This American Life departure highlights competitive challenge for pubradio satellite system

By Ben Mook

The expanding portfolio of Public Radio Exchange, the Internet-based distribution platform, has prompted some public radio insiders to question whether NPR’s Public Radio Satellite System can adapt to stiffer competition for business from content producers.

The latest program to move to PRX is the widely carried This American Life, whose producers announced May 28 that they would take over distribution of the show and rely on PRX to deliver weekly editions to stations. TAL will split from distributor Public Radio International July 1, ending a 17-year relationship.

That announcement came on the heels of a May 7 decision by Chicago’s WFMT to move its 200 weekly hours of music and spoken-word programming to PRX.

Other producers have told Steve Robinson, WFMT executive v.p., that they may be interested in following suit. He wouldn’t be surprised if they did, he said. “I think it’s a huge threat to the PRSS,” Robinson said.

PRX also got an endorsement from TAL host and executive producer Ira Glass, who praised the web-based platform as a great way for public radio newcomers to get their shows to station programmers in a blog post announcing the PRX deal.

“Apparently we’ll be the biggest show on PRX, and I’m glad that in some small way this may help them popularize the PRX platform as a way to deliver programming,” Glass wrote.

Despite their new relationships with PRX, TAL and WFMT will not completely sever ties to PRSS. Glass’s show will continue to be offered as a live feed on PRSS for stations that still require one, and WFMT may use the satellite for some live feeds of programs as well.

“Our productive relationship with This American Life and WFMT continues through the distribution of their live content on PRSS,” said Marty Garrison, NPR’s v.p. of technology operations, in an email. Garrison declined to comment on the possibility of losing additional producers to PRX.

‘Huge change’ for PRX

PRX provides an Internet-based distribution alternative to PRSS, and, unlike PRI and other distributors, it doesn’t charge affiliation fees to stations that carry its programs. Its offerings currently include The Moth Radio Hour, State of the Re:Union, Snap Judgment and American Routes.

Launched in 2003, PRX has become a viable competitor to PRSS, said Barrett Golding, an independent producer who compared PRSS and PRX in a report for the Association of Independents in Radio.

TAL’s move to PRX could fuel that competition. The show accounts for just one hour a week, compared to WFMT’s 200 hours per week, but it airs on 587 stations.

“Across the board, 500 of the largest public radio stations are now going to have PRX in their distribution chain,” Golding said. “That’s fundamentally new, and it’s a huge change.”

As program directors become accustomed to using PRX more, it could drive more business toward the distributor, Golding said. “It’s a matter of habits —that’s what’s going to shift things,” he said. “And if they’re at PRX for what they need to do each week anyway, maybe they’ll throw a search in . . . for something to fill a gap or plug a hole in the schedule.”

Despite the departures of two high-profile producers, PRSS still enjoys unparalleled reach. As of January, it served 1,700 stations and more than 100 producers.

For WFMT, the lower costs of distributing via PRX sealed the deal to move.

WFMT was paying PRSS fees in the mid–six figures, Robinson said. PRSS offered discounted rates to keep WFMT’s business, he said, but not enough to beat PRX.

In PRSS’s revenue model, stations and program distributors share the costs of operating the system. Excess satellite transponder capacity is sold to non-public radio stations to defray costs as well.

PRSS also supplies in-kind distribution for content provided by Radio Bilingüe, Native Voice One and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. The organizations are able to distribute their content via PRSS at no cost.

Shake-up in distribution

As PRSS loses business from TAL and WFMT, it is adjusting to staff losses and restructuring undertaken over several months as NPR management works to balance the network’s budget. NPR Distribution veteran Pete Loewenstein, a longtime v.p. with oversight of PRSS, was among 19 employees in the division who accepted a voluntary buyout offer last year.

NPR also restructured the jobs of distribution staffers who handle finances, marketing, branding, communications and member partnership, moving them out of the distribution division and into other NPR units.

The reorganization involved a one-time expense of $1.92 million, pushing PRSS into the red by $2 million for a six-month period ending March 31. However, NPR projects that the distribution division will save $400,000 from the buyouts by Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.

PRSS has an above-average track record for its customer service and maintenance of a solid, stable platform for distribution, Golding said. But it has stumbled in keeping up with competition and changes in the market.

“They are great people at PRSS, but they don’t have a culture where they’re going to say, ‘What’s going on out there and how can we adapt?’” he said. “They don’t have to think about that because they’re so focused on the private side of things rather than the public side. It’s a culture thing.”

  • Aaron Read

    Here’s an important point that was not mentioned in the story: the costs of PRX and PRSS are largely the same. The primary difference is that PRSS has a hugely expensive but highly reliable satellite distribution system to maintain, so they must past those costs onto their users (producers and stations).

    PRX “hides” those costs by offering the option for stations to access the system using basic internet access methods, such as cablemodems or DSL. But those options are wildly unreliable, especially during severe weather (a depressingly common occurrence these days) and doubly so in rural areas that many public radio outlets both serve and are located in.

    If a station wants internet service that’s as reliable as satellite delivery is, it must therefore pay a lot more for enterprise-grade internet service and guaranteed uptime contracts. Such deals typically cost thousands of dollars per month, when they’re available at all (for many stations, they aren’t).

    This is not a dig against PRX. I actually like PRX a lot, and have used it to distribute syndicated programming. It’s a great alternative. But it should never, ever be viewed as a SUBSTITUTE for the PRSS.

    Especially not by program producers looking to save a few bucks; those dollars you’re saving are being passed directly onto your affiliate stations. That’s neither nice nor fair.

  • Barrett Golding

    Aaron, no question PRSS has the more reliable distro infrastructure, and no question we needed the sophistication of their system. The question is the does pubradio still require an “enterprise-grade” PRSS sys? Or is the internet and off-shelf computers and components now up to the task?

    We need no one’s opinion on this question; there’s plenty of data to answer this definitively: In the last five years, how many stations how missed how many programs using PRX? How many using PRSS?

    Now factor in the number of broadcast-hours each delivers? Can PRX scale to that level? (We’ll soon know w/ TAL and WFMT.) Also, what’s been the uptime of PRX vs PRSS? Perhaps stations, PRX, and PRSS can offer that data here, if they have it — if not, maybe we should start collecting it.

    PRSS provided our series w/ an exceptional level of service, and sometimes personal attention. But having to design everything in-house left them w/ some annoying (not maintaining compatibility w/ the latest browsers) and insecure habits (relying on Java even after the US Gov warned of extreme vulnerabilities).

    Maybe we’re at the point where a public, open-source system like the internet, as used by PRX, can exceed the performance of a proprietary hardware-dependent, intranet like the PRSS.

    • Andrew Kuklewicz

      Our uptime for prx.org is over 99%.

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