The central question facing local public radio stations is whether they can survive when the public radio behemoth starts directly competing for their listeners. We might already have the answer on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
In this version of the story, the public radio behemoth isn’t NPR. It’s WAMU, a public radio station based in Washington DC. And the local stations feeling the impact are part of Delmarva Pubic Radio -- WSDL, an NPR News station and sister station WCSL, offering a mix of classical and news.
According to a recent study
by Public Radio Capital,
all-news WAMU, operating a repeater station on the Eastern Shore, has skimmed enough audience away from the local NPR News service on WSDL to render that service unsustainable. This isn’t an indictment of WAMU, by the way. All public radio stations should be free to expand their reach and build audiences wherever their service is relevant.
Back to Delmarva Public Radio. After exploring all options, Public Radio Capital has recommended that the licensee, Salisbury University Foundation (SUF), abandon NPR and local news all together. The most viable strategy, according to the report, is for SUF to enter into operating agreements with other stations or format syndicators who would program the stations with syndicated Classical and Triple A music enhanced with local content.
The way we read this is that there are no viable options for SUF to maintain an NPR and local news presence on either of its signals.
The implications are serious. Local NPR News, in a market this size (under 500,000), can’t survive any meaningful competition for their audiences from other public radio entities, even when the programming originates from out of market. This means quite a few stations will be at risk when technology advances enough to where the really big public radio behemoth, NPR, becomes significant, direct competition for their listeners.
Listeners in these communities will ultimately be deprived of a locally relevant NPR News service and public radio will lose a significant argument for federal funding.
The conventional wisdom has been that localism is the future of public radio stations in the digital age. Public Radio Capital's findings seem to lay that argument to waste, at least in markets similar to the one served by Delmarva Public Radio.