• Martin Higgins

    Public radio is dogshit…

  • Anthony Hunt

    I’ve said for years that public radio in particular needs to think of itself as a the preview service channel like the movie options channel in hotels…lots of additional content available over there that you will learn about watching here…

    The challenge is building the funding model to match the burgeoning growth into this field that still keeps the system solvent.

  • Well, I couldn’t possibly disagree more with that!

    But also, it’s not the point of the piece.

  • The challenge is always keeping the business model ahead of the trends and the audience. Thanks Anthony.

  • Adam Ragusea

    Great analysis.

  • Thanks Adam!

  • Aaron Read

    Lest we forget, there’s a reason public radio stations pay content makers for content: the FCC requires it. In the commercial world, in general, content creators pay to get on the air. Payola makes it more complicated than that, but broadly speaking that’s how it works…for example, no station “pays” to buy Rush Limbaugh’s show, but they “pay” because they have to carry his advertising within the show, and that’s a pretty damn valuable thing for Rush to then turn around and sell to sponsors. (well, it WAS pretty powerful…rather less so in the past few years)

    But that’s illegal on non-commercial/educational (NCE) radio that all NPR affiliates are required to be. (they may broadcast on commercial frequencies, but they’re required to re-license the freqs as NCE…a free and simple paperwork exercise with the FCC) You cannot sell airtime in any form beyond underwriting, and that’s explicitly limited to 60 seconds per spot (and that’s pushing it; the FCC frowns on anything over 30 seconds)…in addition to several explicit content restrictions which include “no ‘Calls to Action'” which would preclude anyone within a show making a request for donations if that show paid, in any manner, to be on that station’s airwaves.

    Yes, it’s incredibly goofy, but it’s also more than a little offensive how all these shows…especially non-NPR programs like Serial & This American Life…are constantly flogging people to go listen to their shows via means other than the affiliate radio broadcasters that cough up a pretty serious wad of cash every year to buy that content.

  • didn’t last five minutes with it

  • MWnyc

    Why is it worse for non-NPR shows to do it than NPR shows?

    The affiliate stations don’t belong to NPR any more than they do to any of the other content sources, and the stations have to cough up money for NPR just like they do to WBEZ and PRX (for This American Life) and American Public Media (for A Prairie Home Companion, Marketplace, etc.) and PRI (for Science Friday, The Takeaway, Studio 360, etc.) and so on.

  • Your Reward

    Real mature.

  • I didn’t say it was worse for non-NPR shows than for NPR shows. I said it was worse for one show to hijack the attention of another show in that other shows timeslot.
    And “worse” should be in quotes.

    Mark Ramsey

  • MWnyc

    Not to worry, Mark: I know you didn’t say that.

    My reply/question was addressed to Aaron Read, who wrote (emphasis added by me):

    “it’s also more than a little offensive how all these shows…especially non-NPR programs like Serial & This American Life…are constantly flogging people to go listen to their shows via means other than the affiliate radio broadcasters that cough up a pretty serious wad of cash every year to buy that content.”

    Why especially non-NPR programs?

  • Fair question

    Mark Ramsey

  • Adam Ragusea

    Forgive me if I’m wrong Aaron, but I suspect what he meant by that is that certain non-NPR programs have a particular habit of using stations to pimp competing media. NPR tends to be more conscientious about the sensitivities of stations, because station heads form a voting majority on NPR’s board.

  • MWnyc

    Hm …

    Do NPR shows such as Radiolab and On the Media promote their websites and podcasts over the air less than, say, This American Life, A Prairie Home Companion, Marketplace, or The Takeaway?

    I haven’t noticed a difference myself, but I confess I haven’t paid close attention to that question.

    Certainly, flagship NPR programs All Things Considered and Morning Edition regularly (at least once in every half-hour segment) direct listeners to NPR.org, and I’ve heard frequent mentions of the shows’ podcasts as well. Same for Fresh Air, Ask Me Another, and Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.

  • MWnyc

    “I said it was worse for one show to hijack the attention of another show in that other shows timeslot.”

    That’s certainly reasonable when the shows are entirely separate.

    But Serial is produced by the very same people who produce This American Life, and they made the decision to air one single episode of Serial on TAL for one single week. Hijacking their own audience, if anything.

    Thing is, having hijacked their own audience for the Serial podcast, TAL didn’t disappear; it came right back the following week, still there for the audience (and the stations).

    Did the audience for TAL – either over the air or for podcast/streaming – actually shrink at all following that one episode in which they aired Serial? Did TAL‘s listenership decrease over the weeks that Serial became more and more popular?

    I don’t know; I haven’t seen the numbers. But I would imagine that Ira Glass, Julie Snyder, and the management of WBEZ have looked at them carefully.

  • No they did not hijack their own audience. They hijacked the audience of hundreds of radio stations and then detoured them off the public radio platform. That is not what member stations are paying for.
    Mark Ramsey

  • Adam Ragusea

    Well, first of all, I’m not necessarily endorsing that argument, I was just explaining how I read Aaron’s sentence. To the substance of your comment, you may be right. I will point out, however, that OTM and Radiolab aren’t really NPR programs, WNYC makes them, and they slap on NPR’s brand. So-called acquired programs often do things that are not aligned with NPR’s standards or strategy (see the recent flap with Diane Rehm over her right-to-die advocacy). Having seen the production of NPR-acquired programs close up at WBUR, I can tell you they function really independently. The On Point office in no way feels like an outpost of NPR. Regarding NPR’s direction of listeners to NPR.org during ATC and ME, that has indeed been a point of anger/anxiety in the station community for many years, which is why NPR has tried to address it by building things into NPR.org that are designed to direct users to station websites and donation pages, but there are plenty of station people who still grumble about it. I’ve even heard local ATC/ME hosts dump out of the network before the website promo and instead direct listeners to the station site, where the same story lives, thanks to NPR’s API.

  • MWnyc

    Did any listeners actually leave the public radio platform during This American Life‘s time slot because of Serial? Did This American Life and the stations that broadcast it actually lose listeners?

    I don’t know. (If you do, please tell us the numbers.) But I’m pretty sure that if Serial actually did take listeners away from TAL, they’d let WBEZ and TAL hear about it.

  • Aaron Read

    Yes, that’s basically it.

  • Aaron Read

    Yes they do, and I have major issues with that as well. Not the least of which that NPR has its own web architecture that is top notch and custom designed just for their needs, while all NPR member stations must pay for the inferior product produced by NPR Digital Services whether they use it or not, and there’s some critical functionality lost if you don’t use it, too.

    But at least in theory NPR is accountable to its member stations due to its governance board. Non-NPR shows don’t even pretend…they frequently act as if member stations’ needs are the absolute lowest priority; and This American Life is a prime offender in this category. Always has been.

  • Your question is framed too narrowly.

    So I’ll answer it with another question:

    Why did TAL’s producers use an hour of TAL to launch Serial when they could have done what everyone else does: Simply drop it onto iTunes and promote it as they see fit? Why did they deliberately decide to do something unprecedented for them: To use one show – the one stations are paying for and receiving support for – to launch another show – the one stations are neither paying for nor receiving support for? And why did they deliberately decide to air one chapter of a saga that clearly wouldn’t satisfy listeners unless those listeners followed that saga off the public radio platform?

    My point: Their intention from the beginning was to hijack attention, consumption, and support. Not from TAL, but from the larger public radio ecosystem.

    Again, I’m not saying this is wrong and I would certainly have advised them to do it, but this is exactly what they did and we should see it with open eyes.

  • JasonL

    Mark, I like the idea in your piece but I think there’s a bit of rationalizing about what a disruption is, which, from a VC point of view, is a change so profound the existing players are helpless to adequately shut it down or respond. If this becomes a practice it seems to me that public radio folks are smart enough to address it.

  • Jason, I use the term to represent an attack on an existing audience base and business model, no matter the intent.
    I’m not debating that public radio folks can’t or won’t address this. I’m not even suggesting there’s anything here they SHOULD address other than the obvious point: Distribution platforms should benefit from the content being distributed in whole (or in chapter) on those platforms.
    The real point of this piece was to reveal what’s really going on here.

  • JasonL

    Gotcha. That word, disruption, is an unfortunate buzzword that connotes the good-riddance of “old” technologies and those associated with it.

  • Richard Berry

    Of course, Serial is a product of the distribution system it bypasses. If the system wasn’t locked down in a routine where you could run a show for 12 weeks then would WBEZ have gone down this route? Possibly not. This wasn’t an isolated case. The guys at Start-up got a boost off the back of public radio, as did Invisibilia It’s a common sense move and if you’re rethinking where you take revenue it makes total sense. For brands like Mailchimp that operate outside the US they can build their customer base beyond the US, which they might struggle to do on domestic radio.
    I’m not sure I agree that it will eat into public radio hours, if the Edison data from last year proves anything it’s that podcast listeners listen to more content, rather than less. It might change which platform they listen on, but I don’t think podcasting is the rabbit hole people think it is

  • Richard, I acknowledged in the post that this was not new, just perfectly executed. Nor did I question whether this made sense for Serial – quite the contrary. Your Mailchimp point assumes that Mailchimp was using domestic radio as an ad medium, which they were not. Finally, the note about eating into public radio hours – I didn’t say that in so many words. What I said was that this move disrupted public radio by hijacking attention, usage, and most of all – financial support. All while using the very platform of radio as a springboard. The fact is, however, is that listening hours are finite. They have to come from somewhere and at least some will come from the place one does most of their listening today: Radio. Further, as you probably know, public radio cumes are definitely down. This type of development – for better or worse – will accelerate that trend.

  • This has long been a bone of contention with me. I often complain that national shows are hijacking the audience that hundreds of local station folks have painstakingly built using a mix of national and local programs — using the dollars we sent them in the form of program fees. American Public Media is yet another, with “Donate Now” links on the pages of programs like Marketplace, Performance Today and others. As a station manager, this seals it for me — we’ll never pick up TAL. I understand that the model is changing, but it’s cutthroat for the national program systems that individual stations (and donors) built with program fees to hijack those dollars. As a local station, we’re now diverting dollars to local programs that once went to national distributors. We have no choice but to build our own content, either in partnership with a national distributor (as with NPR) or instead of one.

  • Jay, I want to make sure you’re clear on my argument, because what you’re reacting to goes well beyond it.
    I am specifically talking about a show that doesn’t live on the public radio platform using that platform to hijack attention and financial support. As I said, if I were advising Serial (not that they need my advice) I would tell them to do EXACTLY this.
    At the same time, I think the stations that provide that huge kick-start should benefit from what they kick-start, even if (maybe especially if) the content they help breathe life into takes its act on the road and goes off the public radio grid.
    You are RIGHT to divert resources to local programs, as long as those local programs don’t invite your listeners to scurry away to NPR-type platforms for the shows they want to hear that are not local. Otherwise you still lose and lose faster.
    Local stations are, of course, not only content-makers in their markets but important distribution channels for national level shows. There should be some mechanism for listeners who want to support shows to do so directly. But likewise, there should be some mechanism for those shows to support the stations which helped make them famous.

  • Aaron Read

    Mark: there should NOT be a mechanism for listeners to support shows directly UNLESS there is also a mechanism for one of two things:

    1: Revenue sharing of that direct support back to member stations. Preferably geo-specific to the listener’s LOCAL member stations. I know getting into geo-specificity is a tricky business but right now there’s nothing at all here in terms of actual revenue-sharing and that’s unacceptable.

    2: Overall program fee reductions commensurate with revenue raised by the direct funding mechanism.

    Right now NPR and other national shows are, in effect, committing THEFT from member stations. They’re charging us full price while making it progressively harder for us to afford to pay that full price. It’s manifestly unfair, and it’s disappointing that you would so cavalierly support that.

  • Aaron, I completely agree and have argued this myself in the past.

    Distribution has TREMENDOUS value. That’s why we still have cable TV.

    For now, at least.

Dive Into The Blog