NPR reporter quits to cure what ails it

The social media landscape has given rise to a new art form: the “why I quit” treatise. You’ve probably seen them from time to time. Someone doesn’t want to work somewhere anymore, quits, and then bares the faults of the workplace with the suggestion that its time is up.

Almost always, the workplace continues on without the aggrieved party, though its challenges are great.

The chances are that NPR will continue on too.

Stephen Henn, NPR’s technology correspondent, is the latest NPR staffer to quit, citing its inevitable downfall, he writes on today.

Public radio is in danger. And no, the biggest threat is not that Republicans in Congress will cut its funding. (Although that could happen too.)

The biggest threat to NPR — and the 900+ member stations that are the life-blood of the public radio system — is that this big beautiful crazy system may not get its act together to make the jump into the digital age. I want to help.

People, and not just millennials, are changing how we listen. We are all listening to stories differently than we once did.

And so far no one has built the kick-ass digital radio that I want.

The digital radio I want would make it easier to support great work. It would help public radio break out of the white, upper-middle class ghetto it has created for itself. It would be personalized. It would be global. It would be social and ubiquitous. It would let the audience talk back. My ideal digital radio, it would listen to the audience.

Unquestionably, listening habits are challenging public radio. It’s also true that radio newspeople historically are pretty ignorant about the business of radio.

The newsroom crowd is pretty good at citing the problems. The solutions? Not so much. Our workplaces are a lot easier to figure out and run when we’re not the ones running them.

I was one of the people working at a major network once who lamented that if I only could run my own radio station, life would be good. And so I did, and life was awful because I found out there’s a lot more to public radio — any kind of listening, really — besides the listener experience.

People want to be paid for working, for one thing. That required advertiser money or some sort of funding scheme. But advertisers have noticed, too, that listenership has changed and they’re spending their money elsewhere too.

It’s hard to provide a great listener experience when you’re broke.

There’s a reason why public radio is in — as Henn calls it — the “white, upper-middle class ghetto it has created for itself.” That’s where the money is that funds the whole operation. That’s the problem with mass media; people want to be paid for what they provide.

It’s not that the leadership doesn’t know the challenges. I’ve never met anyone in public radio leadership who doesn’t fully understand already what Henn has pointed out.

It’s that nobody has been able to figure out how to refocus an organization toward an entirely different audience, potentially alienating the one it has in favor of one it hasn’t.

If Henn can figure it out, he’ll be a very rich man, although the fact he’s already given up a paycheck suggests he’s got a few bucks to begin with.

He won’t be the first one to try.