Dispute between radio station and This American Life is fight for public radio’s soul

The fight between public radio stations and developing technology spilled into the open again today when an Indiana station said it will stop carrying This American Life because Ira Glass has cut a deal with Pandora to provide exclusive on-demand streaming. Public Radio stations can still stream the shows live on their websites.

Mike Savage, the GM at the station in Lafayette, Indiana, says the deal is inconsistent with the mission of Public Radio.

“I am all for improving the bottom line, however we as public radio leaders must keep the balance between mission and bottom line in the forefront,” he writes. “If all we wanted to do was grow the audience, we could change our formats to country music and accomplish that objective. We must respect the mission. Does the ends justify the means? For a program that got its start on public radio and had some of the best on-air fundraising messages for listeners where Ira Glass says he is volunteering his time because he believes in the mission of public broadcasting, the move by This American Life to Pandora is disingenuous at best.”

Savage, who is on NPR’s Board of Directors, says he will pull This American Life from his station in August.

The action appears to mirror the rationale for NPR’s decision to stop mentioning its podcasts on-air, because some stations worry that people will stop listening to terrestrial radio and listen to podcasts and streaming instead.

That, as one might imagine, is not sitting well with Ira Glass, the host of TAL, who said in a reply on Savage’s LinkedIn page that making money isn’t incompatible with public radio, and doing so won’t hurt the medium that gave Glass his start.

Mike has asked, what do member stations get out of it, when a show like ours generates revenue from Pandora and from elsewhere outside the system? My answer is: better programming. The money we’ve made from podcast advertising and from Pandora is money we’ve invested in our core product: making more ambitious, mission-driven shows. Because of that money, I’m able to fly five producers to refugee camps in Greece at the end of this month. Because of that money, we were able to send three reporters for five months into a high school that’d had over two dozen shootings in a year (stories that later won the Peabody). Because of that money, I can have one producer work for over five months full-time with the Marshall Project and ProPublica on an episode about rape (which won them the Pulitzer) or Nikole Hannah-Jones’s and Chana Joffe-Walt’s three programs on the re-segregation of American schools (winner of a Peabody this year). The money we make elsewhere, we use to do more in-depth reporting. To do stories we never could’ve afforded for the first decade we were on the air.

But Savage says he’s not against podcasting. He’s against Pandora.

Just go for a test drive in a new car and you will see their aggressive presentation is. In fact, I believe it’s one of Pandoras main goals to put traditional radio out of business. So if I am concerned that core content like TAL which has really defined public radio for many years is now available on a purely commercial platform as Ira says to reach a larger audience, you’ll have to forgive me for being protective of public radio’s mission driven service.

The disagreement has sparked quite a discussion on Savage’s page that also gets to the one thing that makes public radio news veterans nervous: Money.

“I think of the musical nostalgia fundraisers on public TV, for example, pre-empting Frontline,” Judith Smelser, a pubmedia journalist, writes. “That’s a break in the trust. It’s cynical, it’s a short sell, and it’s the beginning of the end. We haven’t done that yet in public radio. But the risk of dedicating ourselves primarily to fulfilling metrics or budgets is always there.”

  • Gary F

    Wow, Michael Savage is on NPR’s board of directors. Who woulda thunk it.

  • Matt H

    The most effective mantra for nonprofit management: “No Margin, No Mission”

  • jon

    There is one thing to be said for traditional radio over Pandora, or any other internet based medium.
    It isn’t “This american life” or the BBC, or any other nationally available program that NPR member stations repeat…

    Radio is local.
    The broadcasting towers for KNOW and KCMP have a defined audience set by geography.
    Local newspapers have the same thing (national papers do not).
    http://blogs.mprnews.org/newscut/2016/05/why-didnt-anyone-save-the-pioneer-press/

    The internet does really bad at “local” sure I can put in my town to a weather site, or a news aggregator and get some results, and in theory pandora could pull some GPS coordinates from my phone and relay local advertisement but it just doesn’t do it well. The weather site might just be aggregate data from NOAA compiled automatically by a computer, the news is just news that originated in my area, not even things that are happening here, or stories about here that came from New York and say grape salad is our culinary delight in the area…

    The real question should be though does anyone do “local” well? and how can they reach and related to the local audience better?
    That should be the call of radio, This American Life is filler, it’s cheap because it’s made once and played all over the country, at the same time it can have higher production values because it’s a national program, but local coverage is the real strength of the medium, and stations that embrace that are probably bound to do better than those who go the route of clear channel and make a few radio stations to rule them all and pump them through to all markets with only the ads and station ids changed for each station.

    • wjc

      Traditional radio is dead. It just doesn’t know enough to lie down yet.

      Local is great for stuff that is local: restaurants, uber, directions, etc. How much of traditional radio is really local? Do you really have to listen to The Current to get a local view of music? Does The Current even give a local view of music outside the hour or so a week devoted to local artists.

      I think survival for traditional radio outlets will depend on how much they can branch out into online programming that will attract additional listeners. Pulling those listeners back to traditional radio is not going to happen.

      • rosswilliams

        Most broadcast radio is not local, but that is its future for the reasons Jon gave. People do listen to community radio where it is done well and there are still local radio stations, both commercial and public, that produce a stream of local oriented content. Of course, local radio isn’t nearly as lucrative, which is why Minnesota Public Radio exists. No one was going to get rich managing a single station out of Collegeville.

      • jon

        I think you’ll find the current does a lot of local music compared to the clear channel stations they are competing with, and between the music they do a fair amount of local stories as well, particularly compared to the clear channel stations (which increasingly all use the same dj clips over and over again).
        I also think you’ll find the current talking about local shows that you’ll never hear about on the clear channel national broadcast stations…
        So Yes, I do think that the Current gives me a better attachment to local views than most of the competing stations, and a significantly better view of local issues than pandora which does nothing to that effect.

        I think you’ll find KNOW puts out a fair amount more about the cities and minnesota than you’ll hear from public radio in Texas.

        So yes MPR does local, but, the question I ask is still relevant, does anyone do this well? Arguably MPR has it’s net cast too wide, trying to server all of MN (and some areas beyond) though we could also say that the local st. paul stations I hear exist (though can’t be received in the suburbs) are focused way to narrow and suffer because of it. Local issues aren’t enough to fill 24 hours 7 days a week for most people, so some filler (this american life, the BBC, national programming) is going to be needed, but how much?

        Radio is going to be alive so long as AM/FM radios come standard it cars.
        Radio would be in a much better state if cell phones had FM radios enabled, and if the broadcast industry had managed to get that in smartphones they’d be in a much stronger position (because radio uses less battery than streaming over the internet, and generally is available even in places where you might be unable to get cell service).

        • Let me take this from an old editor’s point of view:

          “Local issues aren’t enough to fill 24 hours 7 days a week for most people, so some filler (this american life, the BBC, national programming) is going to be needed, but how much?”

          What’s a “local issue?” Is it something that happens locally? Or is it something that impacts people living near here?

          I hear this a lot in MN now only framed in terms of “rural issues.” What’s a rural issue?

          Also “how local is local if it’s geographically based?” 10 miles? 100 miles?

          Does an issue that’s “local” stop at the St. Croix River?

          The issue is more complex than I think a lot of people believe.

  • PaulJ

    Non-profit does not mean non lucrative; so I’m surprised there isn’t a non-compete clause in a contract somewhere.

  • Mark

    “Just go for a test drive in a new car and you will see their aggressive presentation is. In fact, I believe it’s one of” …
    the car maker’s’ main goals to put horse and buggies out of business.

    I listen to MPR for immediate news but for the featured shows (Splendid Table, Dinner Party Download, Wait Wait, etc) I usually listen to the podcast when it fits my schedule. I’m the one who should be in control. If a broadcaster or network wants to dictate my schedule, they will have to find a way to compensate me. Restricting access makes their content less compelling.

  • rosswilliams

    “making money isn’t incompatible with public radio”

    Not at all, just ask Bill Kling who used “non-profit” public radio to become a multi-millionaire. The problem, of course, is that it was public radio that gave Ira Glass the opportunity to become an attractive brand for a commercial streaming service. What you might ask is why we needed public radio to create commercially viable programs like his. The answer is we don’t.

  • ec99

    “you’ll have to forgive me for being protective of public radio’s mission driven service.”

    There has never been a shortage of hubris at NPR.