Thursday, February 23, 2006

New Technologies And Old Practices Don't Mix

A new report from the Audience 2010 project all but says public radio is hurting itself by not making Morning Edition and All Things Considered available on satellite radio in real time.

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.


Anonymous Man With A Van said...

It feels like your arguments, if carried to their logical end, would directly contradict those of Paul Marszalek who wrote a commentary in Current last December saying that shows/producers who podcast their content for free are dumb not only because they're losing out on money but because they're slapping their affiliates in the face.

Paul's right - if producers want stations to carry their shows and pay a carriage fee (which in turn supports production of the show), they can't then expect the shows to be happy if they give away their show when the stations are depending on listeners to hear that show on their station (and thus be more likely to give fundraising dollars and get more underwriting dollars).

What's not quite said, albeit strongly implied, is that these shows could not survive without the carriage fees. That's largely true, although not entirely (I know shows that charge affiliates nothing).

The relationship between NPR and its affiliates is largely the same. The affiliates aren't just paying for content, they're paying for exclusivity. Why should they pay a king's ransom if NPR is going to cut them off at the knees by going on satradio, too? And just how the hell is NPR going to stay in the black without those carriage fees?

My answer is that they can't, and that NPR should be running away screaming from satellite radio. NPR's embrace of satradio is exactly what you describe when you say NPR doesn't have it's affiliates' "back".

There is no effective model here; commercial radio's non-programming-content (i.e. advertising) is usually less on satradio, but generally the content is always there. Public radio depends on fundraisers which completely interrupt the programming and are highly disruptive, so if listeners know they can go to satradio and avoid the fundraising, they will.

Even Rush Limbaugh said he wouldn't go to satradio because he'd cannibalize himself - he's exactly right.

10:53 AM  
Blogger RadioSutton said...

I've only talked with Paul via email. I like him a lot, but I disagree with some of his conclusions. Also, I heard he was producing the new Air America morning show. Anyone know if that's the case? I believe that program is on satellite radio yet is still gaining new broadcast affiliates. I'll check on that over the weekend.

4:43 PM  
Anonymous Craig said...

The issue is not just Sirius(I subscribe to them and a show I write for is on their comedy channel- full disclosure) The overall issue is time shifting. I can go to and find programs like This American Life almost any hour of the day (on the weekend)on some station. With new technology more listeners will do that. One thing that happens is that these stations ask me to pledge and I can only do so for one or two. I wrote NPR once and suggested they set a fund to support the stations where you could pledge once and it could be distributed to the ones that stream. They said that was too hard. Bottom line, you don't have to pay 12.95 a month to hear what you want, when you want and that will weaken ties to affiliates.

5:23 PM  
Anonymous Paul Marszalek said...

It's a complex problem, and the producers and distributors unquestionably need to consider delivering their content on all platforms. The only question is one of fair play. Producers cannot expect the affiliates to fund the business model, while double-dipping elsewhere. Few programmers would complain that a show is available elsehwere if they had "first run" or weren't paying the majority of the freight. But moving forward, the status quo won't fly. Lots of possible solutions, and those two are among the simplest, most logical first steps. If you go back to the August issue of Esquire, there was an article about something called the Chaos Scenario, put forth by Bob Garfield of On The Media. Worth reading...

2:44 PM  
Blogger RadioSutton said...

Hey Paul,thanks for checking in. Glad to hear from you. You're right that it's a complex problem. One key issue is that NPR does not offer station's programming exclusivity in market. So the precedent for operating in a non-exclusive environment exists and has served public radio well overall. Program pricing is largely based on the amount of listening to each program. The original idea was that stations paid for the value received from the program. If audiences went down, so would to cost to the station. But the policies used to implement of that pricing scheme tilted heavily in NPR's favor from the beginning and so instead of a system that protects stations in the event of less audience, the sytem hurts them. That will be the subject of a future post.

6:50 PM  
Blogger musicwench said...

I really enjoy your posts, John. I've been in pubrad as a cultural producer and am now a first time PD...

The Public Radio structure is incredibly parochial - as most institutions become after a period of time.

One of the biggest problems I see is the management stucture (both nationally and at local stations) spends all their time thinking about those parcohial models, and very little time strategizing about how to deal with the issues Audience 2010 outlines.

Many stations, particularly joint licensees have become much too top-heavy...they stopped actively cultivating talent and local production a long time ago. Now, they are faced with rising program costs from the networks and a lack of quality locally generated programming.

If you ask me, that's pub rad's biggest opportunity...produce local programming that's as good as the national stuff and you'll have a much greater chance of surviving the lean years...and growing in the future.

9:39 AM  
Blogger RadioSutton said...

Thanks for the compliment Musicwench (man, that was strange to write).

Local, regional, or national -- public radio just needs more strong programming. This is going to sound cliche, but it is true -- if listeners think it's good, it will find a place in public radio.

What makes things difficult is that public radio's program development and production model is anitquated and expensive. WUNC, for example, has an annual budget of something like $700,000 to produce the new Dick Gordon show. That's for five hours per week. $2,800 per hour. That's not sustainable on a local level. Maybe not even on a regional level.

The new marketplace requires more efficient spending and more nimble operations to succeed. We're not even close.

9:24 PM  

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