Is NPR Crazy? Yes, Like a Fox


So NPR has decided it won’t promote its podcasts or NPR One on air, and many critics are calling them out for what they describe as stupidity.

I think these critics are missing the larger point.

Sure, NPR derives a huge portion of its revenue from local stations, and local stations have long been uncomfortable (to say the least) with NPR’s practice of routing around them to deliver their content – in many cases, content popularized by these very local stations – directly to consumers on-demand.

So on the surface, NPR’s decision to avoid podcast/NPR One promotion on-air looks like the network is making nice-nice with its hundreds of paying customers, er, affiliates, and in so doing being foolish when it comes to their own digital prospects.

Critics argue this is the same error the newspapers made when they debated whether to point people to their content online rather than “force” them (as if you can “force” anyone to do anything) to buy the paper.

Writes Niemen Lab: “This seems dumb to a lot of people, both inside and outside public media,” and they supported that point with a series of embedded Tweets proving that if you compile enough anecdotal evidence it evidently adds up to real evidence.

But then, referring again to the newspaper analogy, Niemen Lab continues: “…as it turns out, people found out about the web even without newspapers printing URLs in 2002!”

And that’s the larger point.

The premise here is that pushing, promoting, marketing NPR’s on-demand assets is in some way critical to their success, as long as that pushing, promoting, and marketing happens in the presence of the same content on your local air.

But this puts the content before the audience, and that’s a mistake.

In fact, I could argue the very last people who need to know about the digital availability of NPR content are those folks enjoying it on the radio, if only because those folks are already enjoying it on the radio. We assume that the audience for this content is one fixed group, and it isn’t. Indeed, newspapers proved that by vastly expanding their audience through digital well beyond any portion they may have cannibalized. In other words, there are MORE audiences for this content out there than the ONE listening on the radio.

Would you believe that there are listeners to NPR content who consume exactly ZERO percent of that content on the radio? Believe it. There are many.

In fact, I’m one.

Likewise, do you think there are listeners to NPR content who tune in the radio every day or week for their favorite programs on their local stations and are perfectly happy to do so? You bet there are. A lot. And they’re getting what they want the way they want it. For them, digital alternatives are a solution to a problem they don’t have. So why pester them with irritating promotion?

Are there folks who do both? Sure. But do a survey (I’m available for this, NPR :-)) and measure these three groups (radio-only, digital-only, both) and I think you’ll be surprised at how big each is, and how much larger they are in combination compared to what was once radio-only.

And while we’re talking about promotion, why should it be so one-sided? Why doesn’t every NPR podcast include a dynamically inserted promo for your local NPR station? It could, but the truth is, that’s not what those listeners want. Everyone knows they have a local public radio station, and they choose when and how (or if) they will listen to it.

So I could argue that NPR is not just being sensitive to the wishes of their affiliates, but they are also being smart marketers, promoting their digital content to growing audiences for that digital content, rather than shrinking audiences to that same content on much larger and more established platforms which they’re already monetizing quite nicely, thank you very much.

Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if NPR is quietly saying to themselves, “Let’s give the stations what they want because it will be a ‘win’ for them and not a ‘lose’ for us.” So is NPR crazy? Yes, like a fox.So is @NPR crazy? Yes, like a fox. Click To Tweet

The future of NPR, it seems to me, is creating more content for more current and future fans and distributing that content in every conceivable channel. The future of local public radio stations is a different matter and a topic for a different post. But as long as local stations bring in most of the money it’s reasonable for their desires to be respected, especially when those desires do not impinge in any meaningful way on the eventual success of NPR’s digital strategy.

Whether stations realize it or not.

So get off NPR’s back, critics. Start pushing for a smarter, more inclusive, public radio business model where interests are aligned rather than at odds.

In the meantime, sit back while NPR’s aggregated audiences across all channels continue to grow.


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  • Steve Stockman

    Maybe, Mark. But I think the ideal radio/online relationship is more nuanced than you’re suggesting.

    Good point about Newspapers, but here’s my story: I subscribed to the NY Times Sunday paper because it was a cheap way to get NYTimes.com digital services. I found I like reading it. Both paper and online have led me to dig deeper into NYTimes VR content, doc content and more. I get sent back and forth between web newspaper, deep content, and physical newspaper, and I don’t mind at all because I’m following my own interests, in my own time.

    This multi-modal approach to my newspaper has deepened my brand relationship with the New York Times. Can it work for radio? Am I asking a rhetorical question so I can answer it?

    Inside your “radio only” and “podcast only” groups at NPR exist many other subgroups. For example, some of them might be the “Knows about This American Life but not Morning Edition” group, or the “I’d be interested in knowing more about this topic” group or the “Like it on the radio and didn’t know it’s a podcast” group or (unbelievably to us, but I bet they’re out there) the “I didn’t know you could get this on the radio” group.

    Rather than take online promotion off of NPR completely, it seems to me the real mission is to find out which groups want what, and then send them to where they can get it the way they want it, thus creating an upward spiral of expanding usage of both online and radio content. In other words, targeted, well-executed cross promotion.

    I listen to This American Life as a podcast, but Morning Edition live. I might go from Morning Edition to the NPR website to hear extra, in-depth analysis about Donald Trump’s campaign strategy. Or I might not know how easy it is to listen to Morning Edition later in the day, shifted to my 10am email time in the office.

    Clever cross promotion between web and radio, designed to meet and expand the needs of the target, would not be seen as annoying any more than a “Watch Jimmy Kimmel Tonight on ABC” tag is at the end of a Youtube clip. Unique additional content on web or radio to feed my interests? That’s not an annoyance either.

    The tough part for radio is that managing this multi-modal relationship requires great research, great podcast and video content development, plus the skill, dedication, customer-awareness and pure nerdiness of the all-time best Program Directors. Oh wait– that isn’t the tough part. Radio has a lot of those talents in-house already. I guess the tough part is spending the time and money to make it happen.

  • Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Steve!

  • Nathan, first I recommend against using Serial as proof of anything since it’s the podcast every other podcast wishes it could be. But beyond that, you’re leaving out something important: Serial appeared first on radio and then DISAPPEARED on radio. That’s not a cross-platform distribution strategy, it’s a tease.
    In no way am I saying that “an audience that isn’t as big as it could be” shouldn’t be catered to. I’m only saying it’s PRESUMED that pushing podcasts and NPR One at them is the way to cater to them. Says who? If I don’t have a problem then you’re not offering me a solution.
    Why is a system-wide policy problematic? NPR is a bureaucracy. Is there any policy there that is NOT system-wide? And the system-wide nature of the policy is not why critics are jumping all over NPR – it’s the NATURE of the policy that’s driving the stern reaction.

  • Dave Newton

    Well said, Mark. Let’s give NPR credit for growing past two-dimensional thinking — we’re well beyond the early, clueless days of the digital-social media revolution, and the momentum of change is hard to see only for the willfully blind. As in the past, when television was supposed to end radio, digital domination doesn’t mean broadcast radio will disappear. Unless, corporate American radio continues to shoot itself in the mike switch.

  • Your post prompts me to ask the question, do audio entertainment consumers choose/use on-demand audio in the same circumstances as they choose live in-the-moment audio on AM/FM radio?

  • Hi Bill,

    I understand why you’re posing this question. So here’s my answer: No, they do not. But who is this “they” I’m talking about? If we’re referring to consumers who don’t have an on-demand problem (i.e., they like to listen to their content live, thank you), then your question is not relevant. Ditto if we’re talking about people who choose podcasting over radio. That leaves us with those who choose both. Even for them it’s very likely that certain types of audio content are “not worth” seeking out on demand. Why? Because when a show airs every day for three hours and you only listen to 20 minutes of it anyway, you just tune in tomorrow for another dose of 20 minutes. When a show is always on during my drive-time, that is behaviorally equivalent to “on demand” without any of the extra work. The average commercial radio show is NOT like the typical episode of This American Life. There’s no hour-long story. It’s just 3 hours of “now.” Besides, why do we believe that radio listeners need to be “reminded” that any show exists in on-demand form? Increasingly, they ASSUME that, as well they should. Just as the newspaper doesn’t need to print over the masthead “don’t forget to check out our website!” It’s easier and more desirable to search Google than to wade through a boring and unnecessary promo.

  • The more I think about your argument, Steve, the more I wonder about it. Take the newspaper example. Would a newspaper really shout over their paper masthead “don’t forget you can find us online”? No, because we all assume EVERY bit of entertainment and information (and all other) content is online. And it’s easier to use Google than it is to wade through your platform or through endless infomercials for our own content on other platforms. Transmedia is a GIVEN today, not something to be discovered. And for anyone who never would have thought to go looking for This American Life in the iTunes store, I strongly believe they don’t have a strong enough “why” to begin their search in the first place. Note, too, the response I gave to Bill’s question relative to the ephemeral nature of much audio content (especially commercial radio content) or the fact that commercial radio shows go on so long relative to one’s drive time that they are essentially ALWAYS ON during that drivetime and, therefore, essentially on-demand at that time.

  • I took a course on broadcasting history last fall (I’m a senior studying journalism, among many other things, since I’m at a liberal arts college). At the time I took the course, I realized throughout the readings (well, the readings that I actually read, hehe) and the class discussions that the American broadcasting system is singularly unique (“singularly unique”? I s’pose that’s redundant…whatevs). Singularly unique in that it’s not nationalized…that policies that took root in the ’20s and ’30s still live with us today, and shape the public broadcasting landscape (for the better, I say): rather than having one uniform broadcaster (which would really be next to impossible to do with any justice, since our nation is soooo diverse), we have (and have had, since the ’20s) a web of local stations…sometimes working with other local stations, but always working to serve the local community at hand. At least this is the impression I got from that broadcasting history course. I’m by no means an expert on broadcasting history. But the reason I bring this up is because, yeah, I agree with you that it’s the local stations that are the dominant force (even if they’re not well organized as a cohesive whole). So NPR is, as you wrote, doing a service for the American people by respecting the desires of the people’s local stations, and in so doing recognizing that the American public media system is layered/decentralized. The interplay between local stations (and consolidated regional networks, such as Iowa Public Radio and Minnesota Public Radio) and NPR HQ is a really fascinating interplay, and one that I’m paying more attention to as I near graduation. Thanks for the post! And please: correct any incorrect assumptions I may have made in this comment of mine. I’m just nerding out over here with what limited knowledge I have. Cheers!

  • Steve Stockman

    I’m positing the existence of a virtuous spiral– a situation in which content is created for radio and web that complement each other and enhance the consumer participation for both in a way that works the way consumers do.

    The NY Times example, where they’ve created unique web content that they promote on their site and, where appropriate in the paper, that allows readers to have different and complementary experiences to the print version is one example. The Daily Show’s extended interviews that can be seen in full on-line is another. A radio station website that promoted blogs from talent, or video series they’ve developed is another.

    And I totally agree with you that the “why” for a consumer is the first most important part of developing this concept.

    But to reject the idea of cross-promoting this content (in a manner that works for consumers, not, as you’ve suggested, by screaming a message above the masthead) is to reject the idea of the value of advertising on either radio or a podcast or a web video. And that, I think, is a mistake for NPR or any other radio property.

    It’s difficult, it’s an art, it requires research and content development– but it should still be done.

  • Skip Pizzi

    Very simple answer, Mark: NPR is not crazy, but its governance structure is (or could be considered so by some). NPR is a membership organization — chartered by Congress that way, in fact. So NPR’s member stations effectively run the org: the NPR Board of Directors is, per its bylaws, always comprised of a majority of its member station managers. Thus NPR is always beholden to its members, who are traditional, non-commercial radio stations. (Some have pretty sophisticated online presences of their own, but they are still primarily local radio stations — some one-offs, some groups, some state-wide networks, and all non-profits, in markets large and small.) Other public radio networks — NPR’s competitors — are not structured this way (e.g., PRI, APM, PRX), and therefore do not face such governance strictures, but NPR always has to work within those constraints. So the member stations often cry foul about NPR using its over-the-air network radio content (that stations deliver) to promote its own online content (for which its stations are not in the direct food chain), and they consistently oppose development of other “leap-frog” (i.e., direct network-to-listener) pathways, unless there is a strong station-based component included. Stations also provide the bulk of NPR’s budget, through their purchase of programming, which is priced on audience/market size (much like the reverse-comp of commercial networks today, but all cash, no barter). So a major-market NPR member station pays several million dollars a year for NPR programming, which they in turn have to raise from a combination of listener contributions, CPB grants and underwriting (i.e., non-com local advertising). Makes sense that the stations don’t want NPR to leverage that expensive content to drive listeners to its own platforms and away from theirs.

  • I think I acknowledged that Skip. Thank you for the extra clarity. My point was that doing this is right for more than structural reasons. It also may be smart marketing
    Mark Ramsey

  • Brad Deltan

    It’s worth noting that the convoluted funding mechanism is because of Congress and the FCC. All NPR member stations are required by their Member Agreements to license their stations as “Non-Commercial/Educational” with the FCC; even stations outside of the “reserved NCE band” of 88.1 – 91.9MHz still have to do it…it’s a simple form with the FCC and easy to do. And all NCE radio licensees cannot sell airtime to third parties for more than the costs of operations of the facility (typically that’s going to max out around $75,000/yr). So the usual barter of commercial programming, where the station gets the content for free but must allow the content provider to sell X number of national commercial spots, is prohibited. Instead, the NCE station must either get its content for free, or pay some dollar amount for it. Hence the structure where member stations pay substantial fees to NPR for the NPR content. (you can also substitute APM, PRX, PRI or really anyone instead of “NPR” there)

    I also think it’s worth emphasizing that there’s a substantial gap between when NPR’s efforts to “bypass” member stations cause those member stations to become financially unviable, and when those efforts lead to enough revenue from direct fundraising by NPR to be self-sustaining. That “gap” is going to be years, if not decades, and during all of it NPR will be without the substantial member station revenue it depends on for more than half its budget.

    IOW, the current governance and financial relationship between NPR and its member stations is fundamentally broken, and will eventually crash unless major changes are made.

  • Thank you for that information, Brad!

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