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 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.

  • Jeff – My reading of this is not that the stations are being protectionist. The deeper issues are all about leadership style. I don’t want to say more in public but would be delighted to talk on the phone
    Best wishes Rob

  • I’m not so sure that local public radio is in the same leaky boat as local print and local commercial radio.

    For print, the Internet has raised a set of revenue and ownership/financing issues that NPR and its affiliates just don’t have to deal with.

    Commercial radio has decayed to the point that it’s easily replaced by an iPod, but that’s not true of public radio, which has shifted from classical music to mostly current news and information programming.

    Until my car learns to download podcasts automatically and transparently (think Tivo for my ears), the Internet won’t be a factor in my drivetime audio experience. Most of us, myself included, are just too lazy/disorganized to transport Internet audio content into our vehicles. So those towers are going to be an asset for awhile, and that’s true even if you ignore the value created by a good state radio network. (I’ve been spoiled in that regard by Minnesota Public Radio and South Carolina ETV Radio, both of which are above average.)

    That’s my hope, anyway, because NPR is one of the few remaining sources of serious journalism.

  • Steve — there are already products on the market and in prototype development that allow your car to do what you’re saying — be the TiVo for your ears. Indeed, satellite radio systems include that feature in some cases. And the development of next-gen wireless networks (WiMix and the like) will make this stuff ubiquitous in a virtually placeless way (you only have to be within range of ANY given tower, not ONE specific tower).

    There is truth, however to the notion that radio does not equal print. The nature of audio vs. text as a medium means that some things translate well into new distribution platforms and some things don’t. Radio, done well, is a companion medium in ways that text can never be. But streamed audio does not require a traditional analog FM/AM radio transmitter/receiver pair.

    For the moment, the value of transmitters remains quite high — more so for public radio than any other transmitted program format. And some variation on broadcast media will probably always exist. But the value of the transmitter is in decline as the media universe expands and the distance between content producer and consumer drops to zero.

    It’s not a matter of if, but when. The NPR board’s move this week (started in secret well before this week) is a repudiation of reality and sets up the highly successful corporation for several years of confusion as their member stations begin to decline in relevancy across most of the country.

  • Jeff — NPR’s best chance going forward is to renegotiate the relationship with stations and to use the reverse syndication model you’ve discussed before. Imagine the shock — and pleasure — that would erupt from stations if NPR called them all up and said, “Guess what — we’re reducing your fees to zero starting next fiscal year. But here’s the catch — we’ll only reduce your fees if you can prove you’re doing significant local content and engagement with the savings, especially online. Our objective is to strengthen local media entities with local relationships and strengthen our national content system at the same time.”

    For financial reasons, you couldn’t do this overnight, so you’d phase it in, perhaps from the smallest stations first as you worked out the details. And you’d have to figure out how to judge whether a local station is sufficiently and significantly local and engaged. But the core notion is there — NPR focuses on being the best possible national content developer it can be (raising funds nationally), and local legacy stations would focus on being the best local media/engagement companies possible.

    Take potshots at this idea if you like, but the notion that local stations can survive by restraining NPR’s ability to innovate and communicate with fans while feeding at the NPR revenue trough is nuts. What self-respecting media executive would want to lead such a dysfunctional organization? Well, sure the NPR CEO money is sweeeeet, but you’re setup to fail from the start.

  • Brian O’Connell

    Stern on NPR: 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.

    Homer on PBS: “Um, it’s an honor to give $10,000. Especially now, when the rich mosaic of cable programming has made public television so very, very unnecessary.”

    Huh! Works for public radio too.

  • Maybe not today or this year, but really soon now people in the economic bracket that traditionally has supported local public radio will all have the ability to get exactly the programming they want, when they want it, where they want it. And it will be integrated into our cars along with the traffic that is already there on the GPS. As John wrote above, these systems are already up and running and you can already get local content

    Sure, it will actually probably take 5 years until the “tipping point” — but why should any of us be supporting radio tower infrastructure? I want to directly support the programming, not the distribution mechanism. To Steve’s point about supporting serious journalism — YES! That is what I want to support. And think how much more money ther will be for serious journalism when we stop paying for local distribution infrastructure!

    NPR must wake up or it will just be replaced by the creative destruction of the Internet. Because this kind of fan supported serious journalism will get done — with or without NPR.

  • 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 Regards, Dennis Haarsager

  • Pingback: Law school week | Susan Crawford blog()

  • As an avid listener of NPR, I was deeply disappointed when I heard this news. Their media strategy has been spot on. The NPR affiliates need to bring some value of their own to the table if they deserve to survive – that means local news, politics, music, etc.

    What a shame…

  • Dennis: I’m looking forward to your version of the events. But it wasn’t just the Washington Post that pointed to the digital media angle of the story — NPR itself reported on it this morning. I have to assume that NPR reporters would have some sort of access to insider knowledge at some level. But maybe not. I’m perfectly willing to be convinced otherwise.

    For those that don’t know Dennis Haarsager, I can assure you as well that if NPR (or its stations) wanted to kill new media efforts, selecting Dennis to be the interim CEO was a big mistake. Haarsager has promoted development of new media technologies and business models for years from inside the public media system, both for public radio and TV, and at national and local levels. So he’s no Media 1.0 traditionalist. More importantly, he’s the ultimate gentleman, a true friend to the system and its audiences, and is worthy of the deepest levels of trust.

    Meanwhile, out here on the frontier, we’re definitely wanting some kind of satisfactory explanation for how and why this turn of events came about. We know you can’t release confidential information, but this kind of abrupt change — mutual termination, no transition to a new CEO as part of a search, a shock to insiders at NPR — looks bad. Large, successful corporations usually make CEO changes with lots of advance notice and even a bit of pomp and circumstance. From out here on the rim of the NPR galaxy, this looks like the equivalent of an executive drive-by shooting.

    Of course, the “shooting” could have been entirely self-inflicted by Stern. He wouldn’t be the first executive to write his own termination letter.

    For me, I’m with Jarvis insofar as I’m concerned and I hope the NPR / Stern story is either overblown or has nothing to do with new media efforts at the national level.

  • Dennis,
    Thank you. I was going of the NPR story. Eager to hear more.

  • I had been a long-time listener and supporter of WDET in Detroit, but no longer. DET had built a great station around locally-produced shows that broadcast music and live performances you could hear nowhere else. It had a large listener base that supported it well. But it inexplicably junked that format and turned itself into a clone of most other public radio stations, broadcasting the same NPR new/talk shows you can hear on other NPR stations in the same area (like WUOM). I lost interest at that point, and so did a large portion of its audience. As far as I know, DET has not financially recovered yet. More here.

  • Jeff Jarvis is the biggest fan of hyperlocal, but judging from the hyperlocal 10 PM news more of the same is nothing to look forward to.

    If I were to spend more time listening to “quality” locally produced material it would have to be at the expense of time spent on globally produced content. Personally I’m not willing to make the trade off, but then I’m probably not typical. Even here in the NY metro area, there just isn’t that much of interest happening every day which is why we get auto accidents, crime reports and (in the NY Times) some cultural reporting. After the one hour that covers all this then what?

    Even in my car I now listen to satellite radio and get a choice of over 100 stations. There may be a role for local radio, but I’m not sure anyone has discovered the winning formula yet.

  • I don’t know Ken Stern from Adam and have no idea if his internet strategy had anything to do with his termination. However, I do know that many in radio believe online is the enemy.

    It is clear that NPR, at least under Mr. Stern, is aware of the need to embrace new media and is trying to change the paradigm. The affiliates may or may not have the same vision, but they most certainly don’t have the same money to dedicate to exclusive content. more here…

  • Pingback: Did new media success cost NPR boss his job? | New Tech Heroes()

  • the comments here at buzzmachine are so great. forget techmeme, technorati, techthis or techthat, my measure of a top blog is the quality of the comments and community and on that score, this blog is top 10.

    as for the question of public radio, or any radio, it all comes down to content and community. forget distribution, it’s irrelevant. get your content out there and engage your community via any and every technology that’s available or die


  • steve albert

    A thought about local content. I just got up and La Presse,Montreal’s local paper wasn’t at the door. Its going to be delivered late.

    Why do I care? The paper’s internet edition does not even contain all the stories that are in the print edition.

    We had a huge snowstorm yesterday.La Presse is printed on glossy paper. The graphics are great. I took some pictures of the storm myself,but I’d like to see their’s .Their photography is great.It just doesn’t look the same online.

    That’s local content. As is a story I heard on Vermont NPR the other day about trade between Vermont and Quebec. Even thought NAFTA was never mentioned,that,s an angle of the NAFTA story you hear little about. If they explored issues like this more,they surely would keep their local audience.

    There are some many niches that local media can fill. La Presse has increased its weekday circulation (by a mere 700 paper in 5 years)) and its Saturday edition is a growing quickly. Their innovative approach to print content has paid off,even if it is counter-intuitive as we move towards paperless media. Any approach that is based on thinking about what the future may bring has an equal chance of success.

  • Perhaps we’re seeing the end of the network-affiliate model, whether it’s NBC, NPR or AP. The model was created to overcome the geographical limitations of getting content from a locality to a national center, mix it with nationally produced content, and send it out to all affiliates. Now, you can send it out once from wherever you are, and it’s everywhere at once. Networks don’t need affiliates to get their content to homes. The affiliates will have to become their own content producers. The old model is going to work only for the legacy audience, the large but shrinking group of viewers and readers who are mostly offline and are satisfied to get their content that way.

  • For the record, Dennis Haarsager did post about the NPR changes, as suggested earlier. No smoking gun is cited, but it’s a thoughtful post.

  • Pingback: Public Radio Fails Me | Evil Genius Chronicles()

  • guest

    I suspect that NPR will never be the fully competitive, successful organization it could be given its governance structure. There are great people on the board but the conflicts inherent in a station controlled board are immense. It is why it takes so much time and handwringing to make any significant decisions — an incredible competitive liability in today’s media landscape.

  • Stern’s ouster has been characterized in a variety of ways, but at its roots, it was about ownership. NPR forgot that it was created by the public radio stations. The power and the money comes either from or because of the stations that carry NPR product. As NPR grew in significance, it is natural that those who staff “the network” began to think THEY are the real NPR. And, as technology made it possible to escape the bonds of terrestrial broadcast, it is understandable that NPR might want its own freestanding existence. But, THAT WASN’T AND ISN’T THE DEAL, and if those who feel it should be the deal want it so badly, they need to start their own organization.

    In the present organization of NPR and the public radio system, there’s lots of room for and need for changes in the sloppy and disorganized way that the system deals with its network … and the way the network deals with its owners. And the point is well taken that NPR can’t compete in a fast-moving competitive marketplace if its governance is slow-moving, lethargic and change-resistant. But revolution is hardly ever the way to accomplish change unless you have the potential to win. Ken Stern seems to have bet the ranch — at least his personal ranch — on that prospect. It and therefore he failed. Now the question is how will the evolution of the system and its relationship with NPR continue and produce real lasting results?

  • Public Radio was early to the party for podcasting, but reluctant to look at it as a new medium for new content, new voices, new producers. With few exceptions, NPR and members stations have been content to use the web as a means of distribution for previously broadcast programs. There’s little or no room in a policy like that for imagination or initiative — to open up new and possibly profitable approaches to what is, really, a two-way medium as different from radio as the telephone was from the telegraph.

    Among the exceptions is Morning Stories, the weekly podcast I produce from WGBH in Boston. We’ve been at it for four years, since October 2004, with over four million downloads, regular listeners in 200 countries, an active flickr site (, around 80,000 downloads a month from our website (not including a equal number from iTunes and our RSS feed). By any account, these are numbers that should inspire programmers at NPR to think far more seriously about producing original content for the web and attracting the kind of highly motivated and supportive (and interactive!) listeners the web provides.

    The costs, by the way, are also far lower.

    Why they don’t see it mystifies me.

  • Jeff,

    Trouble for NPR? While I agree with you the group formerly known as the audience should have been better informed (e.g., the headline news coverage by NPR as well as ATC’s was lacking) let’s give Dennis and his board a chance.

    Being an NPR affiliate may not be what it once was nor perhaps as it should be but Dennis seems to more than get that.

    My sense is the best solution for NPR going forward will not be found by bringing in someone from the public station community to lead the charge. That may serve to temporarily sate the station folk however it may prove to be exactly the wrong strategic move. What NPR needs is nothing less than an intellectually honest visionary. In this interim they are blessed to have Dennis taking charge.

  • Stephen Griffith

    As the music industry, video stores, bookstores, and others have found out, the digitization of media has caused a dramatic shift in channel power away from distributors and toward content producers. The multitude of local stations add more cost than they do value in the value stream given the relatively small proportion of local content that they carry. They would be better served thinking about how to add content in value with their own streaming and podcasts rather than trying to remain a superfluous conduit for NPR content. The same amount of money that is now collected by the twice a year whine fests, aka pledge drives, could do great things if it wasn’t spent on the maintenance of a radio station. The same amount could be sent to NPR and the remainder would pay for a lot of content generation by a staff of people in a small office with a few macs creating streaming content and podcasts. Of course, I could always send the money directly to NPR without paying the local affiliate tax, which is what this is all about anyway.

  • The biggest problem in public radio is the business model, not just pledge drives, but the entire business model. Make one change, let NPR raise money directly from listeners in exchange for discounted NPR fees, and stations could save tens of millions of dollars annualy. That’s money that can be put in local programming, R&D, and less on-air fundraising. Read more here:

  • Pingback: » Are local NPR stations in trouble?()

  • Click here to download a FREE trial version of Registry Cleaner. The Windows registry is a database repository for information about a computer’s configuration. …