What if All Things Considered were on Satellite?

Posted by Maximum Fun on 6th March 2006

There is great dissent in the public radio world about what to do about satellite radio, and it speaks to a bigger question about the future of media.

As it stands, Sirius Satellite has three stations of US public radio. One is programmed by Public Radio International (who distribute shows like This American Life), and two by NPR (who distribute All Things Considered, Fresh Air, Car Talk, and so on). XM has one station, which produces a show of it’s own (the Bob Edwards Show), and carries various other public radio content (I haven’t had XM since pre-Edwards, so I’m not sure exactly what).

When NPR decided to get with the satellite revolution, it made a compromise with its member stations: they would give Sirius their programming, but would hold back their two flagship news programs, All Things Considered and Morning Edition. Local stations were understandably threatened by satellite, which doesn’t have to ask for contributions (though it takes them, in the form of a $12/month subscription fee). This is more or less the same bargain they’ve struck when it comes to podcasting, where you can get portions of some very popular shows, all of other, less popular shows, and some shows you can’t get at all.

Now, public radio consultant John Sutton, who as I understand it is a sort of the Dick Morris or Karl Rove of public radio (respected by all, reviled by some), is proposing that NPR consider offering ATC and Morning Edition to XM and Sirius. His proposal, in a nutshell, is that if NPR could get half of what Stern got, NPR could offer it’s programs to member stations for free, and everybody would win. The stations might lose a bit of their audience, but by his calculations only about 5%, and they could use the revenue for local programming, the money for which often comes from the fundraising success of the big NPR news shows.

Of course, this presumes that NPR is interested in acting in the interests of the stations, and won’t eventually just stick it to the satellite networks and the affiliates. It also presumes that Sirius or XM are interested enough in NPR programs to get up off big money without exclusivity.

What it means for local stations, though, is that they have to realize that the radio station business model, public or commercial, is gone. It’s been replaced by the content provider and content aggregator/filter models. When you can get audio content from satellite, from the internet, or even on your Tivo, being the local NPR station means much less. Whereas they used to find shelter in NPR’s overall brand (“You’re listening to your NPR News station for Central Ohio…”), they now realize that if their own brand doesn’t mean something, and they’re not producing their own content, they’re toast.

This is one of the big reasons I’ve tried to keep The Sound of Young America independent (though it’s not like they’re beating down the doors). One of the big lessons of the internet is that much more power goes to the content owner, rather than the content distributor.