Saturday, October 23, 2010

NPR, Juan Williams, and the collateral damage

I've had more than enough of the pundits nattering on about NPR's firing of Juan Williams. What hasn't been talked about, though, is the damage NPR did to their affiliate stations by this reactionary and ill-thought move.

A little background
These days, most people use the terms "NPR" and "public radio" interchangeably. But they're not. Each of the hunderds of radio stations across the public radio system is independently owned and operated -- many still primarily licensees of universities and colleges.

Each independant public radio station (just like your local TV station) runs a mixture of locally and nationally produced programming. NPR is a network similar to NBC or Fox. Your local TV station may identify itself as "Fox 19" or "NBC 12" to make that association stronger. For decades, NPR has been encouraging local stations to do that as well, and so effectively that many listeners think their local station IS NPR.

But just as there are many syndicators that provide programming to television stations (King Features, Viacomm, etc.) there are others that provide programming to public radio. People mistakenly say they like "A Prarie Home Companion" on NPR. Garrison Keillor's show is actually produced and provided by American Public Media (APM) -- not NPR. (APM also produces "Marketwatch.")

If you're hearing "This American Life" on your radio, you're not hearing it on NPR. That feed's coming from Public Radio International (PRI).

But the reality is that virtually all public stations carry NPR's "tentpole" programs -- "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered." They're called that because for many stations, their audiences dramatically spike when those two shows come on. And they bring in the most pledges from said audiences. Some stations raise three-quarters of their operating budget from pledges made during those shows.

Which is good -- because NPR programming is expensive. For some stations, carriage fees (primarily to NPR) can account for half their operating budget. But after two decades of careful brand placement, most stations are stuck. They don't dare drop NPR -- nothing from APM or PRI could possibly replace the audience and the cash (although their shows are significantly less expensive).

Left hand, meet right hand
Most public stations are in the middle of their fall fund drives. NPR puts out suggested dates for their affliates to do these drives. They provide special fund-raising breaks and mentions in thier programs to help the stations out (and to further cement the link in the audiences' minds that their local station IS NPR).

So this controversial firing happened in the middle of the mostly-NPR corodinated fund drives for public radio stations across the country. You would think someone at NPR would realise this was the wrong to time do such a thing. Especially because they made this mistake before. When NPR dismissed the popular Bob Edwards, it was also in the middle of an NPR-corodinated fund drive, and the reaction didn't really hurt NPR, but it hammered the member stations.

Killing the messenger
Remember: to most people, the local station IS NPR. So the local stations have been forced to bear the full fury of listeners (and Faux News dittoheads) calling and expressing their outrage at NPR's bone-headed move. It's tied up phone lines and interferred with the fund drives.

But it's done something more dangerous. Just like the Bob Edwards controversy, people are voting with their dollars. Pledges are being cancelled, underwriters are pulling their contracts, and as a result, some local stations are taking a serious financial hit.

And whether or not the station makes its goal, when that carriage fee bill comes from NPR it will need to be paid in ful -- or elsel. The local station, which has no input into what NPR does, will have to make due with less money. NPR will receive the same amount from the local station they always have.

The bottom line -- keep pledging!
So regardless of how you feel about Juan Williams and NPR, please support your local public radio station. It needs your help more than ever.

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