New Technologies And Old Practices Don't Mix
It will be a hotly debated topic and one that should be the catalyst for answering a much more important question raised in the report.
Is public radio a collection of stations that provide public service to individual communities or is it a system that provides public service to the nation, and increasingly, the world?
Changes in technology are forcing public radio away from the first definition and toward the second. That shift is uncovering significant weaknesses in public radio's structure. It's this structure -- the mutated product of a station-centric, government subsidized business model where stations pay hefty programming fees to networks -- that presents the biggest threat to public radio. That model was weakening before satellite radio. It's on the verge of breaking today.
Few stations include in their mission statements the importance of serving the nation and the world through their NPR membership. And few will as long as they believe that allowing NPR greater access to listeners through satellite radio will harm them.
NPR, despite lots of rhetoric about partnerships, does not have stated, measurable goals regarding the audience growth or financial health of its member stations.
To use a well-worn cliché, NPR and stations don't have each other's back. Instead of looking out for one another, they are wary of each other.
To remain a significant media choice, NPR needs to have its best programming available in real time on all delivery platforms. This is a sacrifice stations will have to make.
We maintain, as does Audience 2010, that stations will remain the backbone of public radio for the foreseeable future. They will need mechanisms to remain financially viable as they receive more competition for listeners to their most expensive, and profitable, programming. NPR will have to make sacrifices to ensure this.
While these are essential actions, nothing will happen until NPR and stations transcend the parochial attitudes that are driven by old technology, old systems, and old practices. Everything, from how programs reach listeners to how stations pay NPR to how money is raised, needs to be updated.
Efforts to address new opportunities such as satellite radio, podcasting, and WiMax -- one at a time -- are nothing more than temporary fixes for a much bigger problem. Public radio isn't poised to grow over the next few decades because its business relationships and practices are rooted in the way things used to be.
In future postings, some ideas on how to change that.