BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is away this week. I’m Bob Garfield.
What follows will be an ominous look at an extremely familiar media institution. But first, buzzword time.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: We have lots of talk about disruption this morning, companies taking old-fashioned industries and shaking them up.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The digital era has disrupted the business of journalism, as many of you know.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: One of the hottest startups disrupting the industry…
MALE CORRESPONDENT: …what I call digital disruption.
BOB GARFIELD: Nowadays it means positive radical change, which is swell if you're not the one being disrupted. For instance, what if you'd cornered the children's shoelaces market when Velcro came along?
[SOUND OF VELCRO]
Or what if you were a symphony orchestra living off of the subscriptions of rapidly-aging and steadily-expiring music lovers?
What if you were a carmaker and consumers wished to shop directly from the factory? You couldn't allow it because that would cut your current customers, the dealers you depend on, out of the deal. Or worse, what if the biggest dealers started selling brands of their own?
Any of these scenarios could be ruinous. Put ‘em all together and you have the existential threat variety pack, technological, competitive, demographic and internecine, and every last one of them applies to –
[NPR THEME MUSIC UP & UNDER]
FEMALE ANNOUNCER: You’re listening to NPR.
BOB GARFIELD: Yes, the nation's largest producer and distributor of public media is being buffeted from all sides because the space it once monopolized is now packed with an ever-growing number of competitors that you probably think of as NPR but which are not, among them PRI, American Public Media, PRX and our host station WNYC, which is an NPR member station – in fact, its biggest customer - but also a direct competitor, pitching its own national programs, like this one, to other stations. Then there are the commercial podcasting companies, like Gimlet, Slate’s Panoply, Midroll and Audible, all creating rich, compelling, highly narrative content.
MARK BROWN: What’s happening? I’m Mike Brown. This is my podcast.
MALE ANNOUNCER: Slate, it’s the gist…
BOB GARFIELD: This is Lexicon Valley…
TRACY CLAYTON: Welcome to Another Round with Heben & Tracy.
MALE ANNOUNCER: - for Gimlet, this is Reply All.
BOB GARFIELD: - battling for the same sets of eardrums. As NYU journalist professor and new media thinker Clay Shirky observes, it’s quite a tangle. I strongly advise you to grab a pencil and take notes. A flowchart would be good.
CLAY SHIRKY: The obvious conflict is between the member stations, the KBIA’s and WNYC's of the, of the country, those stations buy [LAUGHS] shows from NPR, collect money for those shows, pay the money back to NPR. NPR uses the money to produce the shows. And so, there’s a whole ecosystem there which assumes that the only way NPR shows get into your ears is via these member stations. There is a problem with being in the middle there.
BOB GARFIELD: With him so far?
CLAY SHIRKY: Then there’s the conflict between the small member stations that don't produce their own shows and places like WNYC, which has some interest in having its audio products [LAUGHS] get out in the podcasting world, as well as on terrestrial radio. So there’s tension between the member stations, as well. And then, of course, there's a whole host of other producers of radio and podcasts for whom the move to podcasting allows them to do something that would have been inconceivable five years ago, which is to compete with NPR on level turf. And that collection of bundled up complicated relationships, it can never be untangled. It's the Gordian knot. Someone’s just going to have to come along and cut it. And cutting this particular Gordian knot looks like saying the podcasting thing is going to happen anyway, NPR might as well move into the future it knows is going to happen.
BOB GARFIELD: Right. The future is on demand, the audience awaits, all NPR has to do is serve it directly with its own podcasts and its own app, called NPR One, an algorithmically- curated, on-demand streaming service, except, like the previously mentioned automaker, NPR doesn't get its funds directly from consumers. It gets its money from its dealers, the roughly 950 member stations. And every listener to whom NPR serves a podcast is a listener who is not listening to those stations.
This otherwise arcane conundrum leapt into public view last month when an NPR executive issued a memo forbidding the active hyping of podcasts and the NPR app on NPR's airwaves. The Internet lit up in mockery. And Professor Shirkey artfully plotted with confederates to buy underwriting time on NPR shows, to pitch NPR's own podcasts and its app to its own listeners.
CLAY SHIRKY: I don't know if I will hear back from [LAUGHS] them but I said very clearly, we would like to buy a sponsorship for Weekend Edition and we would like to use it to promote NPR One.
BOB GARFIELD: At the beginning, it was so simple.
ROBERT CONLEY: From National Public Radio in Washington, I’m Robert Conley with All Things Considered.
BOB GARFIELD: Back in 1971, All Things Considered went on the air with a clear mission.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BILL SIEMERING: Genuine diversity of regions, values and cultural and ethnic minorities, which comprise American society.
BOB GARFIELD: This is NPR's founding Program Director Bill Siemering reading that mission statement.
BILL SIEMERING: National Public Radio will not regard its audience as a market or in terms of its disposable income but as curious complex individuals who are looking for some understanding, meaning and joy in the human experience.
BOB GARFIELD: That ideal was tested on NPR's very first day on the air, covering an antiwar protest in Washington, DC.
PHIL OCHS/SINGING: W alk with me in this green and glowing land. Walk through the meadows and the mountains and the sands.
DEMONSTRATORS SHOUTING: Stop the war now, stop the war now, stop the war now.
WOMAN: When I was running through the parking lot, someone threw a club at me.
JEFF KAMEN: Threw a club at you?
WOMAN: Yeah, threw a club at me.
JEFF KAMEN: Sergeant, excuse me, Jeff Kamen, National Public Radio. Is that a technique where the men actually try to drive their bikes right into the demonstrators?
POLICE SERGEANT: No, it’s no technique, we’re trying to go down the road, and the people get in front. What are you going to do? You don’t stop on a dime.
BOB GARFIELD: Forty-five years later, NPR is more sophisticated, more professional, more entertaining, more far flung, and it offers vastly more things considered. But, as it’s evolved, has it also strayed? Siemering is in awe of the institution that’s emerged from his original vision, but –
BILL SIEMERING: Initially, I envisioned that about a third of the program would come from stations, so we would have the country hearing itself. And that’s never happened. I think the pressure of the news these days kind of crowded out that idea of “let’s hear America talking to itself.”
MELODY JOY KRAMER: The job is not to raise money or to make sure that people buy a product. The, the job is to educate and inform and make sure you're serving your communities.
BOB GARFIELD: Melody Joy Kramer is a digital strategist and former NPR journalist.
MELODY JOY KRAMER: And if the people who are working in it aren't serving it, then we need to go back to the research table and say, like how can we do better and how can we meet the needs of somebody who, you know, arrived in the United States not too long ago and is using public media to learn English or somebody who is getting news snippets because they work a night shift? These are public media listeners too, and their voices might not be heard in the current discussion.
SCOTT FINN: You know, our mission is to do things for the American public that the commercial media doesn't always do.
BOB GARFIELD: Scott Finn is the head of West Virginia Public Broadcasting.
SCOTT FINN: And we can lose our way if we think that our main job is to produce really, you know, super entertaining programs that get huge audiences. That’s nice, when that happens, but that’s not what we were set up to do.
BOB GARFIELD: He points nervously to cable TV’s attempts to produce educational content on The Learning Channel, the History Channel and Discovery, all of which eventually succumbed to marketplace pressures to produce reality garbage.
SCOTT FINN: There are whole television networks on cable that were founded with the idea that they could do what PBS does. And look at The Learning Channel today, you know, Honey Boo Boo. [LAUGHS] Right? And they realize if they want to make money, they have to do a different type of programming.
BOB GARFIELD: But even if the audio slope is not so slippery and the mission creep is not so creepy, Finn represents a strain of thought among some stations that NPR's focus on growth, sellable demographics and revenue has squandered its most valuable asset, the stations themselves, which not only aggregate the audience and pay the piper but day in and day out represent the very diverse voices and issues and circumstances NPR was chartered to feature.
SCOTT FINN: And this idea that's out there, that stations are putting their claws into NPR and holding it back from its future, is completely backwards. We’re their competitive advantage.
BOB GARFIELD: That advantage played out with the recent trial and conviction of local coal baron Don Blankenship for conspiring to break mine safety rules that led to the deaths of his mine worker employees.
[CLIP/FAMILY MEMBERS SHOUTING]:
FEMALE REPORTER: Don, these family members are very vocal right now. They are not happy. Is there anything that you would like to say to them?
DON BLANKENSHIP: Well, just that the, the coal miners didn’t cause the accident, that’s all.
ROBERT ATKINS/FAMILY MEMBER: - you don’t have a heart. I hope you never have to bury your kid like we do.
FEMALE REPORTER: - feelings are running high out here outside the courtroom.
ROBERT ATKINS: We buried our kid because of you!
SCOTT FINN: Not only did NPR not send a reporter down, they trusted us to cover it. When our reporter got this excellent tape of the family members yelling at Don Blankenship on the courthouse steps, NPR took what was going to be a lowdown story in ATC and made it their top story of the hour.
BOB GARFIELD: Such grassroots coverage isn't routine but also not a new development. The integration of stations and the news product has ebbed and flowed since creation. Likewise, many of these suddenly high-profile organizational conflicts and kinks are as old as Susan Stenberg's pension fund.
On the other hand, there are kinks and there's Shirkey's Gordian knot. Not to get too self-referential about this, but just think about WNYC, which buys shows from NPR and sells shows to NPR stations, plus it buys from other suppliers than NPR, This American Life, for instance, and also makes and distributes podcasts on many platforms. Soon it will be manufacturing industrial chemicals and driving your kids to school. It is everywhere. And it’s also, according to WNYC President and CEO Laura Walker, entirely bullish about NPR.
LAURA WALKER: I think this is what change looks like. When we have the opportunity together as local stations, national producers, as NPR and public radio, in general, to be even more important and impactful - great national journalism but tentacles and roots in communities around the country. So I think we are up to evolving and disrupting ourselves.
BOB GARFIELD: But as NPR meets its obligation to follow the audience wherever it’s getting its audio, increasingly on smart phones, that has represented a threat to the stations. Is that a problem for which there is yet to be a solution?
LAURA WALKER: NPR is actually really lucky because NPR gets fees from the stations, they get underwriting basically from the stations and it gets grant money. That's a great model. And it doesn’t have to be that the stations are going to hold NPR back. That, frankly, I think, is a story that is a convenient story to tell, but I don't think that's where it's at. I think it's about creating the next level of what that national local partnership means, that actually strengthens the stations and strengthens the connection with their listeners because people want it; we know people want it.
BOB GARFIELD: What pisses you off about NPR, I mean, slow, glacial, bureaucratic, reactive, arrogant? I mean, what's on the list?
LAURA WALKER: [PAUSE] I, I – think –
BOB GARFIELD: I’m sorry, I can see you presidenting.
LAURA WALKER: Yeah, you know [LAUGHS] –
BOB GARFIELD: I can see the –
- the presidential rays are shooting out of you. I wish I were wearing a leaded apron.
LAURA WALKER: No, I’m trying to be thoughtful about it. We all, in public radio, need to sound more like this country, be more like this country, and I think NPR honestly, truly is making such progress in the last several years, in terms of being a journalistic and other partner to us.
BOB GARFIELD: I, I'm sorry, I don't want to put words in your mouth but do I understand you as saying that it has begun to look more and more like its stereotype of urban coastal elites and white people with tote bags?
LAURA WALKER: Not really. I mean, I – look, I think that every media organization in this country needs to be looking at itself deeply every day. Every day we at WIC, we ask ourselves, if we were inventing public radio now, what would it look like? You know, every day, and every day we want to innovate in ways that are going to be responsive to this changing media environment, to this crazy world we’re living in and stick very close to our values. And I just want to do that in partnership with the smart people at NPR and our colleagues around the country. And, if anything, we’d like to be ahead. We’re New Yorkers. We, we believe deeply that people want to hear what New Yorkers think. [LAUGHS] So we’re out there innovating –
BOB GARFIELD: Well, we don’t any part of your values, I mean –
LAURA WALKER: [LAUGHS] But I think that we have this incredible opportunity to remake public radio.
BOB GARFIELD: NPR itself declined to speak with us about its plan, or about anything else. But Laura Walker does make some salient points. The network’s multiple sources of revenue, endowments, foundation grants, advertising and individual donors, via station programming fees, are indeed the envy of the media industry, which has been decimated across the board by plummeting ad revenue. And while Morning Edition and All Things Considered have lost broadcast audience in chunks, they are making up some of the losses online.
Furthermore, NPR News is not only the most robust and serious national broadcast news operation, it's almost the last one standing. The networks bring you headlines for 22 minutes a day. Cable news channels talk endlessly about the news but they seldom really report any. Bill Siemering.
BILL SIEMERING: I think we need to pause a moment and just celebrate the incredible talent that is public radio today. It’s just breathtaking.
BOB GARFIELD: Yes, but so are the challenges. The increasing obsolescence of broadcast transmission is not a trivial matter. And how NPR and its member stations adapt is anyone's guess. It's likely that at some point All Things Considered and Morning Edition will cease to be the twin suns around which the rest of the system orbits. The current podcast boom could bust when venture capital runs out and its ad revenue, like everybody else's, fails to cover the nut.
As for serving the underserved, consider a station like WXPR-FM of Rhinelander, Wisconsin. It, of course, plays Morning Edition and All Things Considered, but it also offers such local oddities as The Polka Show and Dream Farm Radio. For the near future, at least, it is not going to be smart phoned and podcasted into irrelevance, because its listeners so cherish WXPR’s content? Maybe. But also, they don't have Wi-Fi.
PETE RONDELLO: Or high-speed Internet availability here in northern Wisconsin, as in other parts of the country.
BOB GARFIELD: Pete Rondello is WXPR’s president and general manager.
PETE RONDELLO: The broadcast part of our signal is still very viable, so when do we turn the transmitters off? It might be 30 or 40 years from now, Bob.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: But elsewhere in the NPR universe, the converging threats have an almost mythic quality, if not a Gordian knot, then a sword of Damocles dangling ever-perilously above. Just remember that to get out from under Damocles had to rethink how big and powerful he really needed to be.
[SONG FROM ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW]:
The sword of Damocles is hanging over my head
And I've got the feeling someone's gonna be cuttin’ the thread.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, free speech runs headlong into the
refugee crisis in the heart of the European Union. This is On the Media.