Wednesday, June 22, 2016

“I'm waiting for the best of NPR to come out on 8 track.”

No doubt you’ve heard about the June 16th article in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) titled Public Radio’s Existential Crisis [link]. Folks in the public radio biz will immediately recognize the issues discussed in the article: retiring heritage hosts, less listening by younger listeners and out of touch management.

But don’t let the repetition of stuff we already know stop you from reading the article. WSJ Entertainment and Media reporter Ellen Gamerman does an excellent job telling the story:

With both its stars and audience aging, NPR is struggling to adapt to the digital age.

Ellen Gamerman
 However Gamerman’s analysis is incomplete.  With the exception of discussing the exit by Garrison Keillor, the article is almost entirely about NPR. She misses an important reality: The best of public radio is happening at local stations. They are the future of the biz. Stations are where the action is now. Case in point: 89.3 The Current’s globally-praised response to the death of Prince on all platforms and the overwhelming response.

Many of NPR problems are byproducts of its antiquated system of governance. NPR’s communal decision-making culture makes it hard for the organization to act quickly.  What is in NPR’s interest is not necessarily in the stations interest. As Gamerman points out, the local stations provide most of NPR’s budget. Execs at NPR are always looking over their shoulders.

Some of Gamerman’s conclusions are based on incorrect information. As examples of NPR’s decline she cites these examples: Jonathan Schwartz, Joe Frank, Lynne Rossetto Kasper and a program called Folksong Festival which she claims is the country’s longest-running radio show with the same host.

I’ve worked in public radio for about 25 years and I have never heard of Folksong Festival. The last time I heard Joe Frank on the radio was in the 1980s.  These hosts and programs are not bell-weathers of public radio.

But Gamerman’s central point is correct. The perception that NPR is “old and in the way” is hard to deny. This narrative is potentially dangerous to public radio because it provides one more reason to cut CPB funding.


I found many of WSJ reader comments to be as enlightening as Gamerman’s story.  Here are some examples:


• Comment from Jay Taylor:

There is an excellent public radio station near me, WXPN, that plays mostly alternative rock from the 80's to the present.  I get to hear the older stuff I like, and also sample newer music that I would probably never seek out on my own.  It has no commercials, and none of the annoying programs spoken of in this article.  My life would be less enjoyable without it.  Google it and check it out.

• Comment from Jim McMenamin:

‘XPN is based at the University of Pennsylvania and is a great music station that not only plays interesting material from lots of time periods but also creates its own syndicated programming.

• Comment from Anonymous:

My local affiliate WFAE got $317,000 out of $4.8 million from CPB - 7%. The rest was individual listeners and corporate sponsors. That's typical.
They spent about $2 million on fundraising and the administrative staff. $2.4 million was for programming. WFAE is big enough it has locally produced programming.


Comment from Fred Stiening:

NPR is only one distributor of Public Radio programming. The other main one is a competitor called American Public Media, which is an entity created by Minnesota Public Broadcasting. MPR experienced a surge in revenue accidentally when Garrison Keillor offered a free wall calendar as a throwaway comic line and was flooded with bags of postcards wanting one. It turned into a huge merchandising business.


• Comment from Andrew Terhune:

Whatever the justification may have been for subsidizing public broadcasting decades ago, can anyone say that this justification is valid in the 21st century? Let it compete in the marketplace.


• Comment from John Williams:

NPR’s Typical Listener:

-Grey haired butch cut Liberal old lady in her 60's, or 70's from Boston, Seattle , NYC or San Francisco , who doesn't like wearing make-up.

-Academic male at Ivy League University.

-Feminized Male from the 1960's

Note to John Williams from Ken: You need to get out more often – your brain is rotting because of all of your listening to Rush Limbaugh.


  1. Anyone who talks about cutting CPB funding without also talking about removing the FCC requirement for NON-COMMERCIAL operation is automatically full of crap. They don't want to see NPR compete in the marketplace, they just want to kill it. Probably because it makes their tiny little brains hurt by forcing a smidgen of factual information in there.

    (Note: I don't want to see NPR stations have their non-commercial restrictions removed, I'm just pointing out that these people clearly have no idea what they're talking about.)

  2. What a well done piece! Again, with attribution, I'll share this on the site

    The current station management has minimal experience in public broadcasting and has done a market survey to justify some very unsatisfactory program changes. We have less than 0.6% prime time 7-7 M-F local programming now. Many excellent locally produced shows are now gone or pushed into the deep programming margins. And the station has failed to even share the data from the market survey with us... Public radio is not commercial. The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 states that clearly. Now more than ever it is critical that we have it.

    Thank you for sharing this response to the WSJ piece!