The Upside-Down World of Public Radio Funding

Once upon a time “NPR” stood for “National Public Radio,” and the “radio” in NPR was the exclusive means of distributing the network’s content.

This was an era when stations would solicit funds from listeners to support this and other programming and send a big chunk of those funds back to the network.

That was then, this is now.

Today, radio is not the distribution channel for NPR content, it is simply another distribution channel for that content (albeit the most important one).  Yet the funding equation works precisely the same way, and that’s confounding.

Because when radio becomes not just the distribution channel for content but also the means of discovering content you can hear on demand and directly through other means, that represents a change in role of the local station from distribution partner to advertising vehicle.  And if NPR is using radio to advertise its content elsewhere, then shouldn’t NPR be paying the stations rather than vice versa?

This is an oversimplification, of course.  NPR affiliates benefit hugely from that content and certainly should be paying fees to use it.  But as that content spreads across the spectrum of distribution channels in a digital age, shouldn’t the revenue derived from those channels benefit the “advertiser” affiliates in the form of discounted fees?

Well, you might say, everywhere these programs occur you will hear pitches to support this or that public radio station within the program itself. But this is ludicrous.  If I am a fan of This American Life and I can and do download it on demand, why should I support my local public radio station because of it?  Why should I even support the station that produces it? It’s the program I love, not the station which gave birth to it. Why should I make Chicago’s public radio station richer when I live in San Diego?

If, however, This American Life asks me to support This American Life directly – no middle-man, then I get what I’m paying for and I’m paying for what I get (no matter where the money actually goes).  And if more public radio programs solicited this way, some fraction of those dollars should go to discount the fees of the stations licensing those shows, since they are active “distribution partners” in their success.

But if shows solicit for themselves instead of the stations that run them, how are local stations supposed to drum up sufficient support?

The answer is not only the local programming that makes each station unique. The answer is also that there is value in aggregating these shows into a tapestry of content and filling in the blanks with locally-produced content.  That is worth something.  It’s worth quite a lot.  The pie is tastier than any of its ingredients alone.

But there’s also something else:  I believe it’s important for all local public radio stations to extend the experience beyond the content and into the local community, to enrich the lives of local consumers and local members with direct experiences, not only radio content.

In every market NPR can be heard but a local public radio station can be experienced.  And that’s something special. “Public service” should not mean only over the air.

This would be a model that gives consumers and fans what they want the way they want it.  A model that recognizes that shows are supported for one reason and stations for another.  A model the acknowledges that technological innovation means local stations are less a distribution channel for NPR and more an advertising partner, a megaphone to current and potential audiences.

A model that refocuses local public radio stations away from content for its own sake and towards improving the lives of its consumers in its local communities.

* = required field
  • James

    I think there’s a lot going on here in your post, and the idea that shows should solicit.  Maybe more than the scope of this comment.

    Part of the public radio mandate is giving the public more than what it wants, but also what it needs.  The soliciting by shows would turn stations into a popularity contest, with the effect of slimming down playlists much like rock radio has done.  More repeats of the shows that bring in the donations, because that drives the money to the stations.  For those of us who like public radio but don’t care for Prairie Home Companion or Car Talk, it would help to push us further away from the stations, not closer.

    You mention This American Life, but they aren’t an NPR program (You probably know this).  So you then have content networks competing with each other to buy airtime on the radio stations.  That doesn’t sound appealing.

    Stations have been concerned with NPR (and the others) pulling listeners away from their radios for years, but in today’s media landscape, without the online presence NPR has, they would get buried alive.  And not enough stations have quality local programming these days. 

  • If public service is about giving an audience what it wants but also what it needs we should not penalize the shows people want because we’re afraid they won’t support the shows they “need.” To do so limits the potential of public service just as limiting the sale of music to albums instead of mp3’s limits the sale of music. And it defines public service as something it should not be = shouldn’t the public decide what it deems “service”?

    I mentioned TAL as an example, but yes, I know it’s not NPR. By the way, content networks compete right now for airtime on public radio stations. Wouldn’t it be nice to know that some of the gatekeeping is based on audience demand?

    Stations can’t be concerned with NPR pulling away listeners – NPR is doing what it’s built to do. But stations are important marketing partners and their role in the equation should be recognized as more than a funding source. NPR’s digital success should halo over all the partners who make it possible, including local stations.

    By the way, thanks for your great comments!

  • James

    The difference with the public wants and the public needs is that the public rarely knows what else there is out there.  Hard core people like you and I know of more shows out there like 99% Invisible and Bullseye (formerly The Sound of Young Amreica), but unless people are into podcasting, they haven’t heard of these public radio shows.  Heck, there are many markets where people haven’t heard if Radiolab or Studio 360, both very good shows.  You know, of course, how radio stations work.  They are not prone to taking risks.  Even the NPR station in Denver doesn’t play much beyond the usual fare, and kick over to BBC fairly early (7:00 PM on sundays, ripe for experimentation).

    I figured you knew about TAL and all that.  It was just for the benefit of clarity and other people who might read these comments.  I got where you were coming from.

    While stations shouldn’t be as concerned with NPR pulling away listeners, they are going to as NPR puts out more programming not made for the stations to air, things like the Planet Money podcast.  And considering the stations are the ones who are on the board of NPR, they still rule the roost.  All the history behind NPR still dictates how the money works in it.  There are so many twists and turns in the story is a book unto itself.

    The conversation is great.  You have an interesting idea here.  Would it work?  Hard to tell, but you know a lot more about the money in radio than I do. 🙂

  • Laurence Glavin

    “This American Life” may not be sourced by NPR, but during fundraisers by WBUR in Boston, Ira Glass is a constant (prerecorded) presence often doing “TAL”-style pieces about listeners’ relationships with their public RADIO stations.  I suspect these vignettes run on other public RADIO stations.  (I haven’t noticed them during fundraisers on WGBH-FM, Boston, but that may be because I listen to WBUR more often).

  • Anonymous
  • Mark:

    You should be ashamed of yourself, its hasn’t been public radio in decades..its government approved cheese radio…only government approved shows get on the air the public be damned.

    The public is never allowed to provide any local programming, so I wish PBS would die and the licenses be given to real public radio,  community groups  colleges that have broadcasting or journalism schools

    The government radio stations have hogged up all the frequencies so nothing is available anywhere near a big city.

    It is embarrassing with all the people that want to produce good local radio that the BBC is on a  lot of their stations some places for 1/2 the day….stupid and clueless but then that’s the new America  and it disgusting.

  • uunlisted

    The problem is that NPR is not about CAPITALISM, i.e. the product that is in demand receives the capital, it’s about SOCIALISM.  And all of the content has a left-wing political bias.  The pledge drives are pathetic radio, and the underwriting is no more than commercials called something else.

Dive Into The Blog