NPR Is Not Radio

There was an excellent piece by Sarah McBride in The Wall Street Journal yesterday featuring an interview with National Public Radio CEO Ken Stern.

The article highlights the success of NPR including its widely heard morning show, Morning Edition, which is the most listened to show on non-commercial or commercial radio next to Rush Limbaugh. NPR is a tastemaker in the music world. It has an outstanding reputation for broadcast news (Edward R. Murrow would approve, in my opinion). NPR has been skillful in using the Internet and podcasting as a way to extend its very special brand.

Nonetheless, NPR is not radio.

How do I know?

Well, my students told me. Here's how it happened.

One day in class I did one of my periodic checks to see how traditional media was ranking with these young folks. So, I asked the question, "by a show of hands, how many of you listen to radio?" Only three hands went up (out of 52).

I was taken aback.

And no -- these students are not all media students -- half are from other disciplines.

I said, "That's impossible. I know you're listening to radio less but only three of you will admit to any listening at all."

After a brief discussion, it became apparent that when I said radio, the students thought I meant Clear Channel/consolidator-type radio. Upon further discussion, they told me that they listen to NPR.

I said, "NPR is radio, isn't it?"

No, NPR is not radio -- I was told. Young people hold NPR in high esteem. Many listen and love it. In Los Angeles, "Morning Becomes Eclectic" on KCRW is revered.

So, I polled the class again.

"If you count NPR as radio, how many listen to radio?"

About 75% of the students raised their hands.

I've said it before -- the next generation is not listening to what terrestrial radio is offering. One main reason is because free radio doesn't speak to them. But it is interesting that when the content is there this group will work harder and seek it out even if they have to do it on an analog device.

NPR has the same problems as commercial radio.

As the Journal article points out, time spent listening is down and most importantly, NPR's audience is getting -- well, shall I say it -- older.

Ken Stern thinks the answer is better content and he's got a supporter here. If I've learned anything from my years of working with Gen Y, they are not responding to the best efforts of consolidated radio stations.

In addition to better content and better delivery systems, radio programmers are going to have to deliver their shows where the next generation lives -- and that's not near a terrestrial radio.

It's not near an HD radio.

HD means nothing to them. It is a black hole without content. A poor reason to waste money on a new, ugly radio. Very uncool.

It seems simple, yet it is not obvious to traditional media companies. They need to go back to hiring the wild programmers who willed their way onto terrestrial signals during the glory days of modern radio. Consolidation has all but ended these creative, hard-to-manage, geniuses. There is an entire old generation of qualified PDs out there and a whole new one waiting for their chance.

So, what is radio?

HD is not radio -- it's an excuse by manufacturers and some operators to get access to more sub-channels while the consumer is asked to pay the freight. It's not even better audio. HD even causes interference on the AM band.

Consolidated radio is not radio -- it's programming on the cheap. Wall Street Radio. More commercials and less entertainment. Programming in the black. Safe. And audiences are rejecting it quarter by quarter (as investors would say) just as I have warned since 1996.

The iPod is not radio -- it's a record player. And a damn good one for most people who can program their own "stations" without obnoxious jocks and in total control of the music they hear. Yet, it's only a record player.

The Internet is not radio -- it's a delivery system for what will come in the future once fair royalty rates are applied to the new generation of radio.

Your mobile phone is not radio -- it's a convenience that potentially will deliver content as Apple's iPhone is starting to show us. But the content is not likely to exist in 24/7 streams. And the Apple folks don't have the talent to provide radio-style content for their new application.

And, of course, NPR is not radio.

NPR is a brand that innovates, entertains, informs and experiments with new delivery systems.

With all this in mind, I've come to realize that my students have paid NPR the greatest compliment of all.

It's not radio.

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