Paul Jacobs chimes in with a timely post about NPR’s travails and what they mean to all of radio.
When Howard Stern announced his departure to Sirius, Fred noted in a blog that his move was akin to Michael Jordan leaving the NBA, and he was right. It didn't matter whether you liked Stern's brand of humor - the bottom line was that radio was losing one of its biggest stars and as a result, there was one less reason for millions of listeners to turn on the device that Marconi gave us. And Howard hasn't been replaced - nor have many of his listeners who followed him to satellite radio.
I had the same thought yesterday morning as I was reading two radio trades. Radio Ink's Eric Rhoads premised that NPR's potential demise is a huge opportunity for radio. His thoughts were summarized with this quote:
“But the NPR uproar is a huge opportunity for radio, a giant insurance policy for struggling Talk and music stations at a time when non-political spoken word is set to prevail.”
Apparently there's a belief out there that should NPR crumble, commercial broadcasters are ready to swoop in to fill the void left by a broadcaster that attracts over 35 million listeners weekly. You could see the logic. But it's faulty.
Because I then opened up Radio-Info and saw this headline:
Clear Channel is Cutting Production/Creative Staff
Sadly, this has become a fairly common event in commercial radio over the past few years, as operating efficiency has been the watchword; in this case, consolidating production directors to save money.
When we first started consulting and conducting research in public radio over a decade ago, one of the first things we noticed was the quality of cars that public radio general managers drove (usually a 1990 Honda Accord). It was definitely a different culture than we were used to.
We got to know public radio stations and the audiences who love them, and then later went on to work for NPR. After countless focus groups and other market research endeavors, we came to realize that public radio's success was no accident. It was the result of doggedly hard work and dedication by radio professionals committed to craft, a sense of fairness, and a never-ending quest for learning and discovery. And among the hundreds of people we got to know in public radio, I've yet to meet one who's in it for the money. They don't exist.
During the decade we worked for NPR (sadly, we don't anymore, victims of budget cuts two years ago), we came to appreciate and understand the investment – not just in dollars – that is required to produce quality content. Yes, to do radio on that level, you have to invest in research, people, and analysis.
We once worked for a commercial broadcaster with a Triple A morning show problem. Our research showed that the audience desired a better news product. The company’s group guy suggested we simply steal one of the public radio station’s news people – one of the hosts who did the local news “cut-ins” for NPR’s Morning Edition.
Maybe you can steal a morning show, but you cannot simply go out and buy a credible news image – for $35K. Public radio’s success is no accident. And rather than look at public radio's impact as siphoning audience away from the local commercial Talk station or All News operation (if there even is one in your town), why wouldn’t Eric see public radio as “additive” to terrestrial radio?
Because it is. When listeners switch between 91.7 and 99.5 and then go to 950, they’re exercising their choice on the AM/FM radio spectrum. When it reaches the point when the Howard Sterns on one hand and the NPRs on the other leave the building, the fans aren’t going to continue to patronize the medium like they traditionally did.
One of Eric’s go-to-guys at his wonderful Convergence conferences, Guy Kawasaki (pictured), summed it up rather well in a recent interview with Mark Ramsey. While Guy enjoys listening to Greg Kihn on Entercom’s KFOX, he is a big fan of public radio, too. Despite the fact that Guy is someone with a total grasp of all the media options available to him, broadcast radio is a prime source of entertainment and information for him:
“I think NPR pretty much understands enchantment. I love shows like Fresh Air, TechNation, Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me. I think Moira Gunn and Terry Gross and Peter Sagal all understand enchantment. They are what they are. They’re very competent, they’re very knowledgeable, they let it rip on the air; and so I love them.”
Public radio and commercial radio are RADIO. While “share” is a zero sum game, “share of mind” and perceived value are different propositions altogether.
We’re not suggesting that when public radio suffers, all of radio feels the pain. But the fact is, commercial radio cannot and will not fill any gap that is left by collateral damage done to public radio and NPR. The efficiencies and ROI aren’t there. Ask the venture capital guys and the bankers. Public radio's problems aren't going to help anybody’s EBITDA. It takes people to do great radio. If public radio were to suddently “go away” tomorrow, their audience wouldn’t gravitate to Rush Radio. They’d subscribe to Sirius and be gone.
There’s room on the radio dial for Sean Hannity, traffic and weather at the 8’s, and All Things Considered. In fact, that’s part of the eroding charm of terrestrial radio. As we have ratcheted our focus to a more 25-54 centric target, axing formats like Smooth Jazz and Classical (yes, there are still plenty of these public radio formats left) because “we can’t make any money on them,” the AM/FM choices become narrower and narrower.
NPR’s angst is not “good for radio.” If they go, their core listeners will go, too.
Eric, you are one of radio’s biggest fans, and we have a great deal of respect for you and Radio Ink. But we think you got this one wrong.