NPR or local public radio: Who should get your money?

It’s been a couple of weeks since NPR canceled Talk of the Nation, the daily two-hour national talk show hosted by Neal Conan. NPR’s ombudsman is sharing the pain expressed by some listeners.

I agree with you and will miss the show, too. Not only did I admire it for what it was, but also I respected how Conan and executive producer Sue Goodwin were always quick in responding to my queries, understanding the value of being open as a way to maintain your trust and loyalty. We all knew that there was no way to do the high-wire act of a live show each day and not make mistakes. Admitting to them is not an existential threat. It helped make them one of us.

As it was, the show made precious few mistakes anyway, a testament to the professionalism of the entire team and their hard, often times frantic work on deadline. As the clock ticked each morning, Goodwin would shoot off questions to staffers as she wrote and re-wrote the direction she wanted to take interviews. The subjects and their order were scribbled on a board and would shift with the news. The scenes could have come straight out of The Front Page.

But the show is gone now, reinforcing the lesson that it’s best to show support for programs while they’re still on the air.

A comment to the ombudsman’s post, though, shows the headache these decisions give to public radio stations across the country.

It’s a common misconception. People believe when they contribute to their local public radio station, they’re contributing to NPR. They’re not.

In fact, listeners don’t contribute anything to NPR. The local public radio stations pay NPR for the programming they air, but the local stations don’t call the shots on NPR’s decision. There’s no indication local stations had any involvement in the decision to scrap Talk of the Nation.

So the gentleman who wants his wife to stop “giving money to NPR” is actually punishing people who didn’t have anything to do with the decision in the first place.

Some people in the industry think NPR should be allowed to receive money directly from the listeners, however.

John Sutton, who writes the RadioSutton blog, suggests NPR collect money from listeners and then return a portion of it to the local stations, thus changing the entire economic structure of public radio.

There’s more: NPR will be back in the business of serving its member stations rather than competing with them. NPR will depend on station audiences for more of its revenues, giving it incentives to grow radio listening, which would benefit NPR and member stations. NPR also gains significant new resources and latitude to grow its national and global audiences.

Stations will have more money to develop local content that creates stronger communities. That helps attract more philanthropic dollars from major donors and foundations, further solidifying the station as a valued community institution.

Can’t happen, you say? Consider that Apple changed the entire economy of the record industry working as an outside agent. Surely NPR could change the entire economy of public radio as the most powerful organization in the industry.

This idea generally scares many local public radio stations, who worry that as they lose listener support to NPR, they’d also lose the ability to exert significant control over programming.

But as the Talk of the Nation cancellation suggests, in many ways they already have.

  • MrE85

    I’m more of an MPR fan then an NPR listener, so our money stays local. We just renewed, BTW.

    • Joanna

      same here

  • Xopher

    I think the current funding model is better; perhaps NPR could form a foundation to help incubate local stations who are struggling, and take donations for that.

  • KTFoley

    No 5×8 today?

    • I’m oft patrolling the Great River Road.

      • KTfoley

        Looking forward to a story, then!

  • Chuck

    Seems like it would become awful tempting for NPR to start diverting money to stations with a larger listenership or larger number of potential listeners because of the hope for for a larger “donating public.” I guess I’m also unclear on how NPR currently is perceived to compete with local stations.

    • Historically, NPR has depended on terrestrial stations to distribute content. As the Internet came along, of course, that has all changed, leading some in the pubrad business to get paranoid that NPR wouldn’t need local stations anymore. To the extent it currently does, it’s because the stations give them money to carry the programming and, thus, to the extent that someone is calling for a “new economic model,” others assume that changes the entire relationship NPR has with its local stations.

      Couple that with the old-time media’s instinct not to ever change anything because (a) we’ve always done it this way and/or (b) if we don’t do anything, maybe the market forces affecting the rest of the media won’t influence because we’re public radio and we’re special , and you have a really interesting brew of angst.

  • Craig

    NPR covers the Supreme Court very, very
    well, but outside that domain their stories rarely proceed beyond the ansatz.
    MPR exhibits analytic abilities superior to those of NPR, I wish they
    would cover more national stories and defer to NPR less. And by the way,
    when people around the world listen to a quality show produced using Minnesota
    contributions, it should be identified as a product of Minnesota, not American
    Public Media.

  • Tony

    Local stations had EVERYTHING to do with TOTN’s cancellation! That was explicitly stated when the cancellation was announced…

    “The New York Times adds that the plan “is the product of discussions that began more than two years
    ago between NPR and some of its biggest member stations. The stations
    wanted a magazine-style news show at the middle of the day, something
    along the lines of Morning Edition and All Things Considered, the two bookends of most stations’ weekday schedules.”