In August, Public Radio International (PRI), the Public Radio Exchange (PRX) and WGBH, Boston announced that PRI and PRX were merging.
As time has gone by, what was called a “merger” now looks like an “acquisition” of PRI by PRX.
[Disclosure: Ken Mills was Director of News at PRI from 1992 until September 1997.]
Tyler Falk from Current reported on September 27th [link] that big changes at PRI are already happening:
• PRI CEO Alisa Miller will leave the organization in 2019.
• Longtime PRI Chief Content Officer Melinda Ward will retire. Ward has had a pivotal role in PRI’s most bankable programs: The World from PRI, The Takeaway and Studio 360.
Ward is a wise judge of talent. She brought many of PRI's most popular personalities to radio.
• PRI’s Senior VP of Marketing, Sales and Distribution is leaving. There has been no announcement about the fate of PRI’s office in downtown Minneapolis.
• John Barth, PRX’s Content Officer will take over PRI’s signature program, The World from PRI, as well as the remaining programs that have been distributed in the past by PRI.
• PRX CEO Kerri Hoffman told Current that management is in the process of finding “redundancies” – corporate lingo for shedding excess employees.
In other words, it appears PRI is exiting from national program distribution and marketing, activities that have been PRI’s core business since it was founded as American Public Radio (APR) in the 1980s.
Although PRI, PRX and WGBH all entered the consolidation willingly, WGBH apparently wanted to end its fiduciary obligations regarding PRI. When WGBH bought PRI in 2012, PRI remained an independent entity. Since then, WGBH has provided the cash flow to cover many of PRI’s annual revenue losses. According to IRS filings, in the fiscal year 7/1/16 - 6/30/17 PRI ran a deficit of over $2.5 million.
WGBH is now off-the-hook for PRI’s losses. However, WGBH has pledged $10 million to the new organization to make the deal happen and provide support for several company projects.
ECHOES OF AMERICAN PUBLIC RADIO (APR)
The shrinking of PRI actually began in the 1990s. Since 1983 when APR began, the company was in charge of marketing an amazing roster of programs including A Prairie Home Companion, Marketplace, the BBC World Service, Monitor Radio and many others.
When APR changed its name to Public Radio International (PRI) in 1994 it signaled more than a cosmetic change.
APR’s Board of Directors had a guideline that the organization would never, ever become a program producer and/or compete with its producers of programs that APR distributed.
Then-CEO Steve Salyer convinced the APR Board to change this policy. The purpose was to allow the company to create a new major program, what became The World. Producers of APR’s programs were outraged. But, Salyer gambled that The World would become so successful that grief from other producers wouldn’t matter. As things turned out, he was wrong.
|Ironic PRI swag|
PRI and The World were introduced to the public radio system at the PRPD in San Antonio in September 1994 with glitzy fanfare, but the dominoes began to fall:
• Monitor Radio decided to go out of business rather than compete with The World.
• Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), the company that started APR in 1983, cancelled PRI’s contract to market A Prairie Home Companion and other shows in MPR’s portfolio. MPR started American Public Media (APM) in 2004 to compete with PRI.
• Also in 2004, using methods still not fully known, APM took Marketplace away from PRI. APM started distributing Marketplace.
• In 2013, the tipping point for PRI probably occurred when APM convinced the BBC World Service to dump PRI and move to APM.
• Since that time, several other producers and shows left PRI: This American Life is now distributed by PRX. Wisconsin Public Radio’s portfolio of programs also moved to PRX. American Routes left PRI and moved to APM and later to PRX. You might say things nave rolled PRX's way.
The producer and program defections cost PRI millions of dollars in carriage and affiliation fees. Stations were required to pay for “affiliation” to PRI before they could access programming. As PRI’s menu of programs dwindled, more and more stations balked at paypng the fees.
Then PRX changed the way that audio content, particularly public radio programming, is marketed and distributed. PRX did/does not charge affiliation fees, something that delights stations. The “PRX method” led to the “merger” of the two companies.