NPR steps back from the future

We’ve chatted in this space a number of times about the future of terrestrial radio — public radio in particular — in an age where more people are getting their audio stimulation from podcasts.

There’s probably nothing that creates more tension in radio these days than the subject of podcasting.

So it’s illustrative that NiemanLab has pulled the curtain away a bit to reveal the depth to which this tension exists between NPR and, reportedly, the local public radio organizations (not MPR, for the record, we’re all about podcasts).

The kerfuffle started anew yesterday when NPR updated its ethics policy to tell its radio announcers to stop promoting podcasts, an interesting directive considering that a lot of smart people think podcasting is the future of radio.

It is, as I wrote last year, the moment when the way things are collides with the way things are going to be.

– No Call to Action:We won’t tell people to actively download a podcast or where to find them. No mentions of npr.org, iTunes, Stitcher, NPR One, etc.

GOOD:

“That’s Linda Holmes of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast and our blogger on the same subject and Bob Mondello, NPR’s film critic. Thanks so much.

BAD:

“OK, everyone. You can download Alt.Latino from iTunes and, of course, via the NPR One app.

– Informational, not Promotional: When referring to podcasts, and the people who host, produce, or contribute to them, we will mention the name of the podcast but not in a way that explicitly endorses it. References should not specifically promote the content of the podcast (e.g., “This week, the Politics Podcast team digs into delegate math.”) If you feel a podcast title needs explaining (e.g. Hidden Brain), some additional language can be added (e.g., “That’s Shankar Vedantam, he hosts a podcast that explores the unseen patterns of human behavior. It’s called, Hidden Brain” ). Just to repeat: Be creative in how you back announce podcasts, but please avoid outright promotion.

– No NPR One: For now, NPR One will not be promoted on the air.

There will be exceptions to these rules, but when in doubt let these principles be your guide.

Joshua Benton at NeimanLab sees a parallel here with other long-time institutions that tried to ignore the inevitable technological change at their doorstep:

The most optimistic way to look at this is that a radio listener is more valuable on average to NPR than a digital listener, and NPR does not want to convert any of Group A into Group B. This is no doubt true, today, in 2016. But it was also true, in earlier days of the web (and still today!), that a print newspaper reader is more valuable than a digital newspaper reader. I remember heated debates in the late 1990s and early 2000s about whether or not newspapers should mention or promote their websites in print. I think that approach is shortsighted — as it turns out, people found out about the web even without newspapers printing URLs in 2002! — but at least there’s a certain internal logic to it.

The less optimistic way to look at this — and what I suspect is the correct way — is that it’s just that station dynamic playing out again. That would be a clear sign that there’s a real strategy tax at work here. Unfamiliar with the idea of a strategy tax? One definition:

A strategy tax is anything that makes a product less likely to succeed, yet is included to further larger corporate goals.

The classic example is Steve Ballmer-era Microsoft, where lots of unusual product decisions were made because Nothing Could Be Done That Might Weaken Microsoft Windows.

“I have enormous sympathy for the people making these decisions at NPR — just as I had enormous sympathy for those working through an analogous set of questions at newspapers 5 or 10 years ago,” Benton writes. “But if you see a future, at a certain point you’ve got to commit to getting there.”

The problem for NPR is that the future is already here.

Keep in mind the comment earlier this year from Jad Abumrad, the creator of RadioLab.

“I don’t know a single 20-year-old who has a radio,” he told PBS NewsHour.

Check back in a few years when a lot of darkened radio stations are wondering what the heck happened.

Reaction: Prudent? Out of touch? Reactions vary to NPR guidelines on podcast promo (Current)

Related radio: Streaming media: Where the creativity goes to thrive (NewsCut)

NPR, radio at a dangerous intersection (NewsCut)

  • ChrisF

    Is it something to do with being accused of using public money to promote a private product? If not I remain confused on what the issue is beyond phasing in podcasts which may as well be called ‘radio on demand’. But it’s not like you have Steve Inskeep stopping to promote MeUndies halfway through the Policits Podcast (which is quickly becoming my most favorite of podcasts by the wa…oh crap did I just commit an NPR ethics violation by saying that?)

    • Not, it has nothing to do with the financing. It has nothing to do with advertising. It has to do with the vision for the future of the audio medium and how a legacy media gets there. Or doesn’t get there.

      See newspapers, 1994.

      • ChrisF

        So, if you don’t look at it that means you can’t see it and therefore it can’t see you and it goes away?

        My dogs try that when they get in trouble. Doesn’t work.

        • Paul Weimer

          I am reminded of Douglas Adams’ Bugblatter Beast of Traal, which if you can’t see it, it can’t see you, and so you are safe.

    • Rob

      //radio on demand// I like that! The term “podcast” never sounds quite right to me; I always think of Invasion of the Body Snatchers whenever I hear it.

  • John

    It may be of interest to NPR (and perhaps MPR) brass that I am 36, and have four radios in my house (and one in each car). I live well within MPR’s broadcast range.

    Three of those four radios have inputs that allow me to stream MPR (and other digital media) from my phone. The FM dial is virtually never my source of signal. Two reasons: 1) I have them setup in such a way that I never have to touch the radio. Just beam the music there from my phone. 2) My nice radio in the kitchen is a full analog dial (sound is amazing), and I can’t get it to settle on the station I listen to the most, so I stopped trying and went all digital.

    Now the car . . . there I listen to the FM dial more than anything, and tend to stream when I’m out of FM range.

    It comes down to the most convenient way for me to get the sounds I want coming out of my speakers. That’s almost always from my phone – except in the car, where it involves fewer button pushes to use the FM.

    The future is now. . .

    The bottom line is that the most pushy and the best quality are going to remain, and everything else will eventually disappear, regardless of the delivery medium.

  • lindblomeagles

    Even some of the talk radio shows, particularly in sports, podcast their programs. When I was a boy, families thought they arrived when they purchased a grand daddy sized analog TV, a personal computer, two or more phones in the home, and a Sony Walkman or Radio Shack Boom Box. Cable and music videos were just being created. Wall phones today are a thing of the past; you can’t find an analog TV built the size of a coffee table, and even the personal computer has undergone a significant facelift, becoming smaller and smaller every day. At this point, the only thing that could save NPR from podcasts is an electrical energy crisis.

  • Jack

    NPR is living in the past. Saw somewhere that CBS is trying to sell its terrestrial stations now.

    Wake up if you want to stay relevant. Seeing that they’ve gone after Cokie lately, not sure they get what’s happening in the real world.

    • NPR has done a REALLY good job completely remaking their radio sound so they get it. The station managers have always been a force.

      What’s going to happen is their brightest digital people will leave . Many already have.

      It’s the worst possible position a radio network can get itself into.

      It’s a power struggle and digital just lost.

      • David

        Digital at NPR lost, but overall digital will win.

        • I expect NPR will backtrack on this in fairly short order.

    • ec99

      Living in the past? Guess that explains reruns of “Car Talk.”

  • Rob

    Ah, the old Ostrich Strategy. I can see people getting crabby when NPR mentions a podcast that they might be interested in, but doesn’t give them enough info to find said podcast without a little more legwork.

  • I’m in my 60’s and have always liked radio. That said, it’s pretty darned clear that people want what they want when they want it, and any model that ties listening to a rigid schedule is probably not long for this world. For me, it wasn’t an abrupt shift from broadcast radio, but gradually I just lost patience with having to wait for news or substantive topics to come up on the NPR station within range. Now that 4G service is available, my smartphone happily streams aggregated podcasts or “live” feeds without the hassles of broadcast stations that fade when I get out of range, When the lamebrain segment of NPR programs like ATC takes over the last 15 minutes of the hour with some pop culture topic, it’s easy to bail out and get what I want. The days of endlessly tuning the radio on car trips to find something other than sports and preachers are over, too – I can get MPR News and Classical most places now, and if there’s no signal, there are always downloaded audio books and podcasts.

    This “dilution” of traditional radio has occurred as digital audio developed and evolved hand in hand with better storage, fast internet streaming, and more generous data plans. It is not going away, and it is relegating broadcast radio to one drop in a bucket of choice.

    So there it is. My millennial son does own a radio, but I haven’t seen him use it in at least five years. And when geezers like me would sooner grab the smartphone for audio, you’ve got to take notice. None of this affects my commitment to MPR as a sustaining member – in fact, since MPR isn’t shy about offering on demand audio, my interest in the News and Classical services is as strong as ever.

  • Brian

    I am 31. I like listening to NPR (through MPR) on the radio. That is how I started listening. However, I only listen on the actual radio in the car and I have stopped commuting by car very much. My actual radio listening time has probably dropped off to the point where, if that were the only way I interacted with M/NPR, I would probably drop my membership. That said, I listen to several NPR podcasts and get news from both MPR and NPR online. I have kept my MPR membership since 2005 (through a move to Iowa and back) to support these things (along with the radio broadcast). NPR should support these things too.

  • And I read this all while listening to one of the 5 podcasts I keep up on…

  • chris

    I wish this was easier to consider with facts. How many podcasts are there that really compete with NPR/MPR programming? Scott Carrier, one of the best This American Life correspondents has a great podcast and he has about 60,000 regular listeners he figures. Maybe it’s working out great for him, but if his stories were on TAL he would have millions of listeners to his work. And he is one of the best. How many podcasts out there have less than 10,000 listeners, let alone people willing to pay for it.

    Meanwhile MPR/NPR seem to be pretty healthy. Sure I stream it now more on my phone than listen on over the air radio, but it is the channel of content that matters. Hearing certain shows on demand is nice too, but radio has been around a long time and a handful of Serial type podcasts are not going to bring down public radio.

    I do appreciate changing the tone away from promotion of podcasts.

    • It’s more complicated than that. It’s not a micro issue of whether a particular podcast does or doesn’t have more listeners than a corresponding live radio segement (many podcasts, for example, ARE the live radio segments provided on a different platform). It’s whether a core media in a changing media landscape that actually took RADIO out of its name to show that it’s not just a radio network, has a vision for a new media landscape.

      More importantly, it’s about the continuing power struggle within NPR that’s been going on FOR YEARS between the old guard and the new guard. These are the sorts of things that illuminate the existence of that power struggle and how it impacts the listeners now and in the future.

      • chris

        Yeah, I guess I don’t get it. If the radio part is working, the 91.1 stream with its MPR and NPR and PRI content, why does it need to give way to something new that we don’t even know what it is yet.

        It strikes me a little like those who say we have to cut social security now so we don’t have to cut it in the future or something like that.

        If MPR/NPR are strong and working well. What’s the problem? If some people are listening less and using podcasts more but the radio side is still healthy and sustainable, what is the problem?

        • Well, for one thing, her e you are on MPR news’ website which I was charged with creating when I was given the task in 1998. At the time, the reaction of a large number of newspeople was “we’re a radio station, dammit! Why are we putting energy into this Internet thing.”

          And the answer was simple. Because times are changing and people are changing how they consume media.

          That was the easy answer. The more complex answer is that it’s not either-or, it’s all part of a more symbiotic relationship between platforms as the digital age emerged. You really don’t have to make a choice if you’re priority is your audience.

          The reality is that for most broadcasting entities, the radio station is nowhere near as healthy and sustainable as it was. The margins are very low and — if you follow a couple of those old links I provided in the post — the audience is old and getting older.

          It’s a nice security blanket for radio station operators without vision. It takes care of the right now. But it’s a suicidal path and mentality.

          Commercial radio news went down this same path in the 70s.

  • X.A. Smith

    I’m 43, and I used to listen to MPR several hours a day. I listen to 20 hours of podcasts for every hour of MPR these days. Two main reasons: 1. It’s harder and harder to get the signal over terrestrial radio, and 2. the programming has overall not improved over the last 20 years.

    Long term trends: less long-form coverage. What were once hour-long single topic shows are now split up into smaller chunks. Those chunks recycle so often that it seems like they discuss the same 6 topics every day, but somehow they still don’t get deep. This is what happened to Talk of the Nation. MPR Weekday mornings (I still call it Mid-morning and Mid-day) have gone that direction as well. I don’t listen.

    There are podcasts that I’ve been listening to for ten years now. I’m beginning to think it’s not just a fad.

  • raflw

    Totally bizarre. I know I’m mixing my public broadcasters, but the ‘ads’ (ahem, enhanced underwriting) on Downton Abbey were all for Audible.
    But NPR’s attitude is ‘La la la I can’t hear podcasts. La la la what’s that noise?” Foolish.

  • A_Magwitch

    You don’t have to be a millennial to get rid of your radios. All bedside radios, those in the kitchen and in the bathroom have been supplanted by my iPhone. And I’m in my late 40s.

    • Same here, ‘cept for Android The bedside “radio” has one purpose… a clock I can see when I turn over in the middle of the night.

      Couldn’t listen to the Timberwolves great game last night vs. Golden State. Why? I don’t own an AM radio.