NPR’s War Against Radio

When NPR CEO Vivian Schiller lambasted her local affiliates last week, she started a public debate over the mobile Internet that promises to be very instructive.

Local affiliates understandably grumbled when Schiller said she didn’t care how listeners accessed Morning Edition – on-air or online. Her comments were made at Walt Mossberg’s All Things Digital (D8) Conference where Schiller was careful to add that NPR’s aggressive efforts in mobile Internet content are not hurting NPR stations.

Yet, many affiliates came away with their feelings hurt.

All of us tend to get our feelings hurt these days as the industry we love (local radio) converges with Wall Street. Ten years ago many of us thought the convergence that would follow consolidation was local stations merging together to create a stronger overall industry.

That didn’t happen.

Where is commercial radio’s straight shooter like Vivian Schiller?

Broadcasters are getting snarky at the thought that listener habits are changing. They want everything to basically stay the same.

Here are the lessons that are unfolding:

1. NPR has been superb about packaging its content for the mobile Internet – perhaps better than anyone else. NPR content is high quality so NPR has cooperated with the inevitable in distributing that programming in all sorts of forms to the mobile space. But that will not be enough. Time to develop additional, off-the-air content for the mobile Internet.

2. Local NPR stations – strapped for cash and relying on national programming because local programming costs so much – are in a pickle. Local and radio go together in the same sentence but as listeners migrate to their digital devices and rely on mobile Internet delivery, this leaves NPR affiliates (in fact, all local stations) vulnerable.

3. While Schiller is being indelicate about how NPR programming is delivered, she is by and large correct. Look around and see how the world is living. Not even a recession can keep consumers from buying mobile phones and devices. They obviously have voted for content on the go.

4. Where NPR and Schiller are missing the boat is that the public radio concept does not allow for top down instruction on “how to” build effective local mobile platforms. Some NPR affiliates have done this on their own. Many others are, as I said, vulnerable to what will inevitably happen.

5. It’s a no brainer that cars will have seamless Internet access soon (except to a handful of radio consolidators who remain oblivious), but the real issue is how to do local programming that is actually nothing like traditional radio.

6. Video capability and text access must be included in all configurations of programming going forward. That is, listeners must be able to see it, hear it and read it. Radio cannot hold on to the concept that it is an aural medium only. That will mean death. Yes, audio. But also video and text for all content.

7. The new world order of media is that the consumer is the program director and the station/provider is the content creator. Whereas program directors previously decided what made it to the air, now consumers will choose. That is a basic tenet in the bill of rights of mobile Internet users.

8. The length of programming is no longer 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. That was the standard when technology only allowed listeners to access content in real time on the station’s clock. With the public settling in with on-demand content, listeners want to choose from variably timed programming. That means 5 minutes minimum or an hour max. Frankly, keeping in mind changing sociology, I find it hard to believe a program longer than an hour will survive in the digital future. I may be wrong, but I think I am reading it right.

9. The gutsy game would be for terrestrial radio to change from one-format to hundreds of different programs in that format (or not) over the course of the week. Air it contiguously but make it consumable in pieces. Radio can play the digital game but not by insisting that all radio is 24/7 programming. It used to be dayparts changed with different personalities and because of cutbacks, we’ve seen a lot less of this at the absolute wrong time. More short programming – is what I am saying – even on the terrestrial signal.

That media convergence we talked about for so long never materialized.

What is developing is a marketplace where consumers want short-form programming and they won’t care where it came from or who produces it.

So terrestrial radio could be back in the game again by playing by digital rules even in analog spaces.

NPR is likely to lead the way.

What is worrisome is that NPR may leave their local affiliates behind just as commercial consolidators are giving up local radio for economies of scale.

Radio people can so do this if they are willing to subject themselves to the pain of change.

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