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Public Radio’s revenue model will be challenged by Podcasting

Interesting piece by “The Long Tail’s” Chris Anderson on how his listening behavior to public radio has been transformed by podcasting.

Says Chris:

I’m listening to more and more of my favorite NPR shows (This American Life, Terry Gross’s Fresh Air, Science Friday, etc) as podcasts, something that finally suits me thanks to having [an iPhone] that automatically loads the latest shows. I don’t have to avoid the NPR pledge drive anymore.

Chris goes on to say that while he didn’t donate to the local affiliate during its pledge drive, he did so when Terry Gross (in the podcast) made the same request. That is, although the money flows to the local affiliate station, he’s rewarding the program, not the station.

I realized that I don’t really support my local affiliate. I love some of the shows it broadcasts and hate others. My attachments are to individual shows, not to a broadcast station. My engagement with public radio is at a more granular level than the affiliate. I just don’t care that much about KQED, and now that I’ve got another way to get the shows I like, I don’t really feel much of a connection to it. Now that I get my radio via podcast, I don’t have to take the bad shows with the good. I’ve got an a la carte menu, and I assemble my own schedule with what I want and when I want it. My feelings about radio stations are mixed, but my feelings about individual shows are crystal clear.

And he concludes:

My shifting of funding from the general (radio station) to the specific (show) tells me that radio is going to get microchunked, just like the rest of media. The more granular, the better. We’re about to find out where people’s loyalties really lie.

Interestingly, my behavior has tracked along the exact same lines as Chris’s. Much of my public radio listenership has moved to podcasting. But does it matter, once the pledge time comes?

Yes, it does. If anything, listening to a podcast is cloaked in even more anonymity than listening to the radio itself. No live DJ’s, no phones ringing in the background. So listeners will feel even less guilty when they hear a podcast they don’t pay for than when they hear your live plea for money and ignore it. And less guilt means less responsibility means less willingness to put some dollars in the tip jar.

That suggests, in other words, that the path of podcasting – essentially circumventing the local affiliate – might depress the likelihood of patronage even as it increases exposure and listenership to these programs.

On Chris’s “microchunk” issue: Obviously, radio can only get microchunked to the degree that it is program-based. You can’t chunk what isn’t chunkable. Most of public radio is, of course, highly chunkable.

Clearly, public radio needs to navigate the needs of its broadcast affiliates (who pay for these programs) with the challenges and opportunities presented by “chunkability,” because in the long run, certain things are clear to me:

1. Listeners will increasingly prefer to pay for programs, not stations. Just as music buyers want individual songs, not entire albums. It doesn’t make sense for me to subsidize a station for a podcast I can hear without that station. Nor does it make sense to pay for a station that mixes in lots of stuff you don’t like with exactly what you love.

2. The definition of a “public radio listener” will have to be reconsidered when such a listener may – in some cases – listen to public radio podcasts but never to a radio station that airs them. If I never listen to a station but do hear numerous public radio podcasts, how can I support my favorite shows without supporting a station I ignore?

3. Public radio will have to significantly enhance their ability to solicit and encourage donations from podcast listeners for podcasts. A passive “please pledge” will not do the trick. At the very least there should be a “walled garden” that listeners elect to pay for, behind which are all kinds of goodies for premium podcast subscribers only. This is no different from the premium items stations use in their solicitation efforts now – except it’s program based and online. It’s not about blocking free distribution, rather it’s about offering premium access to a deeper experience of the program. But we’re a long way from that now: If you go to the page for NPR’s Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me, it’s not even possible to support the program directly from this web page!

4. Stations will have to recognize that their value is related to the manner in which they mix public radio programs and add original local content that is a magnet in and of itself. To expect support for the station simply because it airs Car Talk will no longer be reason enough to expect support.

5. Revenue models will have to change. Revenue can and should shift to web-based models for program sponsorship, with the station affiliates sharing in those proceeds. In the long run, the stations will be supported by the programs, not vice versa.

6. More funding for public radio programs will have to come from corporate or other non-listener sponsorship.

And by the way, Chris’s point about the duller than dirt California Report – I could not possibly agree more.

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