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Fred Jacobs is President of Jacobs Media, a media research and consulting firm. Jacobs Media clients have included CBS Radio, Premiere Radio Networks, Citadel, Greater Media, MTV Networks, Playboy, Amazon, Electronic Arts, NPR, Sylvan Learning Centers, and Taubman Malls. Learn more about the company here.

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August 2011

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Comments

Bob Bellin

This is fascinating - as were Eric's comments. I find myself in between the two opinions.
Would NPR’s demise be a opportunity for commercial spoken word stations? Their similarities pretty much end with spoken words - and the idea is analogous to a soft AC picking up an Alternative station's audience because they both play music. For that reason, I don’t agree with Eric’s suggestion that the current crop of commercial news/talk stations could lure many abandoned NPR listeners.
But I'm not convinced that commercial radio couldn't, at least theoretically replicate NPR and do it profitably. That said, I'm pretty sure that if they did, they'd ruin it before too long in a predictable attempt to beat some Wall Street analyst's quarterly projections, but more on that in a minute.

My thinking on this goes back to the early 90s. The basic premise that that the combination of a demonstrably upscale audience and quite a bit of network programming could combine to generate reasonable revenue at a reasonable cost. PPM has demonstrated (as Birch did years ago – which actually incubated my thinking on this) that the ratings for NPR – and presumably an NPR clone can be quite good.
A spot load/content limited – say 6 (with firm creative guidelines and limits) units per hour – station that takes a lot of its programming from syndication and boasts by far the richest, most educated audience in a market seems, at least on paper, to be something that could work.

A large public media company would be ideal to build it from scratch – but that’s the irony. The reason NPR has such a large following – apparently even from conservatives who feel it’s biased but listen anyway - is that it has upheld its standards without wavering…over decades. It’s hard to imagine any public radio company having the vision or discipline to do the research, craft the product, stick with it during the early lean years and not succumb to the pressure of killing the goose that laid the golden egg. At some point, the vesting of someone’s options would combine with a short term stock price boosting EBITDA opportunity…the result being that some fatal brand/image cuts would be rationalized then implemented.

I think there is a theoretical opportunity for commercial radio to lure NPR listeners whether NPR suffers measurably from budget cuts or not. 20 years ago, when I first mapped this out on a napkin, it might have worked – now I think it’s nothing more than blog fodder 

Fred

Thanks, as always Bob, for the thoughtful comments. Given the givens of commercial radio - and WTOP is indeed the exception when it comes to investment in people, infrastructure, training, etc. - it is hard to imagine how any radio company would dive into this space.

Perhaps the NYTimes could create a radio product that would be syndicatable and successful in PPM, but they have their hands full figuring out how to maintain their content and establish successful paywalls.

The other day I was listening to NPR's "Morning Edition" and Steve Inskeep was interviewing two generals involved in the Libyan initiative - each going into detail about the strategy, the execution, and the effectiveness of the U.S. plan. It was great radio.

And it reinforced that whether you think NPR is biased, too liberal, shouldn't be federally funded - or all those things - where else is this type of coverage going to come from? Who else could put together this brand of quality, informative radio?

That does not answer any of the difficult questions on the table, but as we speed along through this digital media information age, the distribution and platforms conversations are bullshit if the commitment to paying for an developing content isn't there.

Thanks for reading the blog and offering your thoughts.

Michael Marcotte

It's funny reading Farley's stereotype of public radio. With all due respect, it has roots in fact but seems rather dated. What has raised eyebrows among public radio insiders is the extent to which WAMU has borrowed from the WTOP playbook with more live reports, more breaking news, shorter spots and lively delivery. In other words, it may be public radio that's gunning for a share of the WTOP core. Would that cause the NPR P1s to bolt? Not a chance. Where would they go?

Fred

It was announced yesterday that WTOP is now THE top-billing station in the country. There's no shame in "borrowing" anything you can learn from Jim Farley and company. Thanks for chiming in, Michael.

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