NPR CEO on towers, revenue and news collaboration

NPR CEO Vivian Schiller appeared at the All Things D conference this week and made some waves. I know John Sutton noticed something she said and didn’t like it. And I was puzzled by it. But let’s be fair — there were several issues she covered while talking with Kara Swisher. A complete liveblog-style capture is here.

Radio towers gone in 10 years?

The most surprising comment she made was her assessment that the business of distributing audio programming via radio towers would be largely gone in 10 years. Though not a direct quote, here’s the transcript-like version:

Some smaller affiliates weren’t really set up for digital, so we had to provide tools for them so they could be part of the process. Some of this was tools for photos, etc. But fundamentally, helping them deliver audio streams. Radio towers are going away within 10 years, and Internet radio will take its place. This is a huge change and we should embrace it. Mobile will play a big part. [emphasis added]

I’m as big into new media as anyone, but even I was shocked that NPR’s CEO would make such a bold statement. Perhaps it was a heat-of-the-moment kind of thing. I don’t know.

Certainly Internet-delivered audio streaming and audio programming (not to mention, video, text, etc.) is gaining ground on old-school delivery technologies. But a 10-year countdown on radio transmission strikes me as a bit fast. This is a generational change, a slow process. Consider the strikes against this prediction:

  • Audio programming, as practiced by NPR and her affiliates, is still a mass media experience — it’s not personalized or socialized to individuals. “We report, you decide” is the model. For that, mass distribution via radio makes a lot of sense. It’s more efficient for most use-cases in play today (listening during “down times” to and from work, running errands, at the desk, on weekends).
  • Car-based Internet access remains experimental today. Yes, I can take the iPhone in the car, keep it hooked to the Internet and stream audio, playing it back on the car stereo. But that’s still a wonky process only geeks could love. My 70+-year-old mother has an iPhone and loves it. But she’s not listening to radio on it. And certainly not doing that while hooked up in the car.
  • Mobile Internet access, especially at mass quantity, is getting more expensive, not less. AT&T’s repricing moves announced yesterday are part of that trend. Carriers, knowing the incredible capital expenditures required to build out towers, backhaul and more, can price their service in ways that lock out casual users. For those casual users, radio remains a free alternative.

And there’s more. But there are also factors that support Schiller’s contention from the user perspective:

  • New cars are already starting to get live Internet and “sync” capabilities. It’s still rare and a little pricey, but it’s here and it will grow. When your car has a simple media center in it that syncs (downloads podcasts) via WiFi when it sits in your garage or driveway, new possibilities appear.
  • The staggering majority of news is not real-time in nature and does not need live streaming. Therefore, a fast record/deliver model could supplant radio broadcast for almost all NPR programming. What if Morning Edition was delivered to the car very, very fast, and it was ready for you when you turned the key in the ignition for the morning commute? A super-fast podcast may be all you need 99% of the time. Local station? Not needed for transmission. Indeed, a local station would just get in the way.
  • It’s easy to imagine a phone/car ecosystem that will unite the two in consumer-friendly ways. I’m not talking about hands-free speakerphones, but much more. Consider the possibilities when a car with WiFi, Bluetooth, media center and GPS functions unites with a WiFi/Bluetooth/3G smartphone and Internet access that’s both broadband (WiFi at home) and narrowband (3G) in nature. Non-live programming goes broadband. Live programming — when needed, which is rarely — comes in via narrowband on demand.

10 years sounds like a short time. But in the technology world, it’s a near-eternity. Consider what Google looked like 12 years ago (1998):

All in all, you can count me as a skeptic on the “gone in 10 years” idea. But I’m delighted someone in a powerful leadership position is thinking big. To me, the real question is when will we cross the line at which point radio technology investments become a liability rather than an asset?

The Battle Royale of Network vs. Stations

Aside from the user-centric and technology issues are the financial and “power” issues. Be sure to read John Sutton’s post where he starts to look at this. Though Schiller talks about collaboration in the news production and distribution business that includes local stations, those notions remain largely ethereal. Setting aside the Argo Project — it’s both too tiny to demonstrate meaningful results and it’s being done with Bryant Park Project-style largesse that cannot be sustained — what work is NPR preparing to do to bring station leaders along when it comes to mission and revenue? Not much that I can see today.

Because the problem isn’t with NPR. They’ve got the digital talent. They’ve got the lion’s share of reporting capacity. They can aggregate advertisers and listeners at scale. Though they couldn’t stay the same size, they could make it on their own without the stations. The problem is with the stations.

Stations have gotten fat and happy buying NPR stuff (even at highway robbery rates) because the audience loves the content and enough of them give money. Plus advertisers like pubradio demographics. It’s working. TV is struggling to survive while radio is largely doing okay. But stations aren’t doing what Schiller appears to want: significant local reporting that would allow for news collaborations network-wide. For her notions of a news network to work, someone outside NPR has to be producing news content and sharing it. Too many stations have too little capacity (or none at all) in this area. And many stations funded by CPB are music-primary or heavily music-based, taking them further from public service news.

So we’re left with a hinted-at battle between the network and the stations over money, power and mission. Or rather, it’s a re-ignition of an old battle that started when the Internet burst onto the scene 10 years ago. Given that NPR’s Board is largely populated with station management, Schiller could be in for some interesting conversations in the months to come.

All this said, readers should note a portion of the Q&A session from her appearance at D8:

Is there a way to support NPR without supporting the local station?
Schiller: No, not really. The lifeblood of NPR is the local station. You’ll note we always route the membership drives through the local station. However, we do have a philanthropic support through the NPR Foundation, but that’s not for small individual donations.

But the listener can go directly to NPR in the Web model, and doesn’t need to go to the local affiliate. So what’s the local affiliate’s role in the new paradigm?
The fact that so few journalists are covering state and local news is scary. We’re committed to providing that local coverage via the affiliates. “We’ve got to have that local coverage, and NPR can’t do it….To the extent that [local coverage] doesn’t suit your needs, then we have to work together to make it meet your needs.”

News Collaboration and Revenue Streams

While we’re on the subject of Schiller’s comments, be sure to check out this video clip in which she talks about collaborating on news content and on pubradio’s revenue streams:

Personally, I’m enamored of Schiller’s vision for the future, of a true news network in which the far-flung nodes are as active in the news process as the central, and to each his own strengths.

But I think that model, and the business operations required to make it go, look extremely different than what the system looks like today. So different that current station management will likely fight it with all their remaining power.

Because yes, the towers will go (too expensive), the middle management will go (too wasteful) and you’ll be left with journalist-bloggers focused on community news that operate local public service networks and both report and instigate reporting from others. Plus you’ll have some sales people and technical web people. In many communities it won’t look like public radio at all.

We just don’t know how fast all this will happen.

Headed to CPB. Headed for community?

I’m headed to the CPB today for an all-day meeting tomorrow (Thu, Apr 15) at the mother ship, hosted and arranged by Rob Bole (aka @rbole).

Up for discussion amongst a small group of public media tech types? Collaboration and community, or at least that’s what I’m expecting.

Many of you can probably list conference after conference and presentation after presentation, especially in the digital media space, where we all swear to stay in touch and share project ideas and methods, but it just never seems to happen. And I’m as guilty as the rest!

Lots of smaller projects have popped up over the years, including the #pubmedia chats happening each Monday evening with the help of some public media Twitter luminaries. 😉

What each of the projects have lacked is either staying power or depth of collaboration, mostly driven by a lack of time to pursue collaborative work instead of individual (station-focused) digital production.

With the help of Allen Gunn, I’m betting on a great meeting and some sustainable work to benefit our communities and colleagues across the public radio, TV and web universe. Hopefully there will be more to report by the weekend.

Wow! KQED drops out of news project

Current has the news that KQED is out of the Bay Area News Project and the NY Times is in.

Personally, I’m fairly disappointed in this turn of events. Perhaps KQED will tell its side of the story in the days to come.

So far, all that’s available is speculation and back-room chatter.

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).

Out of the mouths of (27 year old) babes

If you’re involved in public radio, this is required reading / listening.

Jesse Thorn, host of public radio’s The Sound of Young America (which is really a podcast that happens to be on a handful of 25+ public radio stations nationwide), speaks with Josuha Benton (Nieman Journalism Lab / Harvard) about his notions of creativity, business, media scale, public radio economics, audience interaction, passion, awesome content and more.

In particular, he nails the problems of the public radio industry today: the saturation of the older, educated white market and the industry’s pull back from attempts to stretch into new market segments with old formulas. He also keenly understands and explains the financial models in “the system.”

Because what Thorn proposes is that public media programs, hosts, writers, and others do is, well… make great content and directly interact with the audience that gels around the content and experience. He’s suggesting you build a Tribe.

Take a listen…

While listening, pay special attention to his observations about how he pays himself for his work, how he interacts with his audience, and how small-scale his show’s production model is. Also pay attention to how he thinks programs in the future will work — using mass media as “calling cards” or “advertising” for the interactive media experience the programs are creating.

From a Tribes perspective and a mass media model perspective, there’s only one other major national project I know of that’s doing the same thing: Planet Money, in a tiny, experimental pocket of NPR. And that could be said to be an outgrowth of the defunct Bryant Park Project.

There will remain a place for mass-produced and mass-appeal general news production. But for everything else, and especially for any local station that wants to survive, your future is in building a community around awesome content and services, a la Jesse Thorn.

Bonus Listening: If you haven’t heard the SxSW presentation by Merlin Mann and John Gruber on creating content online, that’s your immediate next destination. Indeed, here’s your reading list for surviving in the 21st century media world:

Double-Bonus Listening / UPDATE 2009-04-19: Thanks to the unstoppable Jesse Thorn for stopping by with a comment (below) and sharing the link from the discussion at the 2009 Integrated Media Association conference in Atlanta. Highly recommended, too. Thanks Jesse!

The Big Announcement – Part 1

So I’ve hinted at it via Twitter over the past couple of days, but not spoken openly until now.

On Thursday, August 14 we began, in earnest, the reorganization of Alaska Public Telecommunications, Inc. (APTI) in Anchorage, Alaska. APTI is a public media company that operates KSKA Public Radio (FM 91.1), KAKM Public Television (Channel 7) and the Alaska Public Radio Network (APRN).  APTI is both an NPR and PBS member and APRN is a statewide news network composed of about 24 public radio stations.

At the moment, I’m kind of exhausted from the many conversations and meetings swirling around this change, so I won’t go into much detail now. I’ll stick to the headlines now and try to do a longer explanation this weekend.

First off, I’m now in a new position. A position so new it has a non-traditional title: Vice President, Community Media Streams.

We’re organizing the company in a completely new way, using four divisions:

  • Community Media Streams
  • Media Production
  • Advancement
  • Operations

Previously we were arranged into platform and functional units with a total of 8 people at the “management” table, including the CEO. Now our “managers” number only 4. The old breakdown:

  • APRN
  • Broadcast Engineering
  • Information Technology
  • Development
  • Finance & Administration

Much of this organizational structure stemmed from the two mergers that created APTI as it stands today.  TV and radio uneasily merged in the early 1990’s.  APRN was merged into the company (by necessity, I would contend) in 2004.  Since each merger, the units have largely acted alone — and have competed for resources.

The primary collapse is to bring together radio and television and the web — to date just a subset of my duties — under a single manager (me).  Other public media companies have called this a “Chief Content Officer” or some nomenclature like that. We decided to split what others might call “content” into streams and production because we felt the two were fundamentally different things. Media Production makes programs.  Streams creates experiences.

I’m falling asleep as I write this, so I’m going to stop here.  There’s much more to say, probably this weekend and, really, for months to come. In the mean time, here’s the formal press release (PDF) crafted by our own CEO on Thursday afternoon. It’s intentionally brief and vague.  We have longer docs we’ve been developing internally.

More later. And thanks to all the Twitter pals out there that patiently waited to hear more!

Not to be repetitive, but… NPR + PI = ?

Back on the 31st I mentioned the NPR purchase of Public Interactive (PI), wondered what the meaning was and hoped for some announcements or details from NPR. Since then there’s been more discussion out there, including a rather long post by Robert Paterson as well as a short one from Sue Schardt. The NPR CEO himself, Dennis Haarsager, posted on the topic as well, including…

I will have a lot more to say about this, how we got here, where we hope to go with it, and who the key players have been in this multi-year effort to extend public media’s impact in a future post.  PI will continue its current range of services, but it would also be useful to think of it as the beginnings of a new digital division within NPR which will operate with the same culture of neutrality as has characterized public broadcasting’s satellite distribution systems for decades.

That’s encouraging, but vague. Knowing Dennis’ capacity for system design and strategic thinking, I definitely feel better that he’s at the helm, but I sure would like more details on what’s behind the purchase.

In the mean time, I’ve exchanged private Twitter messages and e-mails with a few folks outside and inside NPR. To date, either no one knows what’s going on with the purchase or they’re not willing to say. Very odd. A major purchase like this would, presumably, be backed up with a “big idea” or a plan for the future, and you’d think people would be excited to talk about it.

So I’m still in the camp of “huh?” when it comes to the NPR / PI deal. I’m not against it, but I’m not seeing the value yet. I’m hoping Haarsager in particular can shed some light in the coming weeks.

But I’ll be more specific: I’m not interested in more web templating services from PI or any other vendor. They don’t really help me provide valuable, organic, human-scaled interactive experiences for — and with — my community.

My station’s use of any media platform must be authentic and must be “tuned” to the rhythms of the platform and the needs of the community.

So if I’m providing interactive web services, they need to feel organic, natural, part of the web’s fabric and not a “patch.” The PI offerings have, in my experience, felt like patches. They were designed for stations that had no “digital natives” on board and could not or would not invest in next generation services, but still had to have something on the web. A noble goal in its way. Unfortunately, such services encourage stations to treat the web as an afterthought, as a necessary evil, not as a next-gen media platform that operates on a new set of principles.

As tools on their own, the PI services are fine. They work as advertised (which is more than can be said for a lot of software). But they all have the feel of “made somewhere else” and “commodity package we bought just to get this done.” It feels hollow. Ning sites feel more organic.

If NPR bought the PI toolset and services with the idea of just selling them to stations as PI has done since inception, then this deal makes no sense; then it’s just a game: PRI owns it, then NPR owns it, maybe APM is next or PBS or whatever. But if NPR plans to use the skill sets resident in the PI staff to go in some new directions — more like API stuff, less like web templates — then this might make a ton of sense, and it’s a service I’ll want to use.

Too bad NPR already had a smart web services team in-house, unencumbered by the legacy PI business model. NPR could have started in-house with the team they have. Although I suppose buying PI gives you political cover while you develop these services. NPR Board and management can focus on traditional PI operations while substantial behind-the-scenes API / utility development costs are incurred. Maybe the PI purchase is just a new media red cape keeping the old media bulls distracted.

Am I being too cynical here? What am I missing? And when do we think NPR will come out and say what their plans are for the PI purchase?

NPR + PI = ?

I started writing Thursday afternoon about the NPR purchase of Public Interactive, but I figured I’d better stop. I have experience with both entities, I’ve read the press release, but I’m going to give the NPR and PI community 24 hours to express their thoughts first.

Because, at face value and based on the PR piece, I’m baffled as to why this is such great news.

The only way this purchase makes sense is if there’s something new NPR is planning that didn’t get described in the press release.

Please, public media blogosphere and Twitterverse, educate me! Can you complete the equation in this post’s title?

Doug Gordon's Modest Proposal for Public Radio

Don’t bother bringing the forks, knives and napkins, but Doug Gordon has some thoughts to share for the public radio work in the U.S. Delivered via — gasp! — video!

Definitely some interesting thoughts delivered by this Corner Gas extra.  Okay, not really… I mean, they are interesting thoughts, but I don’t think he’s been on Corner Gas. 😉

My favorite suggestion is the last — engaging the public in co-creation of public media. Which is a really scary thought for some pubmedia types I know.

By the way, I stumbled across this video because Doug Gordon posted it himself on the new, and growing, DirectCurrent social networking site put up by Current. Thanks Current!

Welcome KSKA listeners / visitors

I’m dropping in on KSKA Public Radio’s “Community Forum” program this afternoon (live at 2pm Alaska time) to talk blogging. For visitors stopping by — Welcome!

I’ll be posting links mentioned during the live show over at KSKA.ORG.

UPDATE: You can listen to or download the audio from today’s Community Forum program here.