What’s the problem with NPR?

Posted by Maximum Fun on 13th March 2008

NPR has doubled its audience in less than ten years, and yet it’s in crisis — crisis enough to fire CEO Ken Stern last week.

What’s the problem?

In (very) brief, NPR is largely a member organization — its board, in large part, is composed of member station representatives. These member stations are freaking out as the national organization distributes more and more content directly to listeners via the web, satellite and podcasting. Ken Stern was a (relatively) aggressive advocate of this direct distribution, and so he got canned. (They said he left by “mutual agreement.”)

The question for NPR is pretty simple: how do they satisfy listeners and stations?

Here’s how I see it…

Public media’s first responsibility is to serve the public. That’s absolutely A#1. So both stations and national organizations should most certainly pursue any technology that makes their content more useful or convenient to the public. Making things harder for listeners is a terrible, terrible idea. So that means podcast every fucking thing, and think of any and all other things you can do to serve the public better.

If I was a station right now, I’d do a couple things. One is accept that radio use will decline slowly over the next 10-20 years. That’s just reality. One is create programming that sustains itself, whether it’s hyper-local, national or niche-oriented, then put that out into the world. The last is the one that I don’t hear from NPR, which is that if NPR is making money from podcasts of their shows, and stations are making less from the radio broadcasts, stations should pay less.

I’m not really a public radio insider, so I can’t suggest equations. And obviously, stations are a HUGE part of my own strategy for TSOYA for the forseeable future. But it feels like this whole debate is built upon a bizarro-world disconnect. Yes, the situation is tough. So be entrepreneurial.