The Future of Public Radio

That title sounds a bit too authoritative, so let me begin by saying that although I’m by no means an expert on public radio, I was involved with radio in the ’60s, I worked in television news in the ’70s, and I’ve been talking to many people in commercial and public radio over the past few months. I was initially reluctant to express my opinions on the topic because I thought they might be hurtful to people I care about. But as I’ve been stewing over this for the past few weeks, I’ve come to realize that what I think and what I’ve written here isn’t going to “make it so.” I’m merely describing what I see as an inevitable transformation. [I’ve also given given everyone mentioned in this article a chance to comment on it.]

Unfortunately, I see Chris Lydon’s new PRI show, Open Source, as the poster child for this transformation. Now don’t get me wrong. I love the show, and I listen to almost every edition on my iPod. But Chris and his team have launched what may be the last of the old-time public-radio programs, and they’ve aimed it right at the middle of the black hole that will swallow them and the rest of public radio: the Internet and podcasting. I think Open Source may be a catalyst for its own defeat.

This started for me when I blogged about Doc’s suggestion that we all call our local public radio stations and request they carry the new show. It took me no time at all to realize how little sense that made. There’s no doubt that if KQED-FM were to broadcast the show at all, it would be at some obscure time of day when I wasn’t likely to listen. No, that’s not even correct. There’s no time of day that would be good for me. I don’t plan my days around a radio or TV schedule because, quite frankly, I don’t need to. I have an iPod and I can listen to what I want, where I want and when I want. And given that there’s already more good programming than I have time for, anyone who doesn’t make it easy for me by providing an RSS feed with enclosures simply won’t make the cut. Even in my car, unless it’s just a trip to the grocery store, I no longer tune in a broadcast station.

[In response to my earlier post on the subject, Brendan Greely, one of Chris’ producers, pointed out that “there are a lot of people who would enjoy the conversation who wouldn’t otherwise hear it; these are people who might be convinced in the future to listen to a podcast, of this or any show.” His point was well taken, and I did ultimately let KQED-FM know that this was an important show which they certainly should carry.]

Two events then really drove this home for me. The first was a trip to Boston/Cambridge a few weeks ago to discuss plans for a future venture with some very smart people. Among them were Jake Shapiro of PRX and Robert Lyons and Eli Ingraham of the WGBH Forum Network. At WGBH I got a full tour of the facilities of this bastion of public broadcasting, and I was struck by two divergent observations. First, this is a very large and expensive operation. Second, it’s essentially the same as radio was in the 1960s. Robert and Eli understand this. Robert has been at WGBH for (I think) more than 20 years, and if anything, his Forum Network is one of the few really new projects in public radio that is trying to bring the community into the picture.

But they are up against the Innovator’s Dilemma. If you haven’t read that book by Clay Christensen, you really should. As it applies in this instance, the dilemma is that the established organizations can only approach innovation on the basis of protecting their current way of operating. The future of public radio may not be podcasting, but it will certainly be based on much lower-cost methods of producing and distributing most programs, and as incumbents in the industry, the WGBHs of the world are unable to cannibalize their own operations to the extent they must to survive. To do so would mean walking away from all the buildings and studios and firing 80% of the staff. Just as 3.5″ disk drives replaced the 5″ drives at a far lower price/performance ratio, so will the new public radio produce and distribute programs at a far lower cost. And it won’t be done by the same organizations.

The second event was a recent article in The New York Times about Chris’ show, Open Source. From listening to the on-air credits, I already knew that the show had a staff of perhaps 7-9 people even if not all of them are paid (much) and don’t work full time. But The Times reported that the show has a $1 million budget, and I said, “Sheesh! That’s a lot of money.” Now I’ve worked on $100+ million dollar films, and in TV news, and I know how easy it is to spend that kind of money. But I’ve also produced 600 programs and distributed them as podcasts and spent next to nothing. Even if I paid the team and myself decent salaries, my costs would be a mere fraction of Chris’ budget.

Radio and TV are going to have to adjust to a new economy: the economy in which the long tail plays a major role. The music industry is painfully making this transformation now. The movie business is fighting the change in classic innovators-dilemma style. TV doesn’t know what to do. Its viewers are leaving in droves, and the three major networks’ reaction so far is to reduce not only the cost but also the quality of programs through the reality-TV and tabloid formulas. Those are just that industry’s way of denying the inevitable trap it’s in.

In commercial radio we see the migration to the two models of talk and formulaic music. As others have said, there’s no humanity left. Commercial stations will die the same way some of the telecoms bit the dust: They’re competing for a limited base of customers with undifferentiated commodity products. It’s ironic that the broadcast spectrum is a scarce resource yet those with license to use it are writing their own death warrants by using it so inefficiently.

Public radio is on the same path. Sure, it’s made worse by the facts that the Bush administration wants to rip the guts out of it, and that NPR and the local stations are always fighting over money and control. But the real problem is coming from the fact that listeners want long-tail time-shifted content. They want to hear programs that are more meaningful to them, and they want to listen at their convenience. The entire broadcast-radio system, with its distribution, simply can’t provide what the customers want. It’s not a flaw of management. There are very good people doing the best that can be done. The problem is inherent and systemic.

Podcasting is to public radio what Garage Band and Pro Tools are to the music industry. Large recording studios are closing left and right because musicians — good ones — can produce great music in small project studios or even in their apartments. Moby is just one of the better-known examples. But more important than the stars are all the lesser-known artists. Because of iTunes and, a significant portion of the market is shifting towards the long tail. The traditional music industry can only survive to the extent that it can support these new forms of production and distribution, and the same is true for public radio.

If there was one bright light on the public-radio portion of my Boston/Cambridge trip, it was my visit with Jake Shapiro at PRX. Although their short-term function is to operate a marketplace where producers and stations can sell and buy programming, my sense is that Jake and his team are acutely aware of the larger changes needed in public radio, and I think they’re worth watching to see how they might play the role of the newcomer that replaces the incumbents. They match Clay Christensen’s scenario perfectly.

2 thoughts on “The Future of Public Radio

  1. I am very much enjoying your articles on this site such as this one about the future of public radio broadcasting. It seems that podcasting is evolving into a wonderful new broadcasting genre for public control and consumption. And now there are sites which combine podcasting with blogging and are referred to as “blogcasts”. Truly wonderful.

    Free Old Time Radio Podcasts and Downloads


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s