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.

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