NPR Is Radio Too

This morning my friend Steve Borsch from Connecting the Dots sent me a link to a post by Jeff Jarvis over at Buzz Machine. It is regarding CEO Ken Stern being forced out at NPR (not my words, theirs). It appears to many, though not the “official” reason, that his push to move NPR further into the world of program distribution via new and emerging media had ruffled too many affiliate feathers.

My reaction… you seem surprised? I don’t know Ken Stern from Adam and have no idea if his internet strategy had anything to do with his termination. However, I do know that many in radio believe online is the enemy. You’ve heard me rant that this has been going on in commercial radio for years.

We can talk forever about how NPR is “different”, how they are most concerned with the quality of what the listener hears. Clearly, to a great extent that’s true. But after all the puffery, high-mindedness, and the hob-nobbing with the hoi polloi (perceived or real), for the local affiliate NPR’s focus is to help them get people to listen to their stations.

You bet NPR has made great strides in distribution, but if all of the public radio listeners, especially the younger ones…with money, head to the internet for their news, information, book chat, and Bach (a bit snarky, I know) then Hooterville Public Radio has a stick (antenna) that they have invested in that suddenly becomes worth a whole lot less. Number of listeners and revenue derived from them is what stick value is all about.

In most of my conversations with those in public radio, the honest ones anyway, they have been quite frank that even there, the bottom line is…well…the bottom line, the same for all radio. Look you can’t pay the bills without revenue, I don’t care who you are.

The opportunity for radio is still a big one. People, currently the vast majority, still turn on the radio. But every day  as technology evolves they are given more and more ways to get the same or better content. Yes, there is opportunity for the medium to try and build a strategy and revenue around the new distribution channels but the real opportunity is to provide great content for those channels to keep people tuning in. Gone are the days of counting on revenue because it’s the only place to get content. Now it’s about where to get the best content.

Broadcast is freaked out because the big money is on the distribution channel not on the content in it. Content is where they save money through quantities of scale. That’s why NPR exists, that’s why affiliates like Hooterville Public Radio need them and that’s why many fear change.

It is clear that NPR, at least under Mr. Stern, is aware of the need and is trying to change the paradigm. The affiliates may or may not have the same vision, but they most certainly don’t have the same money to dedicate to exclusive content.

If Ken Stern was shown the door for his internet/new media strategy that’s a shame…but it wouldn’t be a surprise…at least to me.


  1. I wrote a little bit about this the other day.

    Never underestimate the ability of core media to stick its head in the sand and pretending emerging technologies (and competitors) don’t exist.

    Radio in general, and Public Radio in particular, has historically been content to be the best radio station or the best Public Radio station in a market, thus deflating any sense of competition.

    Newspapers, for example, were content to be the best newspaper in town and you can see the effect as platforms begin to merge.

    All that said, Jarvis pretty much ignores what makes NPR different — it’s relationships with the network stations who pay big money to carry the radio programs.

  2. Bob, Thanks for the comment. Your noting of payments being made to NPR by affiliates drives home the point. Clearly, the affiliate needs to get some level of exclusivity for the content they pay for, though I’m not sure how exclusive nationally produced and broadcast content can be.

    The amount of money the local affiliate has to spend is not infinite so they need to maximize every dollar spent. Would that money be better spent on locally produced content? Would it be as good? Would it be as desirable on-air and on-line? It would be hard to imagine local public stations without the current level of NPR programming…Holy mackerel, what a minefield.

    Perhaps, as you and others have noted, the diplomacy of implementing the strategy was more the issue for Mr. Stern than developing the strategy.


  3. stephengriffith2353 says

    This is a classic distribution channel strategy issue of the type we see in industrial markets all the time. The crux of this issue is the value added in the value chain by the local affiliates has diminished dramatically as other channels are available for the distribution of content. NPR is facing the same issue that Blockbuster video is facing. It is becoming increasingly unnecessary for me to go to the video store when I can download an iTunes movie or get a video on demand through my cable provider. I listen to Morning Report, Fresh Air, Marketplace, All Things Considered and Car Talk with some regularity. I do not need to tune in my local NPR station, whose signal, by the way is spotty at best. I can get get all of them via streaming audio unless I happen to be in the car, which is rare. I can and do download the podcasts of many of them and listen to them at my leisure.

    The affiliates are becoming irrelevant just as Blockbuster stores are. The disconnect comes from the fact that the revenue from listeners is all channeled through the stations. I listen to NPR quite a bit but to my local station rarely and thus have no particular loyalty to them. The affiliates are adding less value to the value stream but their costs have not declined. The market is terribly intolerant of redundant activities in the value chain. I suspect listeners who circumvent the affiliates will be intolerant as well.