NPR, Its Member Stations, and Trust
This level of distrust isn’t new. It existed in the early days of NPR, through decades of impressive audience and revenue growth, and into this age of digital disruption. That distrust existed, to different degrees, no matter who was sitting in the President’s office or who was second-in-command at NPR. That distrust has spanned a couple of generations of station managers.
Multiple trust-building efforts and exercises haven’t been able to exorcise the distrust. It is institutionalized.
Institutionalized distrust goes all the way back to the early 1980s and NPR’s financial crisis. It’s worth reading up on that crisis if you don’t know the story.* In short, the entire public radio business model was overhauled to save NPR from going under due to financial mismanagement and many stations backed a loan to as part of the NPR bailout.
Back then member stations had to vote on NPR’s budget every year, with board members and some station managers questioning line item expenses of just a few hundred dollars. NPR’s annual membership meetings were rancorous affairs that always ended with NPR getting budget increases and all parties leaving with bitter feelings.
There were also difficult battles over macro and micro programming issues, from a 4pm Eastern Time start for All Things Considered to giving stations more local cutaway opportunities in the newsmagazine program clocks. Every year stations were paying NPR more money but not getting the attention, respect, or services they felt were needed to grow. Seeds of distrust were sown.
Fast forward to today.
- Most stations are paying NPR somewhere around 15% of their gross revenues for the rights to broadcast NPR programs. That’s the highest percentage in the history of the industry.
- NPR now requires stations to pay for digital services whether they want those services or not.
- NPR is now competing directly with its member stations for listeners.
- NPR is now competing with stations for major donors.
- NPR is experimenting with raising money directly from listeners for the first time.
There have been times when the bonds of trust have been stronger than others. Sometimes those bonds were strengthened by people at NPR and at stations. Those bonds lasted only as long as the people lasted in their jobs, sometimes less than that. On a few occasions, those bonds were strengthened by new policies at NPR. Those bonds had more staying power.
One policy in particular was NPR’s decision to “lockdown” pricing for its news programs at a fixed percentage of total station revenues. That change in policy -- how money changed hands in public radio – went a long way towards improving the NPR/station relationship. It put an end to the battles over NPR’s budget and created a stable and predictable economic model that allowed NPR and stations to invest their money and energy into program and revenue growth.
The lesson – the bonds of trust between NPR and its member stations are just as much about policy as people, maybe even more so. A certain measure of trust can be institutionalized. Or perhaps more accurately, a certain measure of distrust can be prevented through good policy.
That’s going to be important in the next few years. Public radio continues to get severe warnings from experts inside and outside of public radio about the dangers of digital disruption. That disruption is already a source of increased distrust between NPR and stations. The disruption will only become more severe with time. Greater distrust will follow unless NPR and its board choose policies to minimize it.
One way to build trust is flip the public radio economic model on its head. NPR will never build sufficient trust with stations as long as it is charging stations more money than ever while actively taking listeners and donations away from those stations. Conversely, NPR could lay a strong foundation for trust by putting in place policies that put money in stations’ pockets and helps them grow audience.
* Amazon link to "Listener Supported" by Jack Mitchell