01/27

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.

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