NPR Divorces Itself From “Radio”

I don’t know about this Vivian Schiller.

The NPR CEO is starting to scare me.

Last week National Public Radio announced with great flourish and fanfare that it would no longer be known as National Public Radio.

You can call them Ray.

Or you can call them Jay.

But “you doesn’t has to call” them NPR – to borrow a phrase from the comedian Raymond J. Johnson Jr.

After all, CNN is no longer Cable News Network. It’s all grown up and much more than cable so I guess it naturally leads you to three letters – CNN.

At least to Vivian Schiller.

National Public Radio – excuse me, NPR – has over 900 affiliated stations that pipe pretty damn good programs into localities across the country. NPR audiences are growing with the advent of the The People Meter.

So Schiller thinks because NPR has added podcasting, webcasting, streaming, blogs and a wide variety of other content that it is time to divorce itself from the sole concept of radio. You know, this reflects the transition from good old fashioned radio to new media.

Obviously, Schiller is not one of the 10,000 or so people who read this space every day.

In fact, Schiller is sounding more like a well-educated John Hogan (no, that wouldn’t be Lew Dickey – keep your mind on the subject here).

Schiller is the perfect Wall Street mistress of NPR – the CEO who is going to do for radio what it hasn’t been able to do for itself during the onset of the digital revolution these past ten years – dump the word “radio”.

But alas!

Most of that time NPR was run by – and important decisions made by – dare I say it, radio people not Wall Street Schills. That is, them that brung NPR to its powerful position in the mind of listeners were radio people.

Radio people -- the kind who knew before their terrestrial brothers and sisters that the word “radio” would have to be expanded from terrestrial broadcasting to digital, Internet and mobile content.

Expanded not expunged.

These same old radio people are the ones who must now suffer fools lightly by watching their CEO miss the entire point.

It’s not that radio was so bad – it was that radio needed to be updated, reinvented, refreshed, reinvigorated and relaunched. National Public Radio did all of that and some of their affiliates took their cue and embraced the mobile future.

I don’t know what has happened to the media business.

A longtime friend of mine who knows all about these things said that consolidation would never work in radio because it is a local business run best when it is kept small and diverse.


Isn’t that so?

Clear Channel -- $18 billion of debt that it can’t repay coming due in a few short years and it has had a virtual monopoly for over ten years. Those poor souls can’t make radio work as a business so they are now in the process of making radio work as a takeover play where fees are the rewards even when the venture fails. Virtually no footprint in new media which I don’t have to tell you is everything these days.

Citadel – His Ultimate Ego Fagreed Suleman crashed and burns his radio company, fires the talent and signs a long-term contract to keep Citadel crashing and burning. Wall Street hates change. No digital plan like NPR for sure.

Cumulus – Happy the Clown Lew Dickey brags and brags about acquiring assets while his own asset is in serious trouble. No mobile Internet strategy as NPR has.

So you get the point.

Radio folks made all the NPR decisions before Vivian Schiller came along and she is now showing she doesn’t get it at all – just like the three sorry examples I mentioned above.

Schiller came over to National Public Radio from The New York Times and CNN. How are those two alma maters working out? The Times slipping. CNN already slipped.


Let me tell you who has it right.

Tim Westergren, the founder of Pandora and a reader of this space.

Westergren embraces the concept of radio. In fact, Pandora is called Pandora radio. Yes, it may be customizable radio but it is radio nonetheless and Westergren is proud of it.

As I’ve mentioned previously, Westergen defended the use of the term “radio” to my USC college students on more than one occasion. These students thought Pandora was above radio. Westergren stubbornly disagreed. Pandora was a new kind of radio – customizable to the music genome Pandora uses to entertain listeners.

I’m writing about this because consolidators may have brought shame on themselves and the radio companies they inherited but they cannot shame the radio industry without our permission and I, for one, will not let them.

Secondly, it was radio people who did all the good Internet, mobile, social networky things that made NPR a leader as tomorrow’s content provider. Terrestrial radio was part of their genius – but they added the critical difference.

Radio people.

And finally, we would all be wise to proceed cautiously when trashing radio as opposed to those who ruined it. In fact, take a page from Tim Westergren as he looks to localize customizable Pandora Radio.

NPR – or whatever you call yourself – get to work and help your local affiliates be local affiliates not just repeater radio for the network feed.

Did I say that NPR’s Schiller is beginning to remind me of John Hogan?

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