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.

4 Responses to “Are local NPR stations in trouble?”

  1. Tom says:

    I don’t know. The main times I listen are on my clock radio when getting up in the morning and when I’m in my car. Neither lend themselves to streaming and I don’t see a scenario any time in the near future when they will. The only time I have access to streaming in fact is at home when playing on the internet or at work and I rarely if ever can spare the extra band-width to do it so I think our local station is safe for now. I would like more local content though. :-)

  2. Renee says:

    I’m sure a lot of people that listen to NPR either listen in their car or on traditiona radios. With stations that do offer digital radio content, the only time I really use that venue is if I’m in my office listening on headphones.

    Also, I know a lot of people leave NPR on for their pets (seriously, they had a whole drive dedicated to that!).

    It does look like the local stations need to step up their unique content, though.

    Maybe there can be a ‘local station stream’ that plays only the local content from around the country as a separate online station?

  3. David Miller says:

    People really leave the radio on for their animals?

Reader Tweets

Latest Flickr photos in the hburgnews Flickr pool
Announcements & Press Releases
  • Friendly City Grand Opening Set for July 9

    Friendly City Food Co-Op, Harrisonburg’s consumer-owned grocery, invites the community to come see its new destination for natural, organic and locally-produced products at the store’s grand opening 11 a.m.-5 p.m. July 9 at 150 East Wolfe Street.

  • Friendly City Becomes Member of National Cooperative Grocers Association

    HARRISONBURG, VA — Friendly City Food Co-op, slated to open this month in Harrisonburg, Va., has become the newest member of the National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA), a business services cooperative serving 120 consumer-owned food co-ops nationwide.

  • Harrisonburg Recognized as a Bike Friendly Community

    May 2: Harrisonburg was honored when the League of American Bicyclists announced the latest round of Bicycle Friendly Community (BFC) designations over the weekend to kick off May as National Bike Month.