We have frequently reported how the Public Radio Exchange (PRX) has changed the landscape for noncommercial programming syndication. Now PRX is leading public media onto digital and mobile platforms. PRX is combining the ubiquitous reach of broadcast radio with the insurgent vitality of podcasts.
[Disclosure: In the past, I have worked as a paid consultant for PRX.]
In the past couple weeks, two of the leaders of PRX – Kerri Hoffman, CEO and John Barth, Chief Content Director – have been featured in high-profile venues.
Hoffman was interviewed in Fortune magazine by blogger and KALW talk show host Lauren Schiller [link]. Barth spoke at the annual PRNDI meeting in St. Louis where received the Lee C. Lee Award [link].
Taken together, Hoffman and Barth offer a clear analysis of where public media, particularly public radio, is today and where it may be heading.
Here are some of the key takeaways:
BARTH: IS PUBLIC RADIO THE OLDSMOBILE OF MEDIA? OR IS IT THE TESLA?
Let me simplify it: the greatest threat to public radio is not money or politics or even our competitors. It is public radio itself.
And we can boil it down too two questions: Do we want to be the Oldsmobile of media? Or the Tesla?
For now the answer rests a lot with station managers, even more than with NPR or APM, PRI or PRX. And we all know that the audience has the final say — because public radio is the public we serve. They vote with their ears.
I want to be riding in a Tesla. I hope you do too.
HOFFMAN: WE MUST GO WHERE THE LISTENERS ARE GOING
How do we make sure that our services go where the listeners are going? Right now that’s mobile. The new audience is really where we are where we want to be — the diverse audience and the young audience, and the young people who haven’t been buying radios. How are they finding content and how do we get in front of them?
BARTH: HOW “BIG DIGITAL” VIEWS PUBLIC RADIO
First, the people at Google, Facebook and Amazon are super smart. And they will work with anyone. But they have no allegiance to what came before. The ability of what technology can do, comes first. They know that nostalgia is not a strategy. Their mindset, for good or bad, is very different from Lake Wobegone.
Here’s how they look at legacy businesses like public radio:
a) can we buy them?
b) can we partner with them, make money, get data about their audience and steal those customers away?
c) can we crush them, because after all, our technology will outpace whatever they are doing and in the end they will not be that relevant.
Our public radio world puts public service and respect for audience at the center. That other world of technology…is only about business, period. Not the integrity of our form of journalism.
BARTH: PUBLIC RADIO’S JOURNALISM MUST BE ABLE TO COMPETE ON ALL PLATFORMS
We need to fight for the role that used to come with a press pass and a microphone.
In fact, as Facebook becomes the dominant news distribution site, their algorithms, their presentation…their medium controls to come extent, your message and who sees it. And who sells it. This is one reason PRX launched RadioPublic.
We need more control over the next digital platforms that touch listeners, as public radio stations do now. This is another reason why NPR One is so important, too.
Anyone with eyes and earbuds can tell the next wave of listening is mobile, it is digital and it is here. You know that, but I’m afraid many people in public radio still want to debate that point. These early wild west days of podcasting are only one sign. And it, too, will, morph and consolidate.
Ask NPR and almost any station leader how challenging this situation is –the whole structure of how public radio works is at stake. What that means for how public radio sounds, appears, reports in different media is existential.