Friday, March 28, 2008

Non-NPR Public Radio

Yes, there is such a thing. Around the time I began attending public radio conferences regularly, National Public Radio began their push to solidify their brand. "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" were already the "tent poles" of most public radio station listening (that is, the two places where audience -- and pledging -- peaked).

NPR started by pushing stations to have their announcers emulate the NPR style of delivery, providing a seamless transition from the national feed to the local news segments and back again. Stations were glad to ride the NPR bandwagon. NPR programs brought in the big pledge dollars, and it was easier to schedule a syndicated program with high production values rather than trying to put together something on their own.

Affiliate stations always assumed that NPR's goals were identical with theirs. But different organizations, like individuals, by definition have different goals. In time the blending of local station with national network became complete. Many people today use the terms "NPR" and "public radio" interchangeably -- NPR's branding mission is now complete.

Folks will talk about NPR's "A Prairie Home Companion" -- a program produced and distributed by American Public Media (not NPR), or talk about a classical music selection Seth Williamson played on NPR (Seth's the local host of mid-day classics at WVTF, and his program is not distributed by NPR).

The first hint of trouble with this close association came when NPR fired popular "Morning Edition" host Bob Edwards. Listeners responded with howls of protests -- ire aimed squarely at the local affiliates. For most of the public, the local station was NPR, and many canceled their pledges in protest. That lost revenue hurt the local stations, which meant they had less money to meet their budget (a good chunk of which were NPR carriage fees -- according to Time Magazine, as much as $1.3 million). As for NPR, no station dropped "Morning Edition," and they collected the same rates from the affiliates they always did while the controversy raged on. In the end, Bob Edwards went to XM, some listeners went away, and NPR continued business as usual.

NPR has been moving more and more content onto satellite radio, into podcasts, and finally onto their own audio server. For this organization that derives revenue from the programs it produces, the moves make sense -- this is where the audience is going, and that's where they need to be.

For the radio stations, though, it's a disaster. If you contribute to your local station to support "Fresh Air," why would you continue to do so once you realize you can get it free as a podcast? Stations with strong local content have very good reasons for their listeners to support them. Those who rely almost exclusively on NPR are in for a tough time.

The recent firing of Ken Stern can be seen as an attempt to put the brakes on NPR's abandonment of its affiliates. But it's a temporary slowing, at best. Listening patterns are changing, and eventually NPR and public radio stations may come to a serious parting of the ways.

Here in Charlottesville, Virginia we have four non-commercial radio stations. Two are NPR affiliates, which means you can often hear the same programs on two different stations. Two run local programming almost exclusively.

Coincidentally, both of these stations (WNRN and WTJU) are currently in the midst of their spring fund drives. While WVTF and WMRA run "Morning Edition," WNRN gives its listeners "Acoustic Sunrise," which airs acoustic folk and Americana music. WTJU has classical programming in the morning, locally (and sometimes eccentrically) hosted. WNRN plays a healthy dose of local music throughout the day, while WTJU airs genres (serious classical and jazz, folk, world, non-Top 40 rock) other stations never touch.

All non-commercial radio station depend on some measure of direct public support. In two cases, a bulk of that support will be turned over to NPR to pay for programming, In the other two, the money stays "in house."

Which station is worthy of your support? Whichever one you listen to on a regular basis. Just remember that when you make your pledge, you're supporting the station, not NPR (at least not directly).

- Ralph

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