Friday, December 08, 2006

Promoting the Competition?

NPR's decision to broadcast underwriting credits for Sirius Satellite Radio has upset some folks at NPR member stations. At issue -- the appropriateness of promoting a competitor.

I'm not going to address that issue specifically. I can see both sides of the argument. Instead, I'll point out some of the interesting questions raised by the issue.

If local programming is the future of public radio, especially the local content inserted in Morning Edition, then why is satellite radio considered serious competition? It shouldn't be, unless the talk about local programming being the future is more bravado than reality.

If something on satellite radio right now is more appealing to a station's listeners than the station's programming, shouldn't the station fix its programming?

If interactive is the future of public broadcasting (or public media if you prefer), shouldn't all web sites be considered competition? Or at least those with audio and video? If so, there goes the underwriting revenue.

If there is one thing I am certain about when it comes to underwriting it is this: the issues get less clear and the decisions get more difficult over time. NPR's acceptance of the Sirius credit is just an indicator of the tough choices ahead. Ultimately, the money on the table will cause public radio's networks and stations to further liberalize their underwriting acceptance policies even if that means promoting the competition.

That leads us to the one thing I am certain about when it comes to programming: the best way to fight off the competition is to be better than the competition.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just a couple of thoughts on this posting:

You wrote "If something on satellite radio right now is more appealing to a station's listeners than the station's programming, shouldn't the station fix its programming?"

As a former satellite user I can say (without deadly fear of contradiction) that only two elements caused me to choose NPR on satellite over NPR OTA: 1) I've already heard what's on OTA or 2) I'm traveling in an area where I can't get an OTA station. Your mileage may vary, as they say. But to suggest that a local station can "fix" its programming to appeal to the tastes/calendar of the satellite radio listener is misdirected, I think.

I, too was somewhat surprised by NPR's decision to carry underwriting from Sirius but, then, it's a bigger player on Sirius than it is on the internets, as a whole. Before NPR took cash money from Sirius they were promoting the Acoustic Electric wifi radio on the NPR Shop(pe), and NPR is a much smaller player on the internets than it is on Sirius.

Also this: "If interactive is the future of public broadcasting , shouldn't all web sites be considered competition?"

Forget "all websites," anything and everything that draws users away from the radio should be considered competition: Commercial radio, newspapers, magazines, the teevee, little league beisbol, the beat goes on. They only way Public Radio (as we know it) is going to become "interactive" is through the adoption of a device similar to the "BBC Radio Player" or its successor. True interactive Public Radio means being able to interact with Robert Siegel while he's on the air and have him address the listeners' constant interruptions.

(wake me when it's over)

11:16 PM  
Blogger RadioSutton said...

Thanks for the post. Regarding "But to suggest that a local station can "fix" its programming to appeal to the tastes/calendar of the satellite radio listener is misdirected..."

That's not what I'm suggesting, actually. Here is the issue. The path to success in public radio is making its core services stronger in the face of competition. If a station beleives any competition is providing better programming to its listeners at any given moment, then it need to fix its programming. It doesn't matter whether that competition is on the satellite, the web, or the radio.

The one line in your post that has me intrigued is "former satllite user." Care to share your story?

9:12 AM  
Anonymous Works at a station said...

I too was surprised to hear this credit on NPR. And in regard to the comment "anything and everything that draws users away from the radio should be considered competition..." I think in a very broad way this is true, but also it's quite unrealistic to think that we can fit EVERY niche for listeners that comprises the completeness of their lives. In fact there's no way that they will spend ALL their time with us, but for the time that they want what they often get from the radio, how can we best meet their needs, and this I think, is what we mean by saying "fix the programming."

In fact, I'm quite curious about satellite radio. Knowing that I can get so many public radio programs there is certainly a big enticement. It's pretty much a LITERAL example of choosing to pay for the programs, and not having to listen to commercials OR PLEDGE DRIVES! But I really don't want satellite. Why? 1) the local thing. I do feel like I'm would be missing that connection to my own community--even if at it's bare minimum that means weather forecasts. 2) I like my public radio station. It meets a lot of needs for me, with programs I like at a time when I like them 3) I love listening to podcasts and that is another way I can listen to all kinds of public radio that's NOT in my market, but reflects other communities around the country. In particular I'm on the brink of sending a little something to WNYC for their very compelling ask at the top of the Radio Lab podcasts. It makes me want to support what they are doing.

Overall- this is a really tough question, and one that makes me a little nervous about splintering off our slowly eroding listenership.

1:25 PM  
Blogger RadioSutton said...

I tend to come at the issue from an abundance mentality. A future radiosutton post will look at much of public radio's growth can be attributed to making the programming more available to potential listeners. We do ourselves no favors by restricting availability. If that were the best approach, then WBUR and WAMU would might never have had All Things Considered on the air.

10:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why assume that WBUR and WAMU not having ATC on the air is a bad thing? Why couldn't they have ended up having something different and, potentially, better?

Zing! :-)

If you'll forgive an overly-colorful metaphor...I still argue that the approach you're describing is arguing about the bark on the trees, never mind seeing the forest. All "local content" really is about is exclusivity. Allow me to digress...

First, let's assume that ALL content, whether national or local, is "good" content. At least good enough that your average NPR listener would not tune away from it. If it's not at the "good" level, then it won't be on the air...even if that means dead air.

Okay, that assumption in place, what is "local" content? By definition - if it's truly "local", then it's not national. And therefore only your station has it...thus, listeners must tune to your station to hear it. Ergo, you have exclusive content that you pay for and you reap the rewards from.

Accordingly, exclusivity also equals scarcity, and scarcity inherently increases value; basic economics. Ergo, your local content has a certain value because listeners can't get anywhere else; just from you.

Now, for decades, NPR affiliates have relied on the exclusivity of AM/FM being the only way to get NPR content. That exclusivity means scarcity, which means NPR can justifiably charge premium rates to affiliates for the right to air that content on AM/FM.

With Morning Edition and other NPR shows being available on satradio AND on local AM/'ve got local AM/FM's that are STILL paying the premium rates for the right to that exclusivity. Except it's not exclusive at all any more! It's available on the web. It's available on Sirius or XM. Why listen to boring fundraisers and underwriting?!?

And here we come to the crux of the argument:
NPR has reduced the scarcity of their content and thus reduced its why should affiliates continue to pay premium rates for that content? While it's not quite a zero-sum game, you can't escape basic economics of supply and demand.

Worse, this is a destructive system, because there IS a critical mass of resources needed to maintain the quality production values that are the hallmark of public radio. This critical mass cannot realistically be achieved purely with local content; you need the pooling of resources that NPR represents. When done purely at the local level, it can work but only at a drastically reduced scope or reduced quality level. I'm all for more local news, but a station that does nothing but local news (and, more to the point, zero national or international news) is not serving its listeners. Hell, it's going to have a hard time filling 24 hours a day of programming!

Frankly, I have never seen the reasoning behind public radio content on satellite radio besides dollar bills being thrown at NPR by Sirius and XM. There are precious few locations in the home or car where a satellite radio might sit that a regular AM/FM radio is not already present. Granted, there are remote areas where a satellite signal might exist but an AM/FM does not...but you're serving a comparatively tiny minority or NPR listeners at the expense of a vast majority of NPR listeners. That's no way to run a railroad!

Web distribution I can understand; it reaches in areas where AM/FM do not AND there are a lot of NPR listeners. Namely, the office...many NPR listeners have computers in their office and the interference from computers (and related electronics) to AM/FM is reaching epidemic proportions. Plus web distribution opens the possibility of on-demand listening (like podcasts) which is a valuable service to the listener. It's still destructive to the current model, but at least it adds substantial value to the brand.

I'm sure my argument will invite others to counter-argue. I welcome the discussion! :-)

11:51 PM  
Blogger RadioSutton said...

Hi Aaron, thanks for the post. The mission statements of NPR and many stations these days includes the idea of creating a more informed electorate. I guess I just don't see how making your flagship news program more scarce does that. It seems counter to the mission to not make public radio's best content more widely available. When properly programmed, two stations can sustain the newsmagazines in a head-to-head environment and more people in the market will hear them than if only one station carried them. It's been studied several times. If the mission remains to have a positive impact on the public, then I believe increasing the availability of our best content is a necessity.

5:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's been studied when you're talking two local AM/FM outlets going head to head. Has it been studied when you're talking satradio vs. AM/FM? Or web vs. AM/FM? My hunch is that it has not...not conclusively. But I really don't know.

I also have long felt that two stations airing the same programming (especially at the same time) is further reducing the already precious few hours that other programming might air. Programming that might potentially be "as good" or even "better".

And I can think of one huge way that restricting the content makes it reach more people: exclusivity contracts on the programming increase the value of the programming, increased value means that larger signals can justify the risk of airing said programming, because they know there'll be a greater ROI from the higher value. Thus, there's a better incentive for programming to end up on major signals in major markets.

2:48 PM  

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