MacBreak Weekly explores NPR/station disintermediation

On each MacBreak Weekly — a podcast focusing on all things Mac (and iPhone / iPod) — the host and guests make “picks of the week” in which they highlight hardware or software from every imaginable corner of the Mac and iPhone universe. Some stuff is small, some stuff is big, some is expensive and some is free. This week one of the guests — Alex Lindsay, a videography and special effects pro — picked the tremendously popular NPR News iPhone app (currently #4 in the free News apps category in the iTunes App Store).

In discussing the NPR News app, host Leo Laporte and Alex lavish praise on NPR itself for doing such a great job meeting the needs of Internet users that want access to NPR News and other public radio content and stations. They also rave about This American Life (currently the #2 podcast in the entire iTunes podcast directory) and the heavily revised

But then things get interesting.

Laporte and Lindsay don’t stop with reviewing the app or praising NPR. Together they demonstrate both tremendous insight and notable ignorance of how public radio is architected in the U.S. Here’s what’s right and what’s wrong in their discussion:


  • The NPR News app, combined with the new, is one of the most advanced distribution approaches in use by a major media company today.
  • Livio is offering an Internet-connected radio with built-in NPR branding and features ($200).
  • NPR was afraid to offer fully atomized programming elements via the web in an on-demand fashion for many years due to fears of station backlash, and resisted that through the early days of podcasting, despite prodding from Laporte and others in the tech world.
  • Donations from listeners are still primarily directed toward stations, not NPR itself, and national producers reinforce that notion currently.
  • NPR has done what many media entities have not done: face the future and make significant changes to the way they distribute content, answering the requests of listeners, even if it means stepping on local station toes.
  • NPR produces industry-leading audio programming; it’s the “gold standard” in audio production and other professionals use it as a benchmark for their work.
  • This American Life includes advertising in its podcast (it may be “sponsorship,” but it sounds to listeners like advertising). Laporte also realizes that advertising in a podcast gets around FCC regulations governing nonprofits and broadcast advertising.
  • This disintermediation — content flowing from producers to listeners directly, without local stations — could be “the beginning of the end” for NPR stations across the country.
  • Given the way content is produced and distributed in this new model, there needs to be a “reversal” of how the system works, in that NPR should pay local station reporters for news gathering (this is also listed below in the “wrong” section).


  • Alex says the app is “either free or $0.99” — it’s free, no question about it.
  • All Things Considered is not produced by a network other than NPR — it’s not from APM, it’s not from PRI, etc.
  • Lindsay suggests that NPR should be paying local reporters for their reporting. What he doesn’t know is that NPR already does this, it just does it on a pay scale and frequency that’s not sustainable for local journalists.

Given how badly most people understand the public radio system in the U.S., they get a ton of this stuff right. And they instinctively know how the disintermediation game works — Laporte used to work on the defunct cable channel TechTV but today has built his own network of audio (and now video) podcasts and streams, amassing more than $1,000,000 in annual revenues for his 2-4 person multimedia production house. (For the record, he’s also a commercial radio broadcaster.)

“The Reversal”

I was shocked by Alex Lindsay’s suggestion that the economic model on which the network/stations system works should be turned on its head. That’s something I’ve been saying since about 2006, once I realized that the content power rests with NPR, but the radio distribution power and the social relationship power rests with geographically-bound stations.

I’ve been laughed out of more than one conversation when suggesting NPR should pay stations to distribute their content. Or at the very least, NPR should be passing its content to stations for free or for the cost of operating the distribution system (PRSS / ContentDepot).

Today, stations pay anywhere from tens of thousands to millions of dollars annually to NPR for the “privilege” to carry their content (depending on market size and lots of other factors). That’s the bulk of NPR’s income: fees collected from local stations. That’s why you pay your local station and not NPR (although NPR does sell advertising space nationally and they do seek high-dollar gifts from rich donors).

Some think the annual CPB operating grants go straight to NPR and PBS, but they do not. Only tiny bits go to a few specialized programs or services at the networks — the vast majority of CPB’s money goes out to 600 public radio stations and 350 public television stations every year (67% to TV). That model has been in place for decades.

But it’s time we rethink this model. Maybe we don’t need a total reversal of all the flows. But the balance of power has shifted dramatically into the hands of the major national producers at the same time they’ve sucked the life out of most local public media outlets in the country with their incredibly hefty (extortionary?) fees. Money collected locally keeps the lights on and pays the national producers, but it affords precious little local production of any sizable amount or quality.

This has to change. Or we might as well just nationalize the system, a la BBC, and get it over with. Either approach can be made to work, but the current model doesn’t match how the world works in the 21st century.

Listen for Yourself

In any case, check out the conversation to hear these comments and insights from outside the public radio universe. It starts around 1 hour, 20 minutes in the original podcast. Or just listen to the excerpt I’ve clipped here (or click the play button below). The excerpt is about 5 minutes long (MP3).