by offering new options that
listeners are now choosing
What a different time it was — the late 1960s, when public broadcasting first put its footprint on the American media landscape. Television was three networks and maybe an independent channel, radio was Top 40, most Americans read a daily newspaper, and we had yet to go to the moon. It was a very different America in which the heritage of public broadcasting was formed — a great legacy that has sustained, informed and guided what we’ve done in the intervening years.
We are in a time of redefinition for public media that is as important and profound as those earliest years of our field. Electronic media are helping to drive continuing changes in the social and economic architecture of information, culture, entertainment and education — and are themselves transformed by those changes.
Public radio must reshape itself as digital technology and economics give listeners growing control over their media consumption. Listeners can now time-shift, pause and resume, play back, edit, archive, search and forward content and combine material from different sources.
At the same time, media presenters command equally powerful new platforms
for delivering content — wireless phones among the most recent. Online,
satellite and digital pathways to our audience have been part of our strategic
both opportunity and threat—for some years now, but at the periphery
rather than in its central focus.
What’s new is that these delivery systems are beginning to reach audiences of significant size, albeit still modest compared to those of our broadcasts.
We have reached a time for transformation. Against this backdrop stations must address two fundamental questions about their priorities and roles:
Priorities: toward a multiplatform strategy
With highly valued public radio content already increasingly available through emerging channels, conveyed directly to listeners by content creators or national distributors, stations are finding themselves locked out of opportunities to develop their own multichannel services.
Public radio also faces competition from new content creators on the Internet and satellite radio, including commercial entrepreneurs who aim squarely for the sound and audience of public radio. Some of these content creators may prove to be partners, but not without some serious work.
We believe overall use of public radio’s services, in all its forms and from all its sources, will grow significantly over the next five years. But it is not difficult to imagine that by the end of the same period a third of public radio’s weekly audience will listen an average of two hours a week to public radio delivered through a platform other than our primary broadcast channels. A very aggressive prediction envisions half of public radio’s weekly audience using new platforms an average of four hours a week.
These levels translate to a range of 8 percent to 25 percent of public radio’s total service—clearly a change worth taking seriously for its threats, opportunities and effects on our present service model. The fundamental question is: Who will be managing and providing these new platforms and services?
Stations must address some key questions:
Roles: balancing presentation and creation
In allocating resources, stations routinely weigh their investments in two basic elements of their service. One is selecting content and setting its context and the other is creating original content.
Most public radio stations devote the bulk of their resources to the first role, assembling a service from the output of national networks and producers, the music industry, wire services and other sources. The value proposition lies in the careful, artful assembling of major elements and the insertion of small amounts of purely local content, such as weather, traffic, local news, announcements and flashes of local personalities that together provide practical information and convey a unique sense of place and connectedness.
A far smaller number of stations invest significant portions of their budgets in the second role, often capturing a significant portion of their listening with content they largely created themselves—newscasts and newsmagazines, talk shows, artist interviews, live and recorded performances from the studio or the community, variety shows, comedy, quiz shows, and live broadcasts from events.
Many in public radio believe the value of the first role will decline over time. With most content suppliers pursuing listeners directly, stations will no longer be the exclusive source of some unique content. Moreover, services on other platforms will attempt to present, recommend and set context for programming—using ultra-niche strategies in satellite radio and Internet radio and database-driven, user-focused customization in online and on-demand services. Listeners themselves, meanwhile, will be able to assemble their own packages of material using a combination of subscription, search, storage, editing and retrieval tools.
Stations will have the option of responding by moving aggressively to new channels and technologies, assembling multiple packages and offering dramatically more content than can be provided through a single broadcast channel. They, too, can use technologies that give listeners more control over content. In effect, stations can extend their selector and context-setter role, positioning themselves as organizers and guides for educated, curious listeners in a fragmented, specialized and complex media landscape.
Stations can tilt their resources toward creating unique, distinctive, high-quality content. They have more control over the content they create, both on their broadcast channels and on other platforms. To the extent that such content reflects unique and desirable qualities—such as a specific sense of place, access to special resources, or a talented personality—it gives stations a competitive advantage. If the programming makes a strong connection with the community, it serves as a powerful pathway for listeners to identify the station as a community institution.
Stations that make a strong commitment to creating local content may need
to rethink their programming economics. Original production is very
expensive. While networks can spread such costs over many station users,
a station often
must shoulder them alone or in combination with only a few partners, as in
a regional collaboration. As a result, many programming dollars will yield
limited listener hours of use.
In many cases, stations are unlikely to recover costs through the conventional listener-sensitive combination of memberships and business underwriting. If, however, the local creation and presentation of distinctive programming materially advances stations’ significance as local institutions, such work can reap dividends in the kinds of major gifts and philanthropy that flow to other major cultural and civic institutions. It is important to remember that virtually none of public radio’s national producers and the programs they make fully covers its costs through marketplace transactions; they all sustain themselves through a combination of transactions, gifts and grants. There is no reason to expect it would be different for stations.
It is difficult for a station to ease gradually into significant local production. To provide enough local content to warrant philanthropic support, a station would have to make major commitments of resources and airtime—and sustain those commitments over time. It is a public service gamble that most stations have hesitated to take.
Indeed, to sustain local production, stations typically must do a good
job as presenters of others’ programs, generating positive returns on investments
in national programming, carefully choosing acquisitions, bargaining over prices
and, for NPR members, working for favorable dues levels. If a large number
of stations were to commit to a local content creation strategy, it might require
some rebalancing of the role of station investments in national programming.
Station leaders need to think through the evolution of their service strategies and strategic position to answer these questions:
Leveraging our assets
To flesh out plans and set about this work, stations can bring significant assets to the task: strong programming that sets us apart on the media landscape, a significant and growing share of listening (one in 20 Americans who have their radios turned on), a diverse economic foundation, great brand recognition and a talented, highly motivated workforce.
We also have a principled strategic position. Producers and audiences share a clear sense of core values. We are trusted and sophisticated producers, selectors, and context-setters for content of high quality and depth. And we present that content with genuine respect for the intelligence, curiosity, values and sensibilities of our listeners.
We help our listeners connect the dots in a very complex world so that they can work toward solutions in their lives and their communities.
We celebrate America’s diverse culture with integrity, authenticity, and joy.
We provide a shelter from the storm of a difficult and fast-moving time, important moments of reflection and refuge.
Our task is to leverage these genuine assets to positions of strength in a changing context and to preserve this important and distinctive strategic position in new settings and on new platforms. If we do that, the reward is enormous opportunities for growth in the service we deliver and its support from our listening communities.
Tom Thomas and Terry Clifford are co-chief executives of the Station Resource
Group, a Maryland-based strategy-focused alliance of 40 public radio broadcasters.
SRG members operate some 170 stations and produce much of public radio’s
national programming. SRG’s mission is to help America’s strongest
public radio stations better serve the public and thrive in a period of radical
Web page posted Oct. 31, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Current Publishing Committee