NB: I’ve always tried to keep my work and this blog separate (see About), but this is an exception -- the first in a series of white papers that I’m doing for my employer, NPR, and cross-posting here. They’re consistent with the theme of this blog. Although written for a public radio audience, readers from television or commercial radio may also be able to pull some takeaways from this series. Hope you’ll read on. --Dennis
“In 1920, we discovered we could get more listeners with voice than with Morse code, and we’ve been selling out to the audience ever since.” -- Jack Mitchell, NPR’s first employee and former board chair, to a Public Radio Conference meeting, of 9XM (now WHA), America’s first public radio station in Madison, Wisconsin
NPR President & CEO Vivian Schiller asked me to write a series of mini-white papers for the public radio community that she calls “All Known Thought.” That’s a weighty, though tongue-in-cheek title but as a longtime student of public radio technology since vacuum tube and razor blade days and a station GM for nearly 30 years, I’m committed and challenged to provide an objective overview on various topics that at the frequently changing intersection of technology trends and public radio economics.
As such, please consider this an attempt to bracket this moving intersection within a plausible and actionable space. As one who has been influenced by Clayton Christensen, I believe we need to pay particular attention to disruptions at that intersection.
As the opening quote observes, public radio began some 90 years ago when the physics and engineering departments at a bunch of universities discovered they could attach modulators to their former Morse code stations and transmit voice and music. Radio has proven to be one of the most adaptable forms of communication in both technology and business practices ever since.
I’ve been writing about this in my Technology360.com blog since 2003, a blog that grew out of an earlier email list that I ran for six more years. Both were efforts to force a discipline to keep up with my professional reading, so this assignment renews that and I’m happy to take it on. The blog, which has always been light on opining and heavy on encouraging readers to draw their own conclusions, will continue but its readers will recognize some themes here.
I have a great group of tech-and-strategy-savvy colleagues here at NPR who I’ll ask for advice along the way. I’ll take responsibility for what gets written, but in the spirit of seeking “all known thought,” those colleagues will be free to write op-eds, which I’ll append if they wish.
Up front, I defined my focus as the intersection of two areas of importance to our future (technology and economics) and observed that these were not static. If not, where are they moving?
The pace of technology change has increased dramatically in the last couple of decades, and along with it the choices listeners have in how and when to consume radio programming. We will assume that this pace will not slow down and may increase. Regulatory constraints, the need for auto manufacturer take-up, and the inherently expensive nature of broadcast technology all contribute to our second assumption that the pace of change for traditional broadcasting will continue to be slower than change in the software-driven web and mobile domains.
As listeners have more media choices, yet finite time, we will assume that some of the attention of some of our current listeners will move to web and mobile platforms. It seems sensible to assume that most stations will try to serve listeners through the web and mobile platforms; in the process picking up new listeners, likely with a wider demographic array.
The other line through the intersection is public radio economics. Assumptions here may attract some debate, but here goes: The public radio economy is impacted unfavorably by the recession, by increased operating costs, by loss of attention to other platforms (and the perception by advertisers of the efficacy of these new platforms), and by the economic conditions of closely-associated institutions (public TV for joint licensees, supporting universities, and government agencies).
Recessions are cyclical and the economy will eventually recover. Depending on how long the recovery takes, the movement of resources from radio to greater-stressed television at some joint licensees and the loss of tax-based revenue will exacerbate public radio’s economy. Entitlements like Social Security, Medicare and government pensions are eating up discretionary spending for state and federal governments. A more favorable economy will accelerate technology change and spur increases in operating costs.
On the other hand, public radio has the ability to slow or even, if only for a time, reverse the “gravity pull” of unfavorable economics through station acquisitions, investments in emerging platforms and smarter radios, better programming and fundraising practices, cost-reducing collaborations and mergers, and stronger governance.
So, overall, while movement of this intersection will vary, we will assume that the “if we do nothing” direction will be “southeasterly” (see sketch below), and public radio will decline. Our challenge is to make smart moves at this intersection that “fight gravity” and move our mission forward.
Before I present a list of the likely topics, here’s what won’t be included in these white papers. We read a lot in the trade and popular press about death – the death of radio, of television, of newspapers. X will kill Y. The September cover of Wired headlined the death of the Web. A friend of mine, tech journalist Steve Gillmor, has, with a scythe in hand, declared the impending death of many technologies. Death. Death. Death! Death is a word to grab headlines, not one to use for thoughtful discourse. Let’s move past that word! Even Morse code has survived modulators in the ham radio community.
That’s not to say change won’t happen. It’s good to distinguish between the future of what we do and the future of how we do it.
Since the talk of death is off the table what is most important about this intersection between technology and economics is its effect on our margin. The late non-profit hospital director, Sister Irene Kraus, was famous for saying, “No margin, no mission.” Our primary focus needs to be on producing and delivering quality content, but to do that, we need to be financially healthy. Disruptive technologies don’t have to kill us to harm our mission; they just need to erode our margins, which are thin or nonexistent already.
Here are white paper topics we’ll start with, in no particular order:
- What can trends in mobile and other device-based platforms tell us about future media consumption?
- HD Radio, RadioDNS, and other advanced radio systems. What are consumer electronics companies cooking up next that could impact our business?
- Mobile providers—are they a threat, an opportunity, or a little of both?
- The auto manufacturers are talking about in-car internet availability. How will that work and when?
- What's the latest on impending changes in spectrum allocations and how they will impact us?
- What strategies can make best use of the Public Media Platform?
- Is social media something we can use effectively? Should stations make a long-term commitment to it or is it a fad?
- Reconciling web metrics and broadcast metrics. Why your web cume is less than you think and your web time spent metrics are greater than you think.
This series of “All Known Thought” will be most successful with your input, and the input of your colleagues (please feel free to share these papers). This will be a platform to generate discussion on the impacts and influences on the public radio community. I welcome your comments and suggestions.