Haarsager on BPP, plus reactions

Well, I guess the NPR shoe I’d been warned about has dropped, with respect to the cancellation of BPP.

It was not a satisfying thud.

The comments on the BPP blog site, reacting to the memo, have begun rolling in. They are not, one would expect, positive. There’s some respectful language in there, but the overall feeling is that this formal response missed the point(s).

My own comment, submitted to NPR (and it may be up by the time you read this):

For all those saying NPR should have raised money directly for BPP, there’s a political mess you’re not aware of here.

If NPR openly attempted to raise money for any program, with large or small station carriage, the nationwide collection of stations would revolt. And please note the Board of NPR is majority-controlled by stations.

In short, it would never be attempted and would certainly be killed if it were.

There are indeed structural and cultural problems within NPR that make a project like BPP fail and put all forms of new media engagements at risk. But never forget that many of NPR’s most anti-new media anti-innovation qualities are inherited from the codependent relationship with the stations. In a sense, it’s no one’s fault, yet it’s everyone’s fault. And that’s the center of the problem.

The entire system is trapped by its own success in the radio medium — not the web. Asking it to change in fundamental ways (e.g. embracing direct funding, using the web innovatively and as a medium of first resort, building real community) is asking for a revolution in which heads would most certainly roll.

But public radio has not historically been a head-rolling collection of institutions.

If you want to change public media for the better, focus on your local station — volunteer, get on the Board, ask tough questions, demand new services, and prove to your station there’s money to be saved and made in engaging the community in new ways, especially online. And tell your station to let NPR grow and mature — even if that means audiences want direct relationships with the network rather than the station.  Local stations need a reason to exist beyond rebroadcasting NPR anyway.  It’s time they learned how to be local (again).

Or, failing all that, strike out on your own and create a new media entity with the soul of a public radio station but the structural DNA of a Google.

There’s a future for public media, to be sure. But only time will tell whether NPR will participate in it fully and faithfully.

Naturally, I have more thoughts, but didn’t want to post them at NPR’s site.

Overall review of the memo? Disappointing.

Haarsager’s memo language does not, as so many commenters already noted, ring true. There’s something wrong here; something out of place.

Canceling BPP doesn’t bother me per se (this kind of thing happens from time to time for many reasons, and BPP was cursed with bad luck from the start). But NPR’s handling of the cancellation has the feeling of political talking points about it, and that won’t fly in a new media era.  Words like “misdirection,” “willful ignorance” and “politically convenient” come to mind very easily here, and they shouldn’t. That’s not what I want to think about NPR.

But if you think my take on the situation is harsh, head over to the Huffington Post where Daniel Halloway has his way with the story.

For me, the upshot is that NPR is fundamentally flawed due to the nature of the relationships between stations and network. There’s no long-term-successful way forward unless that flaw is corrected, either by renegotiation of the relationship or by breaking free of the relationships entirely.

While it’s not an exact analog for where newspapers were 10 years ago, it’s close enough: a medium…

  • trapped by its own success
  • unable to innovate into a new model, even in small ways
  • finally dismantled by market forces beyond its control

I really hate this. This isn’t what I want for NPR specifically or public media broadly. Will someone please tell me I’m wrong? I don’t want to lose NPR!

7 thoughts on “Haarsager on BPP, plus reactions

  1. John,

    The umbilical between NPR and its affiliates makes change unlikely, unless the member stations willingly reduce their strategic dependence upon NPR programming.

    Do you feel that PRI and/or APM are more likely to be change agents, since they have a “looser” relationship with local public radio, with more latitude to go direct to the listener? For example, I hear APM’s “Speaking of Faith” podcast asking for donations, to help keep the podcasts free.

  2. John:Your comments republished above are the clearest, most cogent explanation I've read to date how the local affiliate-NPR relationship inhibits progress.They would have made great crib notes at WBUR's first social media event last evening when the issue of show-specific donations and online innovation was inevitably raised!

  3. And This American Life has solicited money for the cost of podcasting, too. But those are far enough outside the NPR core family to be safe to do this, and the solicitations are targeted at the users of the new tech.

    PRI and APM definitely have less leverage on the stations and vice-versa. It’s much more like a buyer/seller relationship. That’s why when Faith Salie’s show (“Fair Game”) was canceled, there wasn’t so much of a stink about it. PRI made the show, let it run, tried to sell it, but couldn’t.

    But APM’s and PRI’s ability to lead change in the broader public radio market is limited. They don’t have the “tent pole” shows like Morning Edition or All Things Considered, where the bulk of the audience is located. “Marketplace” is probably one of the biggest non-NPR shows in terms of carriage, but that’s still a small show compared to ME or ATC.

    Your image of the umbilical cord is a good one — someone has to cut this cord, and it’s either got to be NPR or the stations. But both parties are addicted to the money and can’t change easily without risking, well… everything.

    At my station, we’re attempting to devise a transitional middle path, one that reduces the dependence on NPR (and PBS) but doesn’t break the bonds entirely. We’re definitely counting on retaining the core properties like ME and ATC .

    The real trick is building community and doing it online. Yet online works on different economic scales, so the legacy infrastructure is too heavy a burden for the new media stuff to bear. It’s a tough nut to crack.

    I think the stations and NPR could find a way forward in a new kind of relationship, but it would take vision on a massive scale that only a Jim Jones could produce, and I don’t see enough stations drinking that Kool Aid anytime soon. NPR’s “New Realities” meeting series a couple years ago was positive, but didn’t generate any lasting structural change.

  4. John:

    Your comments republished above are the clearest, most cogent explanation I’ve read to date how the local affiliate-NPR relationship inhibits progress.

    They would have made great crib notes at WBUR’s first social media event last evening when the issue of show-specific donations and online innovation was inevitably raised!

  5. Thanks Ken. It’s a serious problem we’re all sharing. So far, I’ve not thought of a way forward that everyone would find palatable. It could be there isn’t a way forward without a revolution.

    In the mean time, I’d love to hear more about your social media event. Will you be writing more about it on the ConverStation blog (I saw the one post)? I’d like to do the same thing up here in Anchorage but would like to learn from others’ experiences first, if possible.

  6. Sure will do. I am assuming the one post you read about is from yesterday.
    I will try at some point to flesh out some of the general themes. Meantime, to read one participant’s insightful analysis of the event, visit limeduck.com.

  7. Thanks again, Ken! I checked out the post. Really great stuff. It sounds like you all covered a tremendous amount of ground in your discussions — how the system works (or doesn’t) and issues of mission and so on.

    Here’s a direct link for anyone out there that’s interested in this particular post…


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