Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Public Radio's "craigslist" Moment

The single most import strategic decision facing NPR is this:

When a fan of public radio gets into his car, pushes the start button, and gets ready to pick something to hear through his web-connected dashboard, does NPR want him to…

A.  Choose to listen to content directly from an NPR member station?
B.  Choose to listen to content directly from NPR?

Today, the entire public radio economy is based on answer “A.”  All of the money donated to public radio stations by individuals is based on listeners choosing to hear their public radio content directly from a member station.  Almost all of the underwriting money is based on answer “A” as well.   Federal funding is predicated on Community Service.  Foundations invest in being heard. 

The single greatest potential disruption faced by public radio is not that listeners will start to use digital technology.  The single greatest disruption will be that stations will not be able to aggregate listeners in significant enough numbers to grow the industry’s revenue base.

This is public radio’s craigslist moment.

You’ve heard the story about how craigslist destroyed the newspaper business revenue model by changing where and how people placed and viewed classified ads.  Just as classifieds were the newspaper industry’s most profitable source of revenue, tune-ins to NPR programs are a public radio station’s most profitable source of listening.  Take the NPR program tune-ins away from stations and the industry’s revenue model collapses.

This is especially true of NPR’s business model.  NPR collects $70,000,000 per year from stations.  An additional $40,000,000 to $50,000,000 in corporate support is directly linked to reaching tens of millions of station listeners each week.  That’s up to $120,000,000 of NPR’s annual revenue directly linked to NPR member station audiences.

Station audiences are built one listening choice at a time. When a listener can choose between NPR and a member station on the dashboard, NPR’s single most important strategic decision is if it wants that listener to first choose listening to the member station or to first choose listening directly to NPR.  The entire public radio economy rests on that choice.

There will be financial disruption in public radio no matter which strategic choice NPR makes.  The issue facing NPR is the magnitude of that disruption and how to manage it.  To do that, NPR needs to develop system-wide economic policies that put the industry ahead of the audience/financial disruption curve.

Unfortunately, NPR’s greatest weakness today is that it is ill-equipped to develop policies that can simultaneously serve the best interests of NPR, its member stations, and listeners.

NPR’s Board and Executive Management, while pushing forward hard with NPR direct-to-listener strategies, have rolled out nothing on what the public radio economy looks like when listeners begin choosing NPR before member stations.  It’s as if NPR has become policy-adverse, which startling given the invaluable role policy played in fostering the strong public radio system we have today.

While the NPR Audience was built through great network content and great programming at local stations, the public radio system was built through smart policy making. Policy was used to professionalize stations, ensuring adequate staffing and skills training.  Policy was used to set growth goals and success metrics that increased public service and financial self-sufficiency for stations, program producers, and NPR.  Policy was used to save NPR from its financial crisis.  Policy was used to develop program pricing models that fostered a more productive and less antagonistic relationship between NPR and its member stations.

NPR needs a smart economic policy today more than it needs the latest and greatest in digital technology.   Technologies change.  Adaptation will be slower than anyone expects.  In the meantime, NPR can make its single most important strategic decision. NPR can imagine a healthy economic future for NPR and its member stations. And NPR can start developing an economic policy to create that future.  It is how the public radio system was built and it is how the public radio system can grow more relevant through technological and economic change.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Local News is Not the Future of Public Radio

On one hand, public radio stations are being told that if they don't respond to digital threats quickly and effectively that they will suffer the same fate as local newspapers.  On the other hand, they are being told that local news is their future. In other words, the future of public radio hinges on content that is no longer commercially viable.  It's like the 70s and 80s all over again. 

Funny how that worked out.  The dead commercial radio formats curated on public radio didn't fuel the industry's growth.  Public radio's growth was driven by inventing something new... news for intellectually curious people who view themselves as citizens of the world and entertainment programs with a complementary appeal. 

Public came to public radio because it was't local.  That's a big part of the appeal.

Local presence is important.  Local news that lives up to the NPR standard is too.  That will make a station locally relevant.

But the future of public radio stations remains doing what they do best... providing a window to the world to people who think beyond their personal geographies.  Anything less will send those listeners somewhere else.

Read more at as part of our Best the Best Button series.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Be the Best Button

This is an update to our May 2005 Be the Best Button blog posting about mobile internet in the car.

Nothing has changed in seven years. What we wrote then remains true today.

Eventually, all the technology just becomes buttons on the dashboard and the button with the best programming always wins.

And what was true in May 2005 was true for decades before that. Success in radio has always been about being the best button. 

Digital doesn't change that. The source -- FM, AM, HD, on-demand, podcast, personal playlist, satellite, streaming -- doesn't matter.

The consumer now has 5 to 15 physical buttons on the dashboard from which to choose. Those buttons will be on a screen in a digitally equipped car, but the human equation will be the same. The consumer pushes a button. If the content satisfies frequently enough, it becomes the favorite button. And there will be FM and AM buttons on the dashboard.

Digital is not a threat to terrestrial public radio unless we make it one. We are our own biggest threat if we give up on radio or if we let others tell us that radio is less important than digital. Believing that is a recipe for financial disaster because the ROI for radio will be far superior to the ROI on digital for the foreseeable future.

The key to public radio success in the digital age is growing the radio audience and embracing digital as a way to make our primary radio service even more relevant to listeners than it is today.

It’s not an either/or proposition. It’s not broadcast radio versus digital. Listeners pick buttons, not technologies.

Be the Best Button.