This morning my friend Steve Borsch from Connecting the Dots sent me a link to a post by Jeff Jarvis over at Buzz Machine. It is regarding CEO Ken Stern being forced out at NPR (not my words, theirs). It appears to many, though not the “official” reason, that his push to move NPR further into the world of program distribution via new and emerging media had ruffled too many affiliate feathers.
My reaction… you seem surprised? I don’t know Ken Stern from Adam and have no idea if his internet strategy had anything to do with his termination. However, I do know that many in radio believe online is the enemy. You’ve heard me rant that this has been going on in commercial radio for years.
We can talk forever about how NPR is “different”, how they are most concerned with the quality of what the listener hears. Clearly, to a great extent that’s true. But after all the puffery, high-mindedness, and the hob-nobbing with the hoi polloi (perceived or real), for the local affiliate NPR’s focus is to help them get people to listen to their stations.
You bet NPR has made great strides in distribution, but if all of the public radio listeners, especially the younger ones…with money, head to the internet for their news, information, book chat, and Bach (a bit snarky, I know) then Hooterville Public Radio has a stick (antenna) that they have invested in that suddenly becomes worth a whole lot less. Number of listeners and revenue derived from them is what stick value is all about.
In most of my conversations with those in public radio, the honest ones anyway, they have been quite frank that even there, the bottom line is…well…the bottom line, the same for all radio. Look you can’t pay the bills without revenue, I don’t care who you are.
The opportunity for radio is still a big one. People, currently the vast majority, still turn on the radio. But every day as technology evolves they are given more and more ways to get the same or better content. Yes, there is opportunity for the medium to try and build a strategy and revenue around the new distribution channels but the real opportunity is to provide great content for those channels to keep people tuning in. Gone are the days of counting on revenue because it’s the only place to get content. Now it’s about where to get the best content.
Broadcast is freaked out because the big money is on the distribution channel not on the content in it. Content is where they save money through quantities of scale. That’s why NPR exists, that’s why affiliates like Hooterville Public Radio need them and that’s why many fear change.
It is clear that NPR, at least under Mr. Stern, is aware of the need and is trying to change the paradigm. The affiliates may or may not have the same vision, but they most certainly don’t have the same money to dedicate to exclusive content.
If Ken Stern was shown the door for his internet/new media strategy that’s a shame…but it wouldn’t be a surprise…at least to me.