NPR’s Death Wish

Last week the CEO of National Public Radio – Ken Stern, was relieved of his duties. That is significant because since 1999 he has made all of the right calls.

How, you ask, could someone who has been responsible for making NPR so powerful be let go?

Welcome to our world – the world of terrestrial radio.

Among Stern’s acknowledged accomplishments:

1. Doubling NPR’s audience to 26 million a week.

2. Built an endowment from basically very little to over $300 million (former McDonald’s heiress Joan Kroc’s large gift didn’t hurt, either).

3. New, quality programs such as Day to Day, News and Notes, Tell Me More and The Bryant Park Project.

4. Increased domestic and foreign news bureaus topping most major newspapers in the number of reporters.

5. Announced a big new Washington headquarters for the network.

Now, Stern has spent his political capital.

Here’s his crime against humanity:

“Interviews with eight current and former public radio officials suggest Stern failed to convince local stations — and especially their representatives on the board — that he saw a clear and healthy role for them in the digital future. And several also said he lacked the light touch and charismatic aura of his predecessor, Kevin Klose, that served Klose well in dealing with board members and prospective donors.”

The issue is over the role of the local NPR stations that have for too long feasted on the resources of the mother ship. NPR provides quality programming and local stations raise funds through on-air beg-a-thons to finance operations.

In effect, local NPR stations have acted as repeaters – broadcasting the increasingly popular NPR programming.

Stern was big on making NPR content available to other platforms beyond affiliated stations – the Internet, podcasts, etc. and it has helped build the brand. In fact, NPR is arguably the best at using new media platforms to disseminate the brand.

Now, the ugly part.

Local stations – thought to be behind Stern’s ouster, are concerned that NPR is giving away too much of its programming to new age platforms. In effect, forcing a powerful but wrongheaded issue of what local stations will do if listeners can get NPR programming elsewhere.

They have committed the fatal radio mistake – forgetting the role of local radio.

So what if some NPR listeners migrated away from the local stations and listened online? It’s not the end for local NPR affiliates – IF …

If, they start raising money for local programming. The one criticism I hear over and over is that local stations just act as affiliates. They could and should do more local programming. Then, their programming would be of interest to local listeners.

But they would likely have to take a page out of Stern’s play book and even make their local programming available to the Internet, podcasting and the mobile beyond -- not to mention raise more revenue.

I can tell you that NPR programming is wildly popular with the next generation that I work with. When local stations like KCRW do local programming, these young listeners eat it up.

In the end, we’re not learning much about the problems that have beset the radio industry over the past ten years.

Radio programming is best when it is local.

I’m not pretending to be an expert on NPR and I don’t know Stern. He’s supposedly a lawyer who could use a copy of Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People”.

Still, he’s right on the money taking NPR into the 21st century.

If his permanent replacement retreats from Stern's position that all NPR content should be made available wherever the audience can listen, then he or she will please the affiliates and anger the listeners.

It’s corporate politics.

It’s being expedient.

It’s a death wish.

Only then will NPR, the network, be downgraded to, say – terrestrial radio status – a local business that wanted to protect its profits by imposing national economies of scale.

And we see what terrestrial radio has accomplished – a mass exodus of listeners away from their local brand.

The genius in NPR is that outstanding content was being delivered in traditional and new media platforms under Stern. The politics of affiliated radio stations threatens to turn something special into -- just radio.

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