, so video would be something that came into that and truly building out a bigger video department that can focus on telling visual stories and taking the reporting that we do and putting it on the video platforms. I think that’s sort of what we’re thinking about and where we’re headed is: how do we be an audience-first organization that truly focuses on distributing the news that we do to all of the different platforms that exist. 

You used to make documentaries. Do you still have time to do that or are there any ideas percolating about documentaries that we need in North Carolina?

At this moment, no, I do not have the capacity to do that. My background is in documentary filmmaking. It’s something I still love and even when I was at Texas Tech Public Media, I still produced documentaries from time to time. In fact, the first time I ever came to North Carolina was to do some pre-production on a documentary that we ended up not making. I love documentary filmmaking. Now I don’t know when I’ll have time to get back into it, but it is a hobby that I will do at some point. North Carolina is full of incredible stories and incredible people, and I think the state itself is always breaking national news. There’s a lot going on here. For me in the future, when I do have time, it will be focusing on what are the stories here, the micros that tell the macro. How do I find those small stories that happen in North Carolina that speak to the larger experiences that are happening throughout the country and the world.

NC Local News Workshop