Tuesday, November 13, 2012
Conventional wisdom holds that NPR and its member stations are quite fortunate to have avoided the fates of public television and the newspaper business. Viewer loyalty to public television is low, on-air fundraising is heavily dependent on transactional infomercials, and cable competitors have created good quality alternatives to many of PTV's best content categories, which in turn erodes the distinctive look and sound of PTV. Newspapers suffered significant losses in local revenues and had to shed staff because their new revenue streams aren't bringing in enough money to support the old infrastructure.
For more than a decade, outside experts have telling public radio leaders that they must act swiftly and boldly to avoid having similar market forces affect public radio in similar ways.
So where do we stand today?
Well, the top executive positions at NPR, the recently filled or created positions, are now held by former public television and newspaper people. Stations are being encouraged to spend more money by investing in more newsroom infrastructure even as radio audiences are predicted to decline. NPR stations remain distinctive, standing out on the radio from their commercial counterparts, but NPR and station web sites increasingly look like dozens of other national and local news web sites. And the discussion about public radio's future economy is almost solely focused on new revenue models rather than on whether the old economic infrastructure is even viable in a new media marketplace.
In short, public radio is well-positioned to repeat many of the same mistakes made by PTV and the newspaper industry. It will take much more than smartphone apps, mobile websites, and local news to avoid the fate of these other industries. It will take a renewed and sincere commitment to growing public radio's traditional audiences and overhauling public radio's current economic model, revenues and expenses. Accomplishing that requires industry leaders who understand they have has as much, if not more, to learn from public radio as public radio has to learn from them.