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.