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…

What will a public radio station look like in 15 years?

Roger Sarow

At this writing, it certainly looks like public radio stations will be less reliant on their current delivery platforms—predominately FM transmitters. The media world is rapidly migrating to file-based information delivery. This means that files of content at the stations will be the repositories of value.

This raises the question: How much value will local stations control if they only control their local content?

Radio has proven to be a very durable and hardy medium. The last time radio had to totally reinvent itself was in the 1950’s, when television exploded in popularity. The most popular radio programs migrated to television. Radio stations responded by reprogramming themselves with cheap and readily available content—recorded music.

In the current era that option seems to be gone. Satellite radio stations have preempted recorded music formats by distributing hundreds of channels. New recorded music is being self-published by the artists on the Web, or marketed through pay-per-cut Web services.

Several dozen public radio stations have had great success in the last decade with a news-talk format. This format is heavily reliant on network content, especially NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered. The news-talk stations face serious economic challenges if the first-tier network news shows become available to listeners through other delivery system, such as direct satellite, file downloads and emerging wireless technologies such as cellular phone downloads.

Reporters and editors at local stations are producing local content at the rate of 5 or 10 minutes per week, per staffer. The challenge will be to build an economic model that markets this local content in a self-sustaining manner.

There should be little problem with finding software systems that will distribute locally produced content files. In fact, at least one national distributor in public radio is taking on this task. But can the average local station produce enough content to justify a pay-per-download model?

What can we do to mitigate these challenges?

Local public radio stations might change their structure and their focus in the future, transforming themselves into local writers’ colonies or local think tanks focusing on issues of local civic and cultural importance.

Key activities would be identifying, assigning, “reporting”, and editing content on community political, civic, business, and arts issues. Think tank employees will work seamlessly with audio as well as video content.

Citizens are so busy with their multi-tasking that they will pay a reasonable sum for content that has been vetted for truthfulness, balance and credibility. This scenario assumes the “traditional” values of journalism will be adapted to the on-demand world of the 21st century.

In the “public media” station of 2020, less emphasis will be placed on the care and feeding of the conventional broadcast transmitter. Such transmitters may still exist, but they probably will be used more for closed-circuit data casting than for 20th century-style broadcasts.

On the other hand, the station of the future will be heavily reliant on computer professionals for equipment planning, installation, and maintenance. The IT professionals also will find themselves with vital new jobs as money collectors—for content file downloads.

Please don’t expect me in the scope of this short paper to justify an economic model for the “local media think tank,” but current experience gives us some numbers to work with. Legal music download services now charge their customers approximately 99 cents to buy a cut of music. Assuming that each cut is four minutes long, some of today’s customers will pay 25-cents per minute of downloaded content.

Let’s assume for a moment local news/cultural content will fetch a lower price than music downloads. We could start guessing at station income potential by assuming our listeners would pay 5-cents to 25-cents per downloaded minute of content.

The trick, obviously, will be to deliver such compelling local content to so many users that the system could pay for itself. We will have to call on the savvy marketers in our system to test the various assumptions. With luck and sufficient creativity, perhaps this system will work, at least for certain public media stations.

Well, it never hurts to have a Plan B and C. What else can public “radio” do to earn a living in 2020?

Let’s remember we may no longer face a shortage of air time in the future. FM stations will certainly have access to three digital channels, and seven channels may be available in the future on each of today’s FM allocations.

With extra air time, perhaps stations will lease out a portion of their additional air time to outside organizations—arts groups, student organizations, groups speaking languages other than English—the list of organizations wishing access to the airwaves could go on and on.

The leased-time model has been used for years by religious broadcasters, as well as cable television channels. We would need ethical standards to ensure the integrity of the outside programming, but I don’t think we can afford to dismiss this option. Another income option for public media centers could be content downloads with embedded commercial messages. Local centers would sell commercial introductions or closes to download pieces, with audio elements edited in such a way that end users would find it difficult to edit out the paid messages, or to skip over them.

What will be the roles of the national organizations in 2020?

Some of the biggest changes, predictably, will come to the large regional or national program producers and distributors.

At this writing, the organizations are pursuing the media equivalent of having their cake and eating it too. They are forging new distribution relationships with new players, such as direct satellite radio, Web distributors, and even cell phone download services.

At the same time, the big distributors are still collecting a large share of their revenue—probably the majority—from the conventional public broadcast stations.

The big players present several powerful arguments for developing new media relationships. Often they remark that technological innovation is unavoidable. This argument is augmented by the assertion that public broadcasting should “stake a claim in the real estate of the new media”, i.e. not making the same mistake as public television, when it ignored the emergence of cable networks in the 1980s.

Once those arguments are on the table, I have heard no compelling explanations that align the new technological model with the current economic model. How in the world are local stations going to fund national programming, let alone maintain and expand their local content efforts, with the current tools? We’re talking about local program underwriting and local membership efforts.

This crunch is coming at a time when the national program distributors are shunting more content to new distribution systems.

Please permit me to make a “modest” proposal for change of the economic order: the largest national program distributors might be called upon to take on the responsibility for funding local stations.

My first argument for this notion would be the facts on the ground. At this writing, NPR and PRI are distributing content through Sirius Satellite Radio. At the demand of local stations, NPR is not releasing its flagship news programs, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, to direct satellite. If that embargo should change, then one can assume that local stations will be seriously restricted in their ability to fund network programs, let alone their local administrative and creative functions.

In that case, it seems advisable—probably essential—that we reshape our national economic model into one that resembles commercial broadcasting: the network center raises the funds and local stations get a payment for clearing the national content.

To take this argument a step further, we should note that NPR and PRI have already adopted aspects of a commercial model. Their satellite partner, Sirius, is a full-fledged commercial venture (though a speculative one). This relationship realigns the border between commercial and non-commercial broadcasting. For purposes of this argument, I choose to see the opportunity rather than the threat.

If the national networks have to borrow strategies from the commercial world to fund the non-profit broadcasting system, the benefits might outweigh the drawbacks. It should not be surprising to see public media migrate into a system of non-for-profit, local entities, with quasi-commercial funding, aggregated through centralized agencies such as the current networks.

The debate about public radio’s future will rage on for years. The challenges require that we act now.

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