Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Is Local News the New Classical Music?

Digital News Guru Ken Doctor presented the opening session today at the public radio Super-Regional meeting in Las Vegas. 

His premise.  Local news presents a great opportunity for public radio.

His logic. There is great potential in the digital space for national news. Jobs are growing in this sector. There's more than $40 billion in digital advertising out there.  And local news in trouble. Revenues are way down. More than 20,000 jobs have been lost. There is a dearth of local reporting and this represents opportunity for public media.

This is the same logic that was used to program public radio in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Public radio was the place to program dying formats.

The problem, as public radio learned by the late 1980s, is that picking up the failed scraps from commercial media does not make for a viable business model.

We often forget that the success public radio has enjoyed over the past several decades came from inventing something new -- a national news, information, and entertainment service delivered locally that created a non-geographic sense of community among  like-minded listeners.  Public radio built a great multi-stream revenue model on this service.  It is the same model being pursued by the start-ups in the national digital new business.

Focusing on local to the detriment of national is to abandon what has made the public radio business model work.

So what does this have to do with classical music?

There has been somewhat of a classical music radio revival in major markets of late. Stations such as WQXR in New York, KING in Seattle, and KDFC in San Francisco flipped from commercial radio to public radio with great success.

These markets are sufficiently large to accommodate the financial needs of classical music radio stations. But most markets are not. That's why they import their classical from syndicated services.
More important, these are brands committed to classical music full-time. They succeed because of their singular focus, their singular appeal.

News is not the singular appeal of public radio.  National and local news can have very different appeals.

This valuable lesson, first learned in the 1980s, still applies today.  Putting too much local content into today‚Äôs service is the same problem as trying to have NPR News, Classical, Jazz, Folk, and 8 others types of programming on a single station. It works against the principle of focusing formats based on the appeal of the content. 


If there is a future in local news for public radio, it is establishing a separate service with a separate brand. It is inventing something new that stands on its own. Adding too much local to the current public radio station brand will diminish, not enhance, the brand.

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