Wired has an article on an idea I floated a few weeks back, discussing the way podcasts are changing the public radio landscape. Then I only touched upon the idea that podcasts of popular programs both dilute and expand audiences. Since the idea is in the air — and, of course, since it’s pledge season — let’s talk more about this revolution.
There is nothing more annoying than public radio (or public television) fundraising. I’m a member of my local station, but I’ll confess to changing the channel during the fund drives. I only have so much time during the day to access world, national, and local news, and I’m going to maximize my own limited resources.
And, gods, those pleas for money are painful.
Public radio has always depended on the kindness of strangers, and in these days of budget uncertainties, the membership drives take on an additional uncertainty. National Public Radio fees are determined by the size of as station’s audience, so if you’re station is large or growing, costs go up. Also, not surprisingly, it requires money to pay people to Do Stuff.
It is understandable that public radio has a wary view of podcasting. On one hand, it’s total value-added for listeners — if, for example, you’re stuck at work and can’t listen to an important talk show, then, voila!, download it and listen to it later. Listeners can discover new programming done by the local station and NPR. Podcasts also allow stations to bring key programming to listeners outside their signal reach (as does streaming, but streaming isn’t a great option for all programming). Podcasts can even serve as teaching tools, allowing instructors to replay programming as part of classes.
Of course, podcasts have their dark side. The Wired story starts off with an anecdote of a woman who sits out the fundraising drive by downloading a wide variety of NPR programming and leaving her station behind. That’s a risk stations willingly take. The bigger risk is the confusion podcasts cause. Podcast listeners who are willing to support public radio might not know who in the chain should get their money: their local station, the station that produced the programming, or NPR.
As the Wired article notes:
Aside from the fear that listeners won’t bear with the fund drives at local stations, podcasting also presents the prospect that fans of certain shows will give to stations in other markets instead of their own. When folks download On the Media, for instance, they hear a plea for donations from the show’s originating station, WNYC, which has garnered the New York City station more than 200 new, mostly out-of-market, members, says Mikel Ellcessor, WNYC’s senior director for programming operations and distribution.
I just checked out the podcast page for KPCC, my local station. I can download programming after, annoyingly, being taken to another site, but, oddly, there isn’t a prominent “donate” option on the page. Now is not the time for public radio to be coy about mercenary needs. Why not, next to “AirTalk”, have a message that says “Like this? Help support it.”?
Of course, I’ve left the KPCC page by the time I get hypothetical fundraising message. I think the further away a listener gets from the source, the harder branding becomes. NPR is monetizing their podcasts and sharing some revenue back with the stations. Another option would be to allow users to access NPR and affiliate podcasts via their local station’s website. Blend the local and national model — and share accordingly. If someone downloads, for example, “This American Life” from KPCC and donates money, then both parties should get a a piece of the pie.
Public radio can also build membership by offering something other stations don’t. In my original article, I noted the success of New Jersey’s WFMU. There’s a station that bucks every trend known to radiokind. Free-form radio is too polite a description. Yet the station succeeds by filling an important niche — worldwide. They broadcast locally, were pioneers in streaming, podcast at will, blog, and generally have a good time. Oh, and they’ve also skirted the additional fees demanded by Sound Exchange by not playing music that is subject to those fees.
I give to my local station (KPCC) for one key reason: regional news coverage. KPCC has made a concerted effort to augment NPR news with the same level of local reporting. This original content, which touches upon a wide range of issues facing those of us who live in Southern California, has largely replaced the newspaper I used to read, but now barely have time to liberate from the plastic wrap. I’m working differently, so I need to access my news differently.
In the end, I think it’s going to be a combination of offering something unique and playing the local angle that will build public radio audiences. That’s the public radio challenge — and I hope they’re creative enough to see it.