Tuesday, March 31, 2009

NPR -- who needs public radio?

The public radio world is currently in a firestorm of controversy. NPR wants to do a fund drive.

Now if your first reaction was "So what? They do a fund drive twice a year," then you are part of the problem -- the stations' problem that is. In a post around this time last year, "Non-NPR Public Radio," I explained the difference between NPR and public radio in depth. Here's the short version.

National Public Radio (NPR) is a producer of nationally syndicated radio programs. These programs are carried on public radio stations that have an affiliate agreement with NPR. It is possible for a public radio station to carry no NPR programming whatsoever. They could carry programs from Public Radio International (PRI), like "BBC World Service," or they could carry programs from American Public Media (APM) like "Prairie Home Companion" (you thought that was NPR, didn't you). Or they could just produce their own programming in house. Or any mix of the three.

As a way to establish prominence over their competing syndicators, NPR was very aggressive -- and very effective -- in promoting their brand. And they succeeded in making NPR synonymous with public radio. The stations helped in this endeavor. NPR programs such as "Morning Edition" (ME) and "All Things Considered" (ATC) became virtually required airing, and the stations benefited from the association.

But there's a dark side. NPR affiliate fees have continued to rise. And stations have found themselves in a bind. Each year ME, ATC and the other NPR programs have become increasingly expensive. So much so that the major part of a station's fundraising efforts goes towards covering those fees. At some smaller stations, the NPR affiliate fee may actually be the biggest line item in the budget. And yet there isn't a station that would dare drop ME or ATC. They bring in the audiences, and the perception is that a station that dropped the shows would be dropped by listeners.

That's why if there's two or more public radio stations in a market, they will all most likely air ME and ATC. They don't dare not to.

But the needs of NPR as a content provider have never been exactly the same as those of the member stations -- and as audiences move more to other sources of media, those needs are increasingly out of sync. Most listeners identify their public radio stations as "the NPR station." Many would be hard-pressed to name the actual call letters.

So as NPR moves more content online, and develops its own distribution hubs, listeners are starting to follow. After all, why listen to "Fresh Air" on that NPR radio station with the boring fund drives, when you can download it directly from NPR for free?

And now some at NPR want to do a direct appeal to listeners for funds. Not help the stations with their fund drives, but to ask the stations' listeners to send money directly to NPR.

For NPR, it's the next logical step. But for the member stations, it's another nail in the coffin. Not only do they have to scramble to raise funds to keep getting NPR content, but now the network wants to poach their donors as well!

It's causing quite a fuss, but I wonder if its too late for the stations. They cast their lot with NPR, letting their own individual identities atrophy in the process. And NPR is transitioning to a place where the member stations -- many of which are little more than middlemen -- are no longer necessary. Will affiliate stations begin to bail? Will they recognise that it might be time to part ways?

I remember something a program director observed years ago at a public radio conference we attended. "I'm not surprised when pubradio shoots itself in the foot," he said, talking about a recent contratemps, "but I'm always amazed at how fast it can reload."

- Ralph


  1. Didn't NPR recently change upper management in response to some of the concerns of stations?

  2. They did. But I think the comments from some of NPR's announcers show how deeply the "us first, them last" culture's permeated. And once the tipping point's reached (where other income sources outweigh the affiliate fees) I think you will see a parting of the ways.

    As I've said before. NPR's not evil. But they are a business that has different goals and different needs than the local station. Which stations seem to continue to not recognize.

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