Public Radio in the Year 2020: Thoughts on the Future

A group of station managers were asked to write about public radio in the year 2020. They were given free reign to write whatever they wanted and at whatever length. Only a list of questions were provided to help them begin thinking about public radio’s horizon.

Please read and begin your own thinking about public radio in the year 2020…

Public Radio 2020: Fast Forward Fifteen Years….

Ron Kramer
Jefferson Public Radio

While some initial topic questions have been advanced by U:SA for this discussion, I think it’s difficult to speculate about things which are so literal. Instead, I’d like to try to identify some major forces, or influences, that seem to be in play and speculate about how their “tugs” could tend to reshape the services and systems that we typically call “public radio.” After noting a few forces that I think will prove significant, I’ll try extrapolating them back to some of the topic questions that were advanced.

It’s easy to simply point to technology and it is true that the march of gadgetry, electronic miniaturization and distribution channels has profoundly changed our world in the past fifteen years - but it’s a bit too easy to just point to new toys. I also don’t pretend to have any special insights in that department so I think it’s more useful to talk about the kind of services people seem to be seeking and how the technology, that we can already identify as on deck or soon to arrive, might be adapted to better provide them. That’s my focus in this discussion.

Mission Shift and Institutional Structure/ Significance: Public radio’s sense of “self” has changed over the past 15 years.

1) We’ve moved from a sense of mission, which we variously defined us as “an alternative” radio medium and/or one which focused on in-depth news and classical/jazz music, to a system which often sees itself as more significantly a “mainstream” news service (replacing the commercial national radio networks’ abandonment of the news field). As that has occurred, we’ve also increasingly subordinated our cultural and music offerings.

2) The public radio system has also significantly embraced non-radio platforms, such as the predominantly print-based internet. I find that interesting since it occurs years after most stations stopped producing written magazines. Both NPR and Public Interactive, the IMA and others, are very active in the online world and most stations have some type of website that is interconnected to, and seeks to extend, their program services.

In summary, public radio now consists of radio and other content platforms and seems to me to look and feel more “mainstream” and “institutional” than was the case fifteen years ago.

What about the next fifteen years?

It seems likely that our sense of mission and purpose will continue to change even though we like to think that it is a constant. I suspect that we will be less defined by our noncommercial, alternative character in a world in which media content continues to proliferate because the distinction between those worlds is already becoming increasingly blurry to the public. We also seem to be entering a time in which our traditionally apolitical, non-partisan role is increasingly somewhat less honored and understood.

I suspect we will wind up making a “stand” on the issue of politicization. If we defend and maintain our non-partisan role, we have a better chance of preserving government funding (at all levels) but we will do so at the cost of losing some listening and financial support, from the political extremes at both ends, to others who are willing to satisfy those needs. Other voices from groups that are NOT committed to a nonpartisan stance will vie for the public’s attention and support. LPFM’s advocates come largely from sectors that were traditionally public radio’s bastions of support but which now find us more “mainstream” than what they seek The radicalization of the content of many LPFM stations in some communities is a good example of that pressure starting to assert influence upon us. I suspect it is only a matter of time before the LPFM community comes knocking on CPB’s door at some point as well to further cloud the issue of just what “public radio” means. So I believe there is a tension between our “holding the center” as a responsible mainstream institution versus seeking to cater to some of the more marginal forces that occupy portions of our arena and we will be tested by the manner in which we set that balance.

Who we are is also partially a function of who owns us. More than half of our stations are still owned by colleges or universities. Will that shift? I think the answer lies in the breadth of scope of local stations on those campuses. To the degree stations still see themselves as radio stations, they are likely to become increasingly marginalized as significant contributors to their Universities’ reputations and diverse educational outreach missions. To the degree that suggests continued reductions in University direct support, and perhaps invites the sale of University frequencies to secure asset value in cash or transfer of stations to local, private ownership, those trends seem to me to be likely to accelerate. Conversely, stations which see themselves as more than just radio stations, who see themselves more in the role of multi-media intellectual and/or cultural institutions, are more likely to remain more broadly useful to their University owners and more likely to remain University-affiliated. The challenge, of course, is how a station can “spread its wings,” to increase its breadth of scope and service, when its licensee’s structural limitations often create impediments to pursuing those types of risk and growth. I suspect that one key to realizing those opportunities will lie in the ability of stations to create station-only “side” organizations, such as friends groups, which can pursue more adventuresome goals without University structural constraints. When and if licensee support is increasingly challenged, stations face the choice of whether to respond to those challenges entirely within their existing licensee structure or whether those circumstances help create the case for some type of auxiliary group that has the added flexibility to effectively helps augment revenue. Perhaps as an oxymoron, I suspect that the stations which endure in their University orbits will tend to be stations which have such auxiliaries in place and have used them to successfully expand their organizational scope, and therefore can take optimum advantage of the institutional licensee setting without being overly hampered by it.

Multi-Media, Multi-Platform: For the reasons suggested above, it seems to me that in 2020 the surviving components of local public radio (I am somewhat reluctant to refer to them as “stations”) will, therefore, be multi-dimensional in their services (programming and otherwise) and structure.

  • They will offer a variety of program services through diverse channels with the distinction between audio and visual media becoming increasingly blurred. In the news arena, they will continue to offer centrally (networks at both the national and regional level) produced material as is now the case. However, the centrality of the network-based “high ticket” national news seems to me far less likely to remain a dominant franchise for us. Perhaps many stations’ traditional use of community volunteers will evolve into a type of “electronic volunteerism” in which gathering of material, contributed by the public, will grow significantly and inexpensively, and our role will become increasingly editorial, and less reportorial, in nature.
  • News material will continue to be more niche-targeted by subject matter and audience demographics (age, race, lifestyle and sex). It will be the totality of these services that define us and our common branding of these streams (not necessarily all under one name) will be our strength.
  • Demography will increasingly challenge us. With retirement age populations growing as a percentage of the population, our existing audiences could remain similar in absolute numeric size (even against the competition of other media). But our percentage appeal, our share of the total media landscape, could very seriously erode. Our appeal in target audience (ethnic and younger) demos has never been particularly impressive. To the degree we don’t seriously address these gaps, we will become increasingly marginalized (especially to the degree that younger audiences are starting to define us as an “older” technology in addition to our providing content that is not particularly designed for them). To the degree we do successfully devise such content, and utilize new technology to appeal most effectively to the demos for whom that content is designed, we could actually expand our presence (which is a difficult thing to do in what has been referred to as the “atomizing” media landscape).
  • We will be less purveyors of solo audio and more providers of cross-platform media content (audio plus internet text/video, audio plus metadata extensions) with consequent blurring of the distinction between radio and television. Possible audio, as a solo medium, could devolve into a more “art” type of media niche media area analogous to the role “vinyl” plays in the digital audio world.
  • Public radio’s cultural offerings may be less driven by the presentation of recorded music and more focused upon its alliance with the world of cultural performance. In other words, music performances may be widely available in much more convenient forms than linear transmission by radio. But public radio’s role in introducing and interpreting music (through interview and demonstration) could easily expand. And public radio’s role in presenting music, either as sole impresario or co-sponsoring agent, could dramatically increase since we have promotional capacity that is effective, available and relatively inexpensive for us. In this arena our brand will become increasingly valuable. The public might not know an artist well but, if your station’s name defines a “quality” performance in the public mind, you have a synergistic opportunity which is greater than most other parties’ to work in that arena.
  • Alliances with other local organizations devoted to intellectual and/or cultural endeavor will grow.

All of the above factors will help broaden the reach, financial scope, programming base and overall local significance of successful, surviving entities. In one sense, public radio stations’ traditional association with higher education was historically effective because it attached the stations to institutions of profound local significance. To the degree those associations are becoming attenuated, it will often be because the local stations have grown in their own right to more significant, broadly configured local institutions and are better equipped to successfully stand on their own while, at the same time, increasingly becoming too complex to function well solely within a higher education institutional setting.

Support models:

Our support models have already shifted radically in the past 15 years. Stations are now far more dependent upon listener income, and underwriting grant income, than upon CPB and/or licensee support. Growth in the earned income areas of membership and underwriting income has increasingly been accompanied by Congressional and listener criticism that we are no longer “non-commercial.” The larger question of what really defines the difference between commercial and noncommercial businesses is one with which our society seems to be increasingly struggling. For example, some commercial religious stations which have sold their commercial frequencies and shifted to NCE operation with very little apparent difference in on-air sound or business strategy.

Our pursuit of underwriting seems to be further blurring that line in a way that our critics seem to believe creates a distinction without a real difference.

What public radio really now sounds, and operates, like is radio of the late 1920’s – radio in which hard advertising was strongly criticized by and really didn’t exist. It was a time when institutional advertising was considered both acceptable and the norm. That’s basically what we’re doing now.

If we enter a more commercial realm, it is hard to me to imagine how federal (or other governmental) support could easily be sustained. And in a world in which public funding at all levels is increasingly tight, hard growth in public funding seems highly improbable. But, it also seems unlikely to me that that federal (and other governmental) support would entirely disappear. It seems more likely that it might be further targeted to specific programmatic goals (like literacy, citizenship, health care information) than to the more generalized goal of providing a broad-based news and cultural service such as we have become. Our piece of that “pie” could turn out, also, to be more targeted than our current system. One exception to this general view: I suspect that as long as there is a role, the Senate will protect service to rural America as something that would be hard to replace (unless satellite radio or some other type of wireless system creates access, including some element of localism, which obviates our currently singular presence).

Thus, it seems likely to me that federal support will migrate toward the more experimental media uses, both technically and programmatically, and away from public radio’s existing broad-based core. And that pressure would likely help further accelerate our more entrepreneurial energies.

Listener income has traditionally been entirely voluntary. In a world in which transmission capability (both on-air, online, wired and wireless) seems likely to be increasingly plentiful, a more PPV (pay-per-view) or subscription model seems likely to grow. Satellite radio is already testing the principle that an entirely free service like radio should move to a subscription model. The major selling point it offers is convenience and choice. It seems likely that we can begin to emulate both by diversifying our programming streams/offerings while using new technology to carry the “convenience” element forward. If anyone is the loser in that equation, it could be satellite radio with his huge sunken cost in infrastructure. In a world in which consumers are beginning to purchase individual songs by download, it seems to me we have a greater opportunity to also sell niche content for download. We’re just another online content vendor, in one sense, but potentially have a significant branding advantage which history – and our own talents – has created for us.

Given the above, let me offer a few “bullet” answers to questions which U:SA advanced.

  • Based on your experience in this industry, what will a public radio station look like in fifteen years? What should it look like? Multi-service level, multi-platform and multi-dimensional
  • What will the size and the structure of the public radio system be? The concept of system, based upon terrestrial station distributors of a nationally developed program service, is becoming increasingly outmoded.
  • Localism vs. consolidation: what are the pros and cons of each from your perspective? I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive.
  • Who/what audience will public radio be serving if we proceed along the current course? Will that help ensure our future? Do we need to rethink our market niche? The audience will be much more fragmented and our services should, therefore, be much more segmented.
  • In considering a second audio channel, what do you think is the best and most innovative use of this added real estate? Be cautious about super-serving the core. In large population centers it’s probably a great economic investment. In smaller areas it’s harder to get two times the economic result from serving the same size audience and spreading them over two services. If the second service can be targeted to a totally unserved audience with programming that falls within your mission, you could more easily produce a greater economic result and will certainly build the foundation of public commitment to your enterprise.
  • What do we need to do in general to ensure our future? Stay nimble
  • What cross-platform/merging technologies do you think stations might pursue or should be pursuing in the future? Wireless
  • We talk of the “greying of public radio.” How will that impact the future? Is succession planning on managers’ radar screens? We really haven’t done very well in this area and it doesn’t seem to much be on our radar screens. The public radio system of today was fueled in part by the youth, energy and idealism of the people who entered it in the 1970’s and 80’s. We’re not attracting those people today. They want to work for Microsoft instead and that’s a huge creative problem for us. If I were launching a new division within our station, I’d hire a younger staff and let them run with it. If I were launching a new major national program, I’d do the same thing. We’ve gotten very good, too good in a way, at producing things that have all-too-similar characteristics.
  • We’re already experiencing staff attrition as a result of not being able to remain competitive in the salary arena. What impact does that have on our future and what do we do about it? This is really a productivity issue and it’s a huge problem which will force structural changes upon us.
  • Have we identified the right goals and created the appropriate incentives for stations to achieve them? Absolutely not. Our content costs are based upon our revenues which has nothing to do with the costs necessary to produce that income. As a result our incentives don’t reward productivity.
  • Station growth: when is enough? When is it growth simply for growth’s sake? That’s another problem stemming from our current incentive plan which is based upon gross revenues instead of productivity. Incentive should be based upon service levels and return-on-investment.

The thing of which I’m most proud about our own activities at Jefferson Public Radio, and about the collective public radio world of which we’re a part, is our increasingly singular role as a mission-driven, principled voice in a confused world which is increasingly reliant upon the media. More interestingly, virtually the entire media world remains comfortable with continuing to cede that role to us. That’s a huge, exciting, challenging – and ultimately crucially important – role. If we are wise, stretch our limits, and remain a bit lucky – in 2020 the foundations of what we have built will remain and continue to be something in which we can take enormous pride.

I hope I’m around to see it.

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