Monday, September 26, 2005

Economic Realities

This year’s Public Radio Program Director’s conference included several sessions and many hallway discussions about new media technologies and the development of local programming. The conference issue of Current, public broadcasting’s trade publication, featured articles about reaching new audiences and becoming more than just a radio station.

“What’s your business model?” and “How are you going to ‘monetize’ that?” were two of the more popular questions of the week. Perhaps it is a measure of progress that public radio now actually thinks about how it will sustain new programming and other new initiatives before spending lots of money on them, but that shouldn’t be the first concern.

Public radio’s economics have not changed much since last year's CPB-funded Brody-Weiser-Burns study found that 56% of public radio stations are not fiscally sound. If CPB funding were to go away in the next year or so, many stations wouldn’t be able sustain their current service. Local programs or hosts would go off-the air. News positions would be cut. Important, but expensive, network programs would be dropped. New initiatives would be dropped.

To use today’s technologically hip speak – most stations’ business models aren’t monetized for self-sufficiency.

Yes, public radio would survive the cut. And the loss of CPB money would galvanize fundraising for a while. But the industry would suffer some serious setbacks.

There’s no question audience growth and diversification are important goals. Public radio should, as many folks were saying at the PRPD, “occupy the new media space.” (Though just occupying it seems a relatively low ambition.)

Sustaining these new activities, however, will be impossible without first shoring up the financial foundation of our core service. That should be public radio’s top priority.

Friday, September 23, 2005

20,000,000 Downloads In One Hour

Podcasting is great. And at the Public Radio Program Director conference today it was announced that download 1,000,000 from the NPR podcasting service is just a day or so away. That’s really good news.

But lest we come off sounding like Dr. Evil in Austin Powers, we should remember that 1,000,000 is not a big number in our business.

A typical hour of Morning Edition or All Things Considered has about 10 main program elements per hour – 2 newscasts and 8 other stories or interviews. That’s the equivalent of 10 podcast features or stories. The average audience for an hour of Morning Edition or ATC is roughly 2,000,000 listeners. Two million listeners hearing the equivalent of 10 podcast features in one hour.

20,000,000 downloads in one hour.

Radio… it’s impressive.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Dancing With Dollars

Heard on WUWM in Milwaukee on Thursday 9/15 at 6:35a and 8:35a -- the WUWM Morning Edition host interviewing one of the owners of Outpost, a natural foods store in Milwaukee.

The focus of the interview, Outpost is opening a third location today.

A quick check of the WUWM web site shows that Outpost is a station underwriter, something that regular station listeners probably already know. More background, Whole Foods is opening up a location in Milwaukee soon. That might explain the vague references in the interview to "competition" for Outpost.

What listeners did not hear was an NPR report by Howard Berkes on efforts restore electricity and phone service in sections Mississippi hit by Katrina. In other words, an editorial decision was made by the station to replace NPR's Katrina story with an interview promoting the underwriter's new store.

Perhaps it is just an extraordinary coincidence that two instances of station programming departments doing feature reports on businesses that support the station have surfaced in the last 30 days. (See Product Placement In Public Radio for the first instance.)

Perhaps this is not a trend in public radio. But it's hard to believe I could stumble on both of them within the space of a month.

There is a larger issue here. Public radio is adopting a mindset - with businesses and major donors - that it has to "do something more" for these supporters in exchange for their dollars or donations. In effect, we are telling them that funding a valued public service and enjoying the halo effect that brings isn't reward enough. We are telling them they can have more.

So we offer to dance with these funders. Sometimes we allow the major donors a few minutes to waltz with our news anchors. Sometimes our reporters lap dance with a car dealer.

In either case, we're not dancing with the ones who brung us - the millions of listeners who trust that our content is not tainted by those who give us money. By turning our backs on them, we invite them to find another partner.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

New Web Site For JSA

We launched the JSA web site today. It's at

It is a work in progress. Over time, public radio professionals will find our latest thinking on programming, audience, fundraising, strategic planning, and more. We will deliver a lot of free support services to stations through the site.

Our launch features on-air fundraising information and downloads. Check the site often. We will update it frequently.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Raise The Bar

The previous posting on Product Placement In Public Radio prompted several private responses. One of them was that the "Reporter Perspectives" were still not as bad as what listeners hear on commercial radio.

While that point is highly debatable, that debate will have to wait. More noteworthy is the notion that "not as bad as commercial radio" is an acceptable standard for public radio.

This is a fairly recent, and damaging, line of thinking.

Public radio's success is based on developing and maintaining very high standards. "Not as bad as commercial radio" suggests that it is acceptable for public radio to compromise those standards to a point.

But "we're not as bad as they are" isn't a winning formula in the radio marketplace let alone the new media environment. Whether it is underwriting credits, on-air fund drives, or editorial decision-making in the newsroom we must get better at what we do in order to compete.

Instead of using commercial radio's declining standards as our benchmark, let's start talking about how we can raise our own standards even higher and define excellence in radio, on the web, on the satellite, and in MP3 players around the globe.