Are local NPR stations in trouble?

Brent Finnegan -- March 11th, 2008

Ken Stern was ousted as the CEO of NPR last week. Some say his removal was about protecting the local stations, because Stern was leading the way in digital content delivery; offering NPR content on the web, and leaving stations like WMRA with little to offer listeners in terms of unique content.

Tom DuVal, station manager at WMRA, has an interesting response.

From the NPR story:

NPR is considered a leader in news and music podcasts. And under Stern it has also struck deals to deliver its content new ways, such as through cell phones.

But that push has aggravated anxiety among local stations about their relationship to the network. NPR member stations rely heavily on popular shows, particularly Morning Edition, to generate donations. But if people can listen to them through NPR’s Web site or even their own cell phones, why would they stay loyal to stations still reliant on pledge drives?

Of Stern’s ousting, media blogger Jeff Jarvis writes:

Well guess, what, local yokels, hate to tell you this but… You’re screwed! You bet the internet is going to hurt you. There is no need for you as a distribution arm anymore. Unless you add valuable local content and service to the mix, you might as well tear down the tower now. Or in a year or two. Getting rid of Stern et al won’t get rid of reality.

[...] the stations — especially those that served only as distribution outlets — had no viable future. I advised that they should figure out how to shift the local stations to new roles in their communities.

I asked DuVal what he made of Stern getting canned, and of Jarvis’ claims that local NPR stations are “screwed.” I found his response remarkably honest:

From what I’ve heard from those more intimately connected with the decision, there was much more to the parting of ways than simply disagreements over new media ventures. I’ve watched Ken for almost a decade and have always had mixed feelings about him as a leader. The NPR board appointed Dennis Haarsager as interim CEO, and Dennis has been on the front lines of advocating for public radio (and television) to enter boldly into new media. So I don’t buy the notion that Ken was canned for advocating that same thing.

Public radio has not experienced the decline in listening that commercial radio has in recent years. Public radio has been more or less flat. That’s no guarantee that we’ll maintain, of course. What do we do to change with the times? Better minds than mine (in public and commercial radio) have been struggling with this vision for some time without finding the answer(s).

I would not call us one of the aggravated local stations. Yes, I’m somewhat anxious about NPR delivering via other methods and the effect that could have on our audience and fundraising, but it’s not NPR itself. Many, many NPR stations are streaming, so our audience can tune in online and listen to Morning Edition from Seattle or Minnesota or Atlanta, too. I wish I (or anyone) knew what the media landscape will be in 5 or 10 years, especially in relation to terrestrial radio.

More than ten years ago I was saying that broadcast radio will be in trouble when it becomes as easy for someone to tune in an internet stream in the car as it is to tune in a station, i.e. turn on the audio device and press a single button for the station of choice, which comes on almost instantly. That time will come, I said even then, and we’re starting to see signs of it. It may take a generation for complete penetration of the technology, but the interim slow withering of radio’s audience will eventually no longer sustain radio long before complete penetration. That “but” reduces the time frame considerably, so it really won’t take a generation. Late adopters will simply have to do it when their current choice disappears. Does that mean we go out of business, or only that we may turn off our transmitters and rely on cyber delivery alone?

Still sounds relatively dire.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about WMRA/WEMC’s website upgrades. They are now offering their local and state content via podcasts and RSS.

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