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October 14, 2008

The Future of Public Radio

Peter Osnos

If you’ve read this far, you are almost certainly a listener of public radio. National Public Radio (NPR), American Public Media, and the 800 or so stations around the country that carry their signature programming, and to varying degrees create programs of their own, have become a major source of quality information and entertainment. A case can be made that the growth of public radio, in particular the news-gathering staff of National Public Radio, is one of the most important developments in media of the past quarter-century. NPR has more correspondents abroad than all of the broadcast networks combined, except CNN, and its Washington and national staffs rival in many respects our most admired newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal.

NPR has over 26 million listeners a week, which is comparable to the highest-rated shows on talk-radio and cable, and a funding base that supports a budget over $150 million a year with an endowment of over $250 million. Under the long-time leadership of Kevin Klose (a friend and colleague from our years at the Washington Post) and his senior staff, NPR has become a model for what public media should be: businesslike, entrepreneurial, and politically independent enough to hold off the inevitable critics from right and left. A search is under way for a new president of NPR. It is a great job, and if you think you may be qualified, move fast.

Nonetheless, as I was reminded on a recent visit at the invitation of Klose, NPR has never quite shaken its roots at university and community radio stations of the 1960s and 1970s in style and values. NPR is based in a substantial downtown Washington building and has purchased what looks like an even more formidable headquarters nearby, with outposts in Los Angeles and New York. But the staff tacks relatively young and casual. This is radio, after all, so the faux glamour and settings of television do not apply. Whatever policy, territorial, and money disputes persist (and the staff being human and passionately committed to what they do, there are always disagreements), they are more like those at universities than big corporate media in New York, where almost everything is ultimately dependent on profit margins and advertising sales.

Public radio is by definition nonprofit, and that guarantees a different way of measuring goals and accomplishments. One of the major initiatives now under way at NPR involves an expansion of its output on the Web at NPR.org with podcasts and all kinds of blogs, visual gimcracks, and even some video. NPR.org now gets about seven million unique visitors a month. Given that similar efforts are being made at almost every media organization in the country, I wondered why this digital drive was necessary.

Does NPR really have to duplicate much of what appears, for example at washingtonpost.com or time.com? Does the expansion mean that the focus on radio programming that made NPR so valuable will be diluted? And as NPR.org takes on greater importance, what happens to the local member stations that supply about 45 percent of NPR’s revenues (through program fees) and need to drive traffic to their own Web sites and programming? Probably the easiest way to answer these questions, based on my conversations with the strategic planners at the top of NPR, is to say that they have thought hard about all these issues and recognize the need to protect the existing strengths of what they do while building on them. NPR has multiple constituencies among its listeners, the stations, and its funders in the philanthropic and corporate worlds. Satisfying their demands is a relentless challenge.

According to a recent article in the American Journalism Review (AJR) called “The Transformation of NPR,” NPR, with support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, is committing $2.5 million to train its entire 450 person editorial staff in multi-platform journalism. “We’re going to get our stories and our storytelling and our journalism out to people wherever they are and in whatever form they want to experience it,” Ellen Weiss, NPR’s vice president for news told AJR.

Weiss and her colleagues believe that if NPR doesn’t join the drive toward digital innovation, it will eventually be left behind as more traditional forms of delivering information are sidelined. An increasing number of public radio listeners, for example, don’t even own radios and download podcasts to mobile devices and laptops. “What we really want to do first is build a culture that is respectful of the modern news consumer,” NPR’s digital media director  Dick Meyer (a recent arrival from CBS News) told AJR, adding that these consumers want news on demand, and want it to be non-commercial, a significant factor for a recent arrival from the depleted networks. What that means is adherence to news standards different than those of commercial media, where the focus is narrowed by ratings and limited by time.

In a moment of acute uncertainty about everything in our economy, the future of public radio is by no means assured. But for a long time in its history of nearly forty years, public radio was underappreciated as a core source of news and regularly subjected to vilification and threats of zero budgeting from its politically motivated overseers. That is no longer the case, and from what I can tell, the people responsible for NPR, and its extensive community of partners around the country, are on the right track. Thank goodness.

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