Wednesday, April 01, 2009


Trust is the foundation of public radio’s success.

Producers trust the listener’s ability and willingness to hear complex and challenging material. Listeners trust what they hear.

Public radio stations trust that listeners will financially support them. Listeners trust their donations are spent responsibly.

But stations don’t trust NPR.

That’s the bottom line in the discussion on whether NPR should raise money directly from listeners.

There are many reasons stations don’t trust NPR, some of them real and most of them imagined. That’s a conversation for some other place and time.

That lack of trust is a bigger threat to public radio than iPods, mobile Internet streaming, and satellite radio. It hinders public radio’s ability to respond to new opportunities and grow.

Repairing those damaged bonds of trust can do nothing but help the industry. That mending won’t take place, however, as long as stations assume NPR is 100% responsible for fixing the problem.

I’ve heard from numerous station managers over the past several days who are waiting for NPR to fix what they perceive to be a broken relationship. And yet because they don’t trust NPR, overtures to rebuild relationships are scorned. It’s a no-win situation.

Trust is a two way street. To rebuild it, station managers, those on the NPR board and those who are not, are going to have to display as much leadership as NPR. As with the trusting relationships we have with listeners, it will take time and there will be set backs. As with our relationships with listeners, the benefits of that trust will be mutual.


Blogger Aaron Read said...

Point taken,'re right that trust is a two-way street.

I suppose the easiest way to earn trust is to buy it...after all, every man's got his price. If NPR can offer up a plan that means I get more money in the end, then I'm going to be a lot more willing to trust NPR. The more cash, the more trust...which is a crass way of saying the more I'll be willing to allow NPR greater control over my station's ultimate destiny.

OTOH, trust earned by cash is the weakest kind, so it can't stop there. Some kind of combination of legal structures to ensure moderation on both sides, coupled with a gradual accumulation of experience that NPR can be trusted, would have to be established.

Continuing on that theme, a big problem is that trust is inherently a one-on-one phenomena. So it's not "affiliate stations' trust" that NPR has to's WEOS's trust. And it's WSKG's trust. And KUT's, and KUOW's, and WLRN's, and WNYC's, and WBUR's, etc etc etc. Each and every affiliate station will require its own personal relationship to engender trust on both sides.

Now, here's the problem: a lot...not all, but a lot...of these stations are in competition with each other. Often rather vicious (one might say "petty") competition. There is absolutely no way trust with NPR can exist in that situation. If I'm WXYZ, and I hate WZYX, how can I trust NPR if NPR also trusts my enemy (WZYX)? I can't, it's that simple.

Throw in another wrinkle: it's not uncommon for these sparring radio stations to have partnered TV stations, WXXI radio and WXXI TV. NPR can do a lot to encourage cooperation on the radio side but it can't do much with TV, and inevitably the pressures generated by that disparity will destroy most, if not all, cooperative agreements.

I don't know what the answer is to this dilemma. I suppose the easy answer is to throw money at it; give all the stations so much financial incentive to cooperate that they'll all "buy in"...and keep doing this long enough that you hope the old ways are forgotten. But besides being prohibitively expensive, methinks it would take decades for this approach to, as a medium, doesn't have that long.

Here's an idea, though: what if NPR took a more active role in mitigating competing stations in overlapping regions by designating certain stations as "news" stations, others as "Triple-A" stations, others as "classical" stations, "jazz" stations, etc etc etc. Obviously the news outlets will almost always come out on top financially, so the incentive is that a revenue sharing plan has to be put in place so that it's not financial suicide to become an all-classical outlet.

And as long as you're going so far as to dictate an overall format for a station, you might as well require that stations examine the effectiveness of the individual shows throughout the day and act accordingly. For example, if studies are showing that airing Morning Edition to 9am works well, but drops off hard if you air M.E. all the way to 10am, then you'd have to put in a replacement from 9-10am...and it doesn't have to be an NPR show, but whatever it is has to get demonstrably more ratings/donations/underwriting (some formula of the three). Similarly, if the analysis shows that Car Talk followed by Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me gets the best results, then you'd be obligated to do that.

I imagine you could come up with some kind of weighted rating system so that, to continue the previous example, you didn't HAVE to carry WWDTM...if, for example, This American Life scores above a certain threshold using the abovementioned hypothetical formula, then that'd be just as good. So would a locally-originated program, for that matter.

Needless to say, NPR would be providing significant help to member stations in performing these analyses and applying "the formula".

The ultimate point here is that you have to let stations have significant control over their schedules, because they're the ones in the communities and they know what their local listeners like best. But national fundraising on member stations' airwaves pretty much demands greater national coordination of programming, and frankly that's not a bad thing; some local affiliates are stubbornly loyal to underperforming shows or underperforming schedule layouts.

Any formula would have to give strong guidance to proven program concepts, have enough teeth to cut through irrational local resistance, and be flexible enough to allow most of the control to remain at the station level (and be flexible enough to not discourage adoption of non-NPR programming).


BTW, just to throw a little cold water on this discussion: this system would have to be prepared to insist member stations air controversial shows like Democracy Now! if the numbers show that they should. I know of several stations that have steadfastly refused to air DN! because they disagree strongly with the style of journalism the show espouses...but in at least two cases I know of, there has be tremendous listener demand for the show; even so far as to listeners independently raising substantial dollars (as in, tens of thousands) and delivering potential underwriters if the station aired DN!...and still the station refused. In other words, it's pretty likely "the formula" would dictate that DN! be aired, even if a lot of people at the station don't like it. Would other listeners to other shows be so turned off by the presence of DN! that it would ultimately have an adverse effect? Maybe, but I suspect not. It's a tough call.

Mind you, I don't begrudge any station the choice to avoid DN! or any show, but this plan will likely have to deal with such thorny issues.

9:31 PM  
Blogger Mike Crane said...

Thanks for raising this issue John. As usual, you're right on.

The new reality is that we're not in an either/or world, but a both/and world.

NPR AND the stations. Local fundraising AND national fundraising.

The principal engine of station success is Morning Edition, which is by its very design a local-national partnership. Without Morning Edition, no local news. We couldn't afford it!

Vivian Schiller has the right approach, which is to recognize the incredible value of the combine national reach and local connection of public radio.

To borrow a phrase a colleague of mine at WPR uses, Vivian, and by extension NPR and the NPR board, is in our "circle of trust."

Let's give this a chance to develop, and stop knocking NPR (and ourselves!) down. Now more than ever we need each other.

11:48 PM  
Blogger Aaron Read said...

I haven't yet had time to view all of NPR President Vivian Schiller's video, but the quote selected and posted in goes a long way to convince me that I should NOT trust NPR right now.

Why should I? Basically she's telling us radio stations that we don't matter, only matters. "Not to go back to what we do best"??? Excuse me? When virtually every affiliate station is laying people off, and the mothership is slashing and burning its programming and staff...can we afford to do anything BUT go back to what we do best?

I dunno. Maybe it wasn't her intent to come off as so dismissive of our core practices. But as a station manager it's sure as hell how it comes across to me!

1:12 PM  

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