Posts about npr

Trouble for NPR

It looks like bad news for Public Radio and its fans: CEO Ken Stern has been forced out. It appears that the stations did him in as they gun for his digital strategy because they fear the internet will hurt them.

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.

This is the problem I see in all media: They think that protection is a strategy. It’s not.

The story on NPR’s site explains:

In addition, Stern led a major push in digital ventures. It stemmed from his often-repeated conviction that the old way of doing business wouldn’t work. Other diversions — such as cable television, online news sources, iPods, books on tape, video games and social networks — are siphoning audiences away from traditional broadcasters, including public radio stations. Stern argued that NPR shows and news and cultural segments increasingly had to be available on whatever platforms people wanted to hear them.

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?

Interviews with eight current and former public radio officials suggest Stern failed to convince local stations — and especially their representatives on the board — that he saw a clear and healthy role for them in the digital future.

That’s because there may not be one.

I said that at NPR sometime ago when I visited with other graybeards of the social media world, giving them our solicited advice. Here was my prognostication then about local radio. It was crystal clear to me at the time that 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 loved the NPR strategy — Stern’s strategy — of getting maximum distribution for programming. That, after all, is also part of the mission of a publicly supported broadcaster. Isn’t it?

And there are other models for local support. When I wrote about reverse syndication as a model for national coverage in newspapers, served up by the New York Times and its competitors, John Proffitt suggested that this could be a model for NPR.

I’ve begun to promote a similar idea, specifically in the public media world. Local public TV and public radio stations today pay hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions to NPR, PBS, APTS, PRI, APM and other content providers (with NPR and PBS being the most obvious). This has stifled the local public media companies’ ability to produce local content. They blow all their cash paying the networks.

Reverse syndication in this world, to my thinking, is to have the networks sell their content to the public (ads, membership revenue) and give all the content to the local media outlets for free — with the caveat that embedded ads pass through with the content. Local outlets could then produce local media and still pick from the best national media and arrange it into locally-relevant streams/blocks on the web, on transmitters, etc.

This would also clean up the nasty co-dependent relationships between the local stations and the networks, as it would clarify the roles of each.

That’s the kind of thinking NPR and its stations desperately need. Not protectionism of the past.

: Here‘s Robert Patterson, who brought me to NPR, on today’s news.

: LATER: I don’t understand the politics of NPR that went into this. And I know there are visionary stations doing good and new things. I just fear that defining radio around towers and their location — like defining newspapers around presses and theirs — is dangerous.

So let’s get a discussion going on what NPR can and should do now for the future. What’s your vision? I’ll pipe in more later.

: LATER STILL: See the comment by Dennis Haarsager, interim CEO, below.

Seldom do you get it from the horse’s mouth, and this will be short, but go to my blog sometime tomorrow and I’ll publish a longer version. Until mid-day yesterday, I was chair of the NPR board, and since yesterday afternoon, I’m the new interim CEO. The scenario you outlined in your opening paragraph is dead wrong and so was the first part of the Washington Post story today. It’s what happens when speculators become sources. If station management wanted to kill off or slow down emerging media, their board picked the wrong boy. Read my blog archives for the past four years. More to come Saturday at http://www.technology360.com/. Regards, Dennis Haarsager

: A NOTE TO DENNIS: I would suggest that NPR and you should have announced this in your blogs and engaged in a conversation about this with your supporters — not just your fans, of course, but the people who give you money. You handed this story over to the press and you left your real board — the public — in the dark. The sooner that conversation starts, the better, because there are people who like NPR out here — and have ideas for its future — who are worried.

This American story-telling

This American Life’s Ira Glass, who oversees what we journalists think is one of the last great hopes for “long-form journalism” (as it is so haughtily called), doesn’t necessarily call what he does journalism at all. From a Times Q&A leading up to his new Showtime video version of the show:

Q: How do you think your work differs from traditional journalism?
A; We’re taking the tools of journalism and applying them to people whom you wouldn’t normally apply them to — people who aren’t famous, people who aren’t powerful, people just like you and me.

Q; What are you talking about? Journalism has always had human-interest stories.
A; But a newspaper probably wouldn’t run an article where a cop remembers one weird incident with a squirrel when he was a rookie. That’s too far from any kind of normal news hook.

I’d say that’s false journalistic modesty. If journalists are storytellers, Glass & Co. are the masters of the craft.

Fair Game

Faith Salie has the most endearing voice on radio. Click below and listen to her on Fair Game, a new show aimed at a younger audience, and you’ll want to propose.

It’s not a voice or, for that matter, a personality we hear on public radio news shows, where the tones are stentorian and authoritative (hear: Nina Totenberg). Salie is relaxed and funny — though, as her radio bio emphasizes, she’s not dumbing down NPR stations; she’s a Rhodes scholar and Harvard graduate. I’ve been listening to her on my iPod, fascinated by the show’s attempt to liven up public radio (especially after visiting NPR last week). So I was delighted when a call came to appear on Fair Game and doubly delighted that it was to talk about my new endeavor, PrezVid.

Before I got on, they were talking about the Jesus bones, not afraid of rattling the cultural safety latch, doing a shtick about a Jesus Jurassic park with cloned Messiahs and speculating with a theology professor about how hard it will be to get Jesus DNA (Salie guesses that a communion wafer probably won’t do the trick).
It was daring without acting daring and what I liked best was that the intelligence comes out in the wit.

I wanted to video the interview but with Salie as a TV personality, that caused complications. So here’s just a snippet from the control room below. And here‘s the interview.

A million C-SPANs

I say we need to create a million C-SPANs made by us, the citizens, using video to open up government to inspection by all.

C-SPAN itself is, oddly, one of the most jealous protectors of copyright anywhere. That’s why they demanded that Stephen Colbert’s speech before the press corps of Washington be pulled down from online. That is why The Times writes today about confusion in Congress about what representatives can and cannot put on their blogs. The short answer is: government feeds belong to us all, C-SPAN feeds belong to them. So Nancy Pelosi was in her rights to put up speeches from the floor on her blog; that came from the taxpayers’ cameras. Yet as The Times points out:

But last week, as it happens, C-Span did contact the speaker’s office to have it take down a different clip from her blog — one shot by C-Span’s cameras at a House Science and Technology Committee hearing on global warming where Ms. Pelosi testified, Mr. Daly said. . . .

“We are structurally burdened, in terms of people’s perception, because we are the only network that has such a big chunk of public domain material,” said Bruce Collins, the corporate vice president and general counsel of C-Span. He estimated that 5 to 15 percent of C-Span’s programming is from the House and Senate floor, and thus publicly available.

“It is perfectly understandable to me that people would be confused,” he said. “They say, ‘When a congressman says something on the floor it is public domain, but he walks down the street to a committee hearing or give a speech and it is not public domain?’ “

Thus the work of our government is being trapped by C-SPAN’s cameras and business models. That may be their right but it doesn’t serve our rights. So we need to blow this up.

If Firedoglake could go and liveblog the hell out of the Libby trial, so can more of us go and tape meetings of our government and distribute that online, around C-SPAN.

We can do this not just at a national but also at a state and local level. I suggested that this is a role for local public radio (here and here) and also for local newspapers: Unleash an army of us with audio and video recorders to capture public meetings and then host what we come up with and give us the tools to edit these recordings down to their essence.

The next time you go to your school board meeting, take along a video camera and put it up on YouTube. And watch how your elected representatives behave then.

Audio on audio

Andy Carvin at NPR put up podcasts of part of last week’s discussion there about social media — two hours at an open session with NPR staff. Part 1. Part 2.

What should local radio be?

At last week’s meeting of the minds at NPR, there was much discussion about the difficult position local stations find themselves in as the value of their distribution diminishes. And it was said, as an article of faith or perhaps reflex, that going local is the answer — the same answer given for newspapers these days. But as I thought about it on the train ride back, I wondered what that really means.

Obviously, it’s not easy for a radio station to get hyperlocal; it has just one big pipe and no resources to cover a market broadly. It’s not easy for newspapers, either, but they clearly have a headstart with a larger staff of reporters and the ability to slice their products into local zones. So I asked myself what the strength of a radio station is and the answer’s apparent: promotion. A station can drive a sizable audience to something new online. But what do they get when they get there? And what content on the radio station continues to draw the audience to give it that promotional power? Not easy questions.

I’d start and the end and say that a local radio station must stop thinking of itself as radio. It has the power to develop local communities of news, information, and interest. It can use its promotional power to drive people there. It could, for example, get people in a market to record every damned school board and town council meeting and put them online, served by the station. It could create the meeting place where people share news and information, competing with or even in cooperation with local papers. It could be a home for talk about local issues and news.

So what is the on-air content? It’s not hyperlocal. But it could be a meta version of that: talk about the issues that cut across the region with reporting from the best of the local communities. It could feature the best citizen critics giving you reviews of local arts and entertainment. I don’t come up with much here. So I’d say that the station has a limited time frame in which to use its promotional power.

Here’s Zadi Diaz’ take on the same issue out of the same meeting:

So why listen to radio?

There will always be a need to connect in real-time. To know that there is another person on the flip side that can give you perspective on the present and can communicate back to us. It’s a living, breathing thing. And in a world that becomes progressively automatic, the need to connect on a deeper level will grow.

People like to be social. Twitter is proof of that. To me twitter is the text version of a well-oiled ham radio. People sending out ideas, and questions, and mundane little things that may only be of importance to a handful. But it’s that instant live connection that makes it so special. You know what someone is doing at that very moment. And in a sense, it puts you there with them.

People also love to tell their stories. To each other. Conversation. The thing about Twitter that makes it electric is that there are multiple conversations going on at once. You become a receptor, a connector, and a storyteller all at once. I feel this is the key to the future of live broadcasting:

Becoming a converstation. No misspellings there.

Creating a converstation within NPR can only benefit everyone involved. Maria Thomas, who invited us to the panel discussion spoke about how NPR was born of storytellers. It immediately conjured images in my mind of people sitting around a campfire and sharing their stories. Around that campfire there is the storyteller and the people listening. The storyteller isn’t in a vacuum, there is ambiance, they occupy space, they are also listening to the listeners. The storyteller is the independent producer who is an expert in the story they tell. NPR can build small campfires and enable those storytellers to begin and ultimately develop the grandest story of all.

Local member stations+storytellers= campfires

Campfires can especially grow in a beautiful way online. The use of a website becomes less about providing news (we have feeds for that), and more about being a social hub where people can go to connect. There is a reason why there are so many social networking sites. Why can’t organizations think of their websites like they do their buildings?
- You have your reception area where the receptionist answers your FAQs
- Office spaces which are only accessible to employees
- Conference rooms where you hold meetings
- Mess hall where people from inside can congregate and speak to each other
- Lobby where people from the outside can talk to each other and to the employees
- Etc.. play room?

If you’re not afraid to open up your building to the public, there should be no fear of opening up your web site to a little one-on-one communication.

So what you end up with is an endless number of little radio stations making their own connections. The old radio station is some collection of the best or widest of that.

I’m still not satisfied that there is a great answer for local radio. But if the Siriux, XM merger (below) goes through, I think that creates more opportunities for local NPR radio. The rest of radio — from the big companies and from satellite — will be national. NPR member stations can be the last outpost of local radio. They can’t afford to get more local on their own but they can do it in partnership with their listeners.

: Zadi was nice enough to note:

- just googled the word “converstation” and realized Jeff had blogged about the word a while back. How funny.

A day at NPR

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my day at NPR. Smart people, but then that’s obvious. Andy Carvin, our host, live-blogs the morning and I think he’ll put up videos from the afternoon. Dinner remains undocumented and that’s a good thing, after a few glasses of Italian-joint plonk. A few random notes:

* Maria Thomas, the impressive head of NPR.org, explained the history of the organization and its relationship with member stations. It was the stations that decided, in 1971, that they needed an NPR. And when NPR almost went belly-up in 1983, it was the stations that rescued it.

I think the reality of today is that it’s NPR’s turn to rescue the stations. But I also wonder whether they can afford such loyalty. The value of broadcast distribution is bound to continue to diminish and some portion of the 300-odd NPR affiliates are mostly distributors, rather than creators. So the question is what an NPR station should become. Like newspapers, it seems they need to find their fate in being local. But what this is is not entirely clear.

* Rob Paterson, who generously put this event together (I say generously because it’s amazing that a consultant brings in other outside voices), said that after a big event across NPR and its member stations, involving 1,000 people, it became clear that direct relationships with listeners are inevitable and desirable. That’s a big deal; it’s a shift of control.

* Fascinating demographics of public broadcasting. In very rough numbers, PBS viewers’ average is is 60ish; NPRs is 50ish; NPR.org is 40ish; and the podcasts are 30ish.

* NPR has an operating budget of $140 million with 750 employees. By comparison, last I checked, Entertainment Weekly, a single magazine, had a budget more than double that.

* NPR is working on a new show with Michel Martin and they’re doing that — this is new for them — in public, via the Rough Cuts blog.

* Matt Martinez is a producer working on another new show, a news show aimed at youth, and I liked hearing him say that what they do has to be heard and found not just via NPR and its stations and web site but where the people are (read: YouTube and blogs).

He also said that in this new effort, they believe that the show never ends. The stories continue. Amen. It’s a process.

* Many nice lines from David Weinberger. My favorite: “There is an inverse relationship between control and trust.” The more you hand over control, the more trust you earn. True of media, business, government. He also said that trust is not a goal but an enabler: if you have trust, you can do more.

* Many nice lines from Doc Searls. My favorite was about the “because effect” of open source. Because there is Linux and such, we can have Amazon, Google, et al. This is how I look at my efforts to preach the benefits of an open-source ad marketplace. If we had it, because we have it, many things would bloom.

* Many nice lines from Jay Rosen. My favorite came in response to Michel Martin on the difficulty of dealing with controversy — that is, with speaking bluntly in divisive matters. “NPR,” he said, “has to maintain its political innocence and sometimes that comes into conflict with the truth.”

* Many nice lines from Euan Semple, who quoted someone when we discussed getting pilot projects that what you want are “Trojan mice.”

* A highlight for me was meeting Zadi Diaz, star and cocreator of JetSet. She’s one of the people reinventing TV and she had much good advice for bit, old media.

This good life

At last, This American Life has thrown off the limitations of being sold on Audible. It’s now a free podcast.