Ira Glass: Public radio can capitalize on its popularity without selling out its mission

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Glass speaks to advertisers at a podcast upfront event in New York City April 29. (Photo: Mattew Septimus/NPR)

Glass speaks to advertisers at a podcast upfront event in New York City April 29. (Photo: Mattew Septimus/NPR)

Two weeks ago I told a reporter that public radio is ready for capitalism. People have been commenting online about what they think I meant. I’m writing this to clarify.

I did NOT mean that public radio should abandon its mission and shoot instead for ratings and profits. I’m a public radio lifer. I started working at NPR in Washington when I was 19. I was on the staff of All Things Considered by 21, and spent 17 years working on public radio’s daily news shows. Then I started This American Life, where I and my co-workers try our hardest each week to do the job that’s at the heart of public broadcasting: to put voices and stories on the air that would never be heard otherwise; to provide perspective and analysis that’s not heard elsewhere; and to invent a new kind of broadcasting. Innovation is an often-overlooked part of the mandate of public broadcasting.

Our mission is everything to me. It’s the most important thing about our jobs, the premise of the whole operation and of how I’ve spent all my working days since I was a teenager.

But public radio is popular now. A stunning example that would’ve been unthinkable just two years ago: NPR’s newest show Invisibilia burst out of the gate in January with over five million people downloading each episode. Numbers like that mean that companies will come on our shows and pay lots of money for what the rest of the world calls “advertising” and what we call “underwriting.”

I’m talking about the 10- to 15-second announcements during public radio shows that say “Support for this program comes from . . . .” Public radio and TV have always had them. Now that audiences are so large for so many shows, I think it would be lovely for us to make more of our money that way. It would be lovely if stations didn’t have to ask listeners for donations so often. It would be lovely to use money we get from underwriting to invent new shows and to do more ambitious stories. When I say public radio should embrace capitalism, that’s what I mean.

In the last few years at This American Life, revenue we’ve made this way — especially from underwriting on our podcast — has meant that for the first time, we’re in an unusual situation for public broadcasters or journalists of any kind: We’ve had extra money to devote to special projects. We’ve used it as idealistically as we know how. We expanded staff to do more in-depth investigations and reporting. We started the podcast Serial. We took on projects like one documenting life in a Chicago high school where 29 current and recent students had been shot in one year. This required sending three reporters into the school over the course of five months — something that would be a huge, expensive project for any newsroom in the country. We could afford to do that only because of the money that underwriting — aka capitalism — brought us.

Obviously public broadcasters could go too far. Programmers could sell out. They could chase ratings and destroy everything that makes public radio special. It feels almost insulting to have to say that I’m against that, but apparently — given comments I’ve been reading on Twitter — that’s how some people have interpreted what I said about capitalism. They think I’m saying we should open the floodgates and turn public radio into a moronic money-grabbing wasteland of commercial shillery.

To be clear: I’m against that.

I’m not advocating a cartoony and stupid version of embracing capitalism. I see a huge middle ground, where we keep our mission and our ideals, and bring in more money using the conventional tools of the market economy.

This is nothing new. Public radio has been getting plenty of money from underwriting for decades. But now, with podcasting booming, we could make more than we have in the past, and spend it on the stuff that people turn to public radio for.

Meanwhile, listener donations are not going away. And they shouldn’t go away. Public support is one of the foundations of public radio, one of its great strengths, something that gives listeners a connection to our work and a sense of ownership over what we do that’s literal. It’s hard to imagine a healthy public radio system without it.

Something else that seems obvious to me that also bears saying here: I believe public radio should continue to broadcast tons of stuff that does NOT seek the largest audiences and the biggest ad buys. Public radio is strongest when there’s a mix of big, popular shows and programming that’s worthy but not necessarily for everyone. That’s our mission too.

I made my remarks about embracing capitalism at an event that was organized by NPR and public radio stations WBEZ and WNYC for hundreds of media buyers, the people who place ads on radio and TV. The entire point of this event was to encourage them to buy underwriting on our podcasts. Our message was: Public radio would like more of their money. I stand by that. I don’t think that’s bad for public radio. I don’t think we’re heading into some corny apocalypse version of public media where our values will fly out the door. I think public radio will handle this new revenue the way we’ve handled all the money we’ve brought in until now: We’ll use it to make the same idealistic and ambitious stuff we’ve always made.

My mom was a therapist, and she used to say that the best predictor of a person’s future behavior is his or her past behavior. I see no reason why public radio programmers would be exempt from that principle.

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  • Ezra Wall

    One thing that isn’t addressed in Mr. Glass’s piece: the difference between the “underwriting” on the podcast and that on the air. In the podcasts we’re hearing things like calls-to-action, host endorsements and other things you would NEVER hear (that in fact would be ILLEGAL) on the air. To what extent should we embrace that? Surely Mr. Glass can at least see the POSSIBILITY of the slippery financial slope?!

  • Philoveritas

    I believe that you believe this Ira. I just find what you say difficult to reconcile with the pitch made during every spring and fall during pledge drive season. We, the listeners, pay for public radio. In return the broadcasters (now a loose term given podcasting) pledge allegiance to us, rather than to underwriters. This is the argument made to me every time public media asks for my support. Give to public media, and we’ll do our best to serve your interests.

    And I’m truly sorry i can’t afford to give more. I really am, because your program, TAL, is a truly extraordinary thing. I’ve wept more times during TAL than I can remember, because you portray the experiences of people in such a compelling way.

    What you’re saying now is you can use the money provided through a closer relationship with advertisers/underwriters to produce really awesome reporting in the public interest. Again, I believe that you believe that. And I hope for all of us that it’s true.

    I think it’s important that you do what’s best for your program. But it doesn’t seem that this current argument can coexist with the one I hear from my local public radio station, and from the pitches for donations produced by national outlets when they ask for my money.

    I hesitate to believe that you and your colleagues will be able to simultaneously serve the dual – and sometimes opposing – interests of commercial firms and listeners. I think this is a reasonable reservation.

    I invite you and your colleagues to show us you can do this, rather than just tell us. This, however, creates a problem. If you do, by accident, become servants of profit rather than servants of the public, and of the truth, how can we as listeners restore what we’ve lost?

    • Ira Glass

      You’re saying to show you we can do this. As I say in the article, we HAVE been doing it! In the last three years, we’ve made lots of money from underwriters/advertisers this way and have spent it on some of the most acclaimed stuff we’ve done: the Harper High School series, Serial, our collaboration with Lin-Manuel Miranda, investigations like our two cops shows, our show with the secret tapes recorded inside the Fed and too many labor-intensive, expensive investigations to list here. What more demonstration do you want?

      • Philoveritas

        I suppose it’s a demonstration over time. In this article, as well as during the event, you propose asking listeners for money less frequently, and generally moving toward more revenue from advertisers. I think that this may, over time and perhaps in different hands than yours, erode the mission of public media.

        But first I’d like to tell you about one of our long-time partners, Audible.com. Audible.com is the leading provider of spoken-audio entertainment. They have audio editions of magazines and periodicals, as well as books. You can check out Audible for free using the promo code COMMENT2015, for a free audiobook. Consider “Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls” from one from one of our frequent contributors, David Sedaris.

        I think over time the content we hear would become more clouded with underwriting messages. Advertisers pay more for host-read spots in the middle of a piece rather than announcer-read spots at the beginning or the end, right?. I also fear a subversion of public media’s role, in which the influence of underwriters will gradually change decision-making in newsrooms. It would not be the first time a treasured public institution made such a mistake.

        You say you’ve been doing this for years. I can’t argue with that! The tremendous reporting I’ve heard on TAL recently is what, in part, inspired me to become a part-time journalist (I’m not anymore, for unrelated reasons). It’s that love of the truth, as near as one can get to it, that makes me afraid of what this shift toward advertising and away from listener support might mean for the future.

        I’m nervous because I I’m uncertain about the future of something that has deeply enriched my life.

        i guess what I’m saying is that, although I’m by and large satisfied with the balance thus far (though I’d rather underwriting messages not include calls to action) I’m not on board with moving further toward ad dollars, and that it will take more than three years to convince me that this proposed shift is prudent and compatible with the mission of public media.

  • Steve Bass

    Ira — thanks for expanding on your thoughts about this issue. What I thought was unfortunate in the Ad Age article was the inference that somehow public media is not part of the free market and that by doing advertising or corporate sector funding we somehow would be. Public radio already operates in a free-market. Stations are free to produce and broadcast whatever they want. We compete for audience against all kinds of commercial media and some of us do exceptionally well at it. This American Life can charge fees for carriage and we can either pay for it or decide to pass. Increasing sponsorship or even advertising isn’t going to change this because we’re already on that playing field.

    I agree that additional revenue from the corporate sector could be beneficial in furthering our efforts. But if it comes to dominate our business model, that will not be a good thing, as you point out above.

    What deserves further comment is the degree to which individual giving is the driver of our economic model. At OPB, our 125,000+ donors (and growing) provide revenue and insulation from editorial interference that is harder to achieve in a business model more heavily reliant on corporate or government funding. While some believe that membership as topped out (in part because on-air drives are becoming more difficult), we see great opportunity for further growth.

    Diversified funding has been important to our past success and it will be critical to our future success. Debates about whether we should do more corporate support instead of building more individual support miss the point. We should be doing both in the proper proportion in order to fulfill a public service mission and serve audiences.

    Steve Bass
    President & CEO
    OPB

  • Scott Lewis

    Many people believe that being a non-profit means that an organization doesn’t have to – or may not – make money. This is untrue. The difference between a non-profit and for-profit organization is where the money goes.

    Basically, for a non-profit, anything left over after operating expenses goes back into the organization and is used to grow and better the organization. For a for-profit, the surplus beyond operating expenses goes to the shareholders.

    Every organization needs money to operate, grow and thrive. The idea of public radio looking for a larger and/or more secure revenue stream does not immediately equate to “selling out”.

    • We’re not talking profit or nonprofit, we’re talking “public” — or what once was public.

      • Jason Ward

        Ira: agree. Rest of this discussion / hair splitting / complaining: @firstworldproblems

  • jimbo

    Just look at television; there’s plenty of ads and commercials, but companies like AMC and HBO have managed to produce some fantastic shows; Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, ect. It’s interesting Ira feels like he needs to qualify himself, but to me it’s a no brainer. Let Public Radio embrace capitalism and we can look forward to more great radio shows. Maybe bigger and better than we’ve seen already.

    • Kaity

      Yeah, but when you are on HBO you don’t have to appease advertisers because there are none!

      Doubt John Oliver and his writing staff would be that comfortable with some of the more pointed satire of potential advertisers like H&M, JC Pennys, McDonalds, if they were on network or even basic cable.

      • jimbo

        Ok maybe HBO was a bad example. But have you seen John Steweart? Stephen Colbert? These are two satirical geniuses who thrived on Comedy Central where there’s plenty of advertising.

        • Aaron Read

          Comparing TV to radio is apples to oranges, because the possibility of cable rights fees exist in TV. Viewers must pay to see Comedy Central on their cable TV subscription; you cannot see it on free over-the-air TV.

          There is no real equivalent in radio. There’s XM/Sirius, but they exist very separately from free AM/FM radio…whereas broadcast TV is often intricately intertwined with cable TV networks.

        • OR2OR3OR4

          I hear you on the CC shows, but the experience of interrupting the program every 10 minutes for 4 minutes of adverts is truly horrendous, archaic, and just generally dead on arrival. If anything, front or backloading the adverts is the only workable solution, but the advertisers won’t be pleased with that.

  • redape

    Whie I love “This American Life” and agree that sponsorship and oher funding streams do not necessarily harm the mission of public radio…there is definitely the propensity that they could. Especially when a program or station becomes beholden to one or a few substantial corporate entities.
    Before the FCC is a rulemaking action pushed by several major radio entities (Comcast and Entercom) to alter the Plugola rules so they need no longer announce that music played is actually played because some label or producer paid them for it. Will everything we hear soon become “pay-to-play”?

    The capitalist nature of NPR is already (and has long been) manifest to those of us down at the bottom of the totem pole…college and community stations. We’ve been forced to take on whole packages of NPR programs if we want “Morning Edition” or “All Things Considered”. We’ve been required to hire more FT staff to become eligible for station improvement grants. And many community stations, after going deep in debt, are swallowed up by some NPR-affiliated network. College Deans and Presidents are all to happy to take over student run stations that they have essentially ignored for decades…paid for by STUDENT money…and then turn the studios, transmitter and frequency over to NPR-affiliated broadcast groups. Well over half the stations broadcasting NPR programming today were stolen from students…who built those stations from the ground up. Then these stations play hours of syndicated material, lose their localism,

    Ira has been embedded in the NPR culture since he was a sprout. He never was a member of a community or college station that was committed to local programming or local DJ’s committed to creativity and airing neglected voices and music. For those down here looking up at the wealth and resources NPR stations have, and their bullying and backstabbing tactics…NPR and their affiliates are already fully capitalized. They even act like oligarchs, secretly negotiating deals without making the community aware of the takeover until the communities and the local stakeholders have no voice at all in the decision.

    • Adam Ragusea

      It should be said, I think, that your use of the word “stolen” here is hyperbolic. Universities cannot steal that which they own. My feelings about repurposing student-run stations are mixed, but I do think this is a meaningful distinction. If students want independent student radio, they need to incorporate it as an independent entity in an office off campus, as is the case with many student papers. University administrators have an obligation to use the resources under their stewardship to the maximum benefit of their mission. We can debate whether going student-run to NPR is a good idea, and I think it depends on the specific case you’re talking about, but let’s not pretend as though administrators are exceeding their authority when they make those judgement calls. It’s their job.

      • redape

        Of course they “steal” the stations. Let’s be honest here and not slather the actual events and history of these stations under typical bureaucratic bull dada.

        Most college stations were developed by STUDENTS as student clubs. Funding, equipment, records, and staff (voluntary) were obtained from student groups. Most were located in student unions. The FCC required that they obtain Regential/Presidential approval before they could obtain an FCC license. Under the FCC rules they were not allowed to obtain an educational, non-commercial license without that institutional imprimatur.

        And when Media Boards were imposed that was precisely when some student papers moved off campus, and became non-student papers. Many Media Boards restructured from having onerous “pre-publication” censorship strictures, and Administrative Officers in control, simply because they feared that student newspapers WOULD move shop off campus and become even more radicalized Underground papers.

        “Better to have them inside the tent pissing out, than to have them outside pissing in.”

        But FCC regulations prevented that from even possibly occurring with student stations. A paper is not regulated by the FCC…but student stations could not, by law, establish an independent off-campus, group. At least not without the permission of the regents. The chain always exists.

        But beyond that the “University” had little to do with supporting these stations. Sometimes they imposed a Media Board UPON them (during the radical late Sixties). There were only a handful of student stations that were part of academic programs, with faculty using them as courses, imposing programming, and assigning grades. Most were autonomous groups and received no support from the institution beyond that of other student organizations.

        If Universities OWNED the stations then they would be subject to paying for all the equipment needs, paying the programmers, having benefits plans for them, fundraising, etc. Do the Regents really intend to pay the thousands of student and community volunteers the back wages for 24 hr./day/365 days a year broadcasting? Pay the engineers and producers comparable back pay for decades? Pay the Students back for the student fees that were allocated to purchase and maintain the equipment over decades?

        Why would they would not have required that the student managers be students (as is standard for leaders of student clubs) rather than University employees? Or that editorials and programming guides stipulate that the content are” not the views of the University or the Regents of the University of California”. That many of these stations existed for decades without any such assistance or editorial control indicates that they were NOT owned in any real sense…except for that FCC statement on the license…by the University.

        • Adam Ragusea

          I get your point and I’m aware of the history. The fact remains that the university holds the license, not the students. They can’t steal what they own.

          • redape

            Again…you clearly don’t get my point.

            You use a “bumper sticker” comment to justify your position.

            They are, ethically and morally stealing institutions from students who have put their hearts, souls, and sweat equity into founding and building those stations.

            And NPR and these public radio groups are acting as immoral facilitators of the destruction of these institutions.

          • Adam Ragusea

            No, I do get your point, and I agree with it in many ways. I didn’t say your use of the word “stolen” was inaccurate, I said it was hyperbolic — an exaggeration, not literally true. The universities, in a legal sense, are not stealing radio stations, because they own the licenses. You’re using the word figuratively, which I understand.

            To the actual substance of your argument, I agree that it’s a tough situation. However, as a radio professional and a journalism faculty member at a university, I’m not convinced that student-run terrestrial radio has the value that it once did. I don’t think it prepares students for the media jobs of tomorrow, and certainly student interest in terrestrial radio is dropping. It may make sense for a lot of these stations to be repurposed.

            Regardless, I’m not sure what you want NPR to do about it. Stations are independent entities, and NPR is chartered to serve them, not the other way around. I’m not even sure if they have a mechanism for denying membership to a qualifying station, though that’s an interesting question to explore.

          • redape

            I come from a student station and agree that student-run terrestrial may not prepare students for the radio positions of TODAY. But I know that having such stations trained hundreds of alumni at my station in active organizational management, skills as varied as journalism and production, fundraising, the production of concerts and a quarterly magazine, etc. They had to work with dozens of other students (and non-students) to achieve these goals, People acquired the skills, not in their academic courses, but from having the responsibility of managing their own radio station. Of course this wasn’t a narrow station that was only allowing in Comm Studies students training for a Media related career. One could be a neuroscience major and start a “Science Radio Show”, or someone interested in music…and go into promotion, or an artist and become involved in poster design. Some did go on into TV and Radio (and in fact several work over at that NPR affiliate, even though they lack Comm Studies degrees), but most became professionals in other fields. That doesn’t mean that they did not benefit from involvement in the station.

            My former station serves more as a gathering place for the local University “scene” and produces over 100 musical and art events a year. They organize a large multi act music festival that brings in international bands. They have little problem with recruiting on-air staff…in fact, interest in the station is such that they have recruitment meetings in a large lecture hall. 150-200 students participate actively each Semester. ..not counting volunteers who have no on-air presence.

            When I look at stations that hire professional staffs to run their “University cum Public” stations they are averse to giving even minimal access and training to students. It took 30 years before the Sacramento NPR affiliate allowed more than TWO student interns into their facility…beyond being phone answerers during their fundraising drives. No student has ever gotten on the air as an announcer of music programmer. Just how much benefit is such an entity to the educational rationale of such stations? Oh, they do promote the “image” of the University. But in terms of tangible student educational benefit?

          • Adam Ragusea

            Yeah, I think you raise a lot of valid concerns here, I just don’t think every case is the same. I started at WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana, which began as a student station before it was professionalized. And yet, most of the music announcers and reporters at the time (including me) were Indiana University students. We learned from professionals, and just about all of us who worked there at the time have good jobs in the field now. The system worked. There are other places where it doesn’t.

            Likewise, some student-run radio stations remain pretty vibrant places, some are totally moribund, and most are somewhere in-between. But the general trend is one of decline, I think simply because fewer college kids are listening to the radio. I think a lot of the uproar over the mothballing of student stations comes from alumni who don’t like that their old college sandbox is going away. Nostalgia is not a valid reason to perpetuate a radio station.

            Even in the crappiest college station, I don’t doubt that there are still some students who really value the experience and derive useful skills. The question is whether that’s the best use of the resource for the broader mission of the university.

            Maybe if the station stays student run, 30 kids a year will have some fun and get a little experience. But if it goes NPR, maybe 3 or 4 kids a year will get really great professional experience that directly leads to a job. Which is better? That’s a legitimately tough call.

            Indeed, I think the main reason most administrators want to transition their stations to public radio is because it will enhance their reputation and visibility in the community. That’s not nothing. Enhanced reputation is good for students. Also, many universities have an explicit mission of enriching the community, not just educating the students, and an NPR station might do a better job of that than a shoddily programmed student station.

            I also think the localism of a lot of college radio is really overstated. If a local DJ is playing national artists, is it meaningfully local?

            I think you’re giving short shrift to the hard decisions that administrators have to make in these situations. They’re always gonna piss somebody off. The allocation of a finite resource necessarily results in winners and losers. Should they keep the student station going for the last handful of students who really want to work there? It’s a tough call, and I applaud administrators who are willing to make unpopular decisions that they sincerely believe are in the best interest of their institutions. That’s leadership. Weak leaders just hang back and try not to upset anyone.

            More broadly, I subscribe to the notion advanced by the Knight Foundation (which funds my job) that the traditional student-run media model has failed journalism students (yes I know college radio is about more than journalism, but I’m talking about journalism right now). It doesn’t get them ready for the workplace. Sure it’s more fun to run the station yourself, but you learn more when you’re being subjected to professional standards. I’m an adherent of the “teaching hospital model,” and I think public radio stations work better in that context.

            I still think student media is important, but mostly as an independent news source for students on campus affairs. As such, I think student media needs to actually be independent to do what it needs to do, and be off campus.

          • redape

            Well a current case is WRAS in Atlanta…they President, without any discussion with the student-faculty groups assigned to govern the station (and which had just given almost $1 million for a new transmitter/antenna), or the students within the Station to an NPR affiliate (Georgia Public Broadcasting). Students were allowed to retain evening and “graveyard hours”. Of course, that’s “leadership” to you. Some would call it poor governance.

            Ratings are (month by month) lower for the GPB programmed station than they were for the student station. Of course there is already an NPR-affiliate in Atlanta (WABE). GPB wanted one, too. Now there are two competing for the same audience and funding base.

            They, too, promised internships in their big announcement. Students are complaining that none have been produced, except some door knocking on their fundraising campaigns. They promised “follow-arounds” with their programmers. None occurred. They promised a new digital TV sub channel that MUST be fully programmed within the first year, or Georgia State will be responsible for the acquisition costs of PBS programming. To this date (the clock is ticking down to the June 1st deadline) the Comm Studies Department have not aired a single program. Apparently the CS Department have assigned students to subtitling some donated foreign language programming.

            And then there is the erstwhile “community” station KUSP in Monterey that has gone bankrupt under the high NPR programming fees. They are in the process of selling the station to the same USC “Classical” group that took over KUSF. They will be competing with another NPR-affiliated station in Monterey that allocates a digital channel to Classical music.

          • Adam Ragusea

            Yep, I’m familiar, I used to work at GPB. Did I specifically call what Becker did leadership? Nope. Was commenting generally.

            My feelings about the WRAS thing are mixed, but in general I think you’re gonna have to give it more time to see whether it actually works. I suspect that the lack of student involvement has more to do with GSU than it does with GPB. I was on a panel discussion in Atlanta a couple weeks ago with someone from GPB, and a GSU student got up and complained about the lack of student involvement and then two sentences later said most of his peers wouldn’t feel comfortable in GPB’s building. You can’t be involved if you can’t deign to come over, dude. I think things have to calm down a bit before the various parties involved can try to make it work.

            Regarding the ratings, your claim runs contrary to the numbers I’ve seen published in the AJC.

            Regarding the competition with WABE, “competing for the same audience and funding base,” I think you’re ignoring the possibility that the overall pie could grow. When I worked at WBUR in Boston (an all-news NPR station), WGBH switched formats from classical to all-news to compete with us. They said they wouldn’t steal WBUR’s audience, but rather they would grow the overall audience. I thought it was BS, but that’s exactly what happened. WBUR held its numbers, WGBH grew theirs a lot. They’re still a lot smaller than WBUR, but they grew the pie. And the competition for sure made WBUR stronger, they made major investments in local news and other things to hold their position in the market.

          • Aaron Read

            Everything you describe is laudable in the abstract but nevertheless reflects anachronistic attitudes of “success” in college radio. Colleges are a business, and many of them had balancesheets utterly bleeding red ink from 2007 to, well, today in some cases. It would be irresponsible for them NOT to analyze the fact that they may have had a still-valuable asset that could be sold for a substantial sum. Especially when the asset often has little or no value to the core mission of the parent college.

            For example, if the college doesn’t have a broadcasting or journalism curriculum, then by definition the station does directly serve its core educational mission. Thus, it is a student activity. Now, granted, there are many, many benefits of participating in a student activity…where students can learn many skills that will serve them well throughout their lives.

            The “problem” is webcasting. There are no skills that can be learned at a college radio station with an FCC license that cannot also be learned at a webcast-only outlet. And being web-only carries several advantage in less regulatory burden, much less legal liability (esp in indecency and EAS), lower operating costs, and more creative freedom for the air talent.

            The catch is that it DOES require an investment of both budget and man-hours to create an environment at a web-only station that duplicates the learning environment at an FCC-licensed station. Sometimes it’s less overall costs than for the licensed station, but even so, many colleges have shown that they are unwilling to make that investment. They’re looking to cut expenses and also to cash in on a payday. I find this highly distasteful, but understandable from their point of view.

            This is why I wrote an extensive article/guide on how college radio had to adapt to changing economic conditions back in 2011. It’s not about hewing to old norms of “success” for college radio. It’s about finding success as defined by the parent college.

            http://friedbagels.blogspot.com/2011/12/protecting-your-college-radio-station.html

            A key point to remember here is that even if stations are funded by Student Activity fees, it’s naive to think that those are funds not controlled by the parent university. They very much guide those towards activities deemed to provide the best return on investment for student benefit. Many college radio stations, despite their “meager” budgets, still cost more than all the other student activities’ budgets COMBINED each year. That’s poor ROI for a service that benefits directly…at most…a few hundred student volunteers each year. (if your ratings and/or other listener metrics demonstrate you’re benefiting a lot of listeners, that’s great but most college radio outlets don’t do that…and even the ones that do are mostly benefiting demographics the University doesn’t care much about: off-campus people.)

            Moreover, Universities often heavily subsidize college radio stations with free rent, free internet & phone, free janitorial services, free electricity, etc etc etc. All these things DO cost money; the station just doesn’t see the bill.

          • Aaron Read

            As someone who has consulted & presented extensively on how college radio stations can “protect” themselves from being sold, I find this attitude that it’s the *NPR station’s* fault that a college sells off its AM/FM license to an NPR affiliate utterly baffling, and more than a little offensive.

            In not one case did NPR nor any NPR member station ever put a gun to the college’s head and demand they sell the license to them. In many cases there was another party that offered more money (often a religious broadcaster) but the college opted to sell to an NPR outlet because it offered better long-term opportunity for their students.

  • Adam Ragusea

    I kinda wish Ira would have acknowledged that his remarks here are in conflict with his quote to Ad Age. He said, “My hope is that we can move away from a model of asking listeners for money.” And then he turns around and says he believes listener contributions are essential, he just doesn’t want to rely on them as heavily. I take him at his word (and I also happen to agree with him). But this is not purely a problem of everybody misinterpreting his remarks. He didn’t say what he meant.

  • Mr. Glass, I agree but disagree. My reply was much too long.
    So I put it on Medium: https://medium.com/@samlit/with-all-due-respect-mr-glass-i-disagree-10c46490153c

  • That’s fine, Ira. Just don’t call your media “public” anymore. Once it’s bought and paid for, it’s theirs.

  • Phil F

    Success of public radio should be based on the public, not private corporate interest. If NPR is is financially stagnant, then more creative ideas to acquire money from supporters should be found, not advertising. It seems to me that in my area, NPR has three relay towers to cover more territory, then stays on three times as long during fund drives in order to survive. While I agree it is good to get the programming out to rural areas, it seems to already be corporate radio in the intent.

    I am a board member for a community low power radio station in Richmond, VA (97.3 WRIR) and while we are low power and only serve the immediate city and environs, we struggle with ways to reach more listeners. We have underwriting…from other local independent buinesses mostly, and that helps. Plus we get occasional grants, which helps. But our bread and butter comes from our listeners. It will always more than likely be that way due to our limited and modest ideal and mission to serve the community with underrepresented voices in news and music.

    I have heard a few “stories” from NPR (mostly morning edition) that seem more like advertising a particular product (iPhone, for example) which gets rather irksome to me. Will there be more stories like this when corporate investors, or advertisements, become more predominant?

    NPR needs to decide what kind of station it will be, look toward the mission statement, and go from there.

    (On a side note, as another commenter on here expressed, NPR here does occasionally bully us out of music events and the like, and we don’t think they much care for us.)

  • Conor

    hi ira i wrote the awl article (http://www.theawl.com/2015/05/podcasting-and-the-selling-of-public-radio) you’re kind of responding to and i deeply disagree with the idea commercials are a natural or logical extension of what public radio has been about, and i mean public radio the democratic institution not this american life or NPR. sponsorships are fine but the critical critical critical difference between someone reading underwriting copy and you sending dana off to force people to recite lines for mailchimp is who the spot is made for and the effect it has. the serial ad was only made for a company and to get listeners to buy their stuff. moreover, b/c it is made in-house, by journalists, you are not just bringing advertisers that much closer to the people making journalism but effectively branding the *public* radio sound, which is depressing

    alternatively, underwriting is made for the listener; it is in the public interest to know where a program’s money comes from. thats why underwriting is short and non-promotional. (also, marginally related, but when TAL airs segments from gimlet media isn’t it your ethical/legal obligation to let people know that it was funded by them? you never mentioned that with the paul ford interview..that it was completely paid for by a corporation 100% funded by vc + advertising)

    anyway, you are conflating underwriting and advertising/branded content and this is the EXACT problem and it is harmful when you of all people pass it off as natural or innovative for public radio

    all i want is a Podcast Sponsorship Policy

    • Mason Gibb

      Conor, there are Underwriter Guidelines for terrestrial radio (recently shared with the public by the NPR Ombudsman). These guidelines are already being ignored when it comes to terrestrial radio–I see little reason why the underwriter department would not choose to ignore whatever podcast guidelines are drafted as well.

      If you look at the terrestrial Underwriter Guidelines, Principal C acknowledges that any underwriter statements are “strictly for identification” and should never be promotional in nature. Procedure 1 describes the appropriate ways to identify underwriters. Both the principal of non-promotion and the procedure limiting identification to “clearly objective” and “value neutral” language are commonly ignored in the on-air underwriter statements. For example, neither the public nor NPR’s sponsors would consider the words “renewable” or “sustainable” as “value neutral”, yet these words can be heard in underwriter statements. The procedure also states that “product content” can be briefly described “without reference to items generally assumed to be part of the product”, and gives an example of a hamburger containing pickles and onions. Yet the terrestrial underwriter spots for a company like LumberLiquidators describes particular varieties of flooring that they sell.

      It is becoming harder and harder to separate corporate underwriting from advertising. On podcasts, there is no separation between advertisement and underwriter (listen to the first minute of any episode of NPRs Snap Judgement). I remember just a few years ago, when NPR’s longest advertisements were from Garrison Keillor, hawking a nonexistent brand of biscuit. And I wouldn’t even listen to those ads.

      • Adam Ragusea

        I certainly agree that the spirit and perhaps even the letter of the regulation is being violated by lots of underwriting copy that I hear throughout the public radio system. However, I’ll say what I always say: If you want purely public public radio like they have in the UK and Canada, the public has to pay for it. Unless and until America’s tiny public subsidy for public broadcasting increases dramatically, public broadcasters will keep doing what they’ve always done — get creative, and get the money they need elsewhere.

        • Mason Gibb

          OK, so now admitted violations of the underwriting guidelines are just “getting creative”? Surely there are better ways to get creative.

          On the Media’s Brooke Gladstone knitted hats or scarves for donors. That’s getting creative. On the other hand, you have Pacifica radio offering a ‘miracle cure’ as a gift in a fund drive. The CPB ombudsman did not approve of this type of creativity. Violating underwriting guidelines is a race to the bottom, not creativity.

          • Adam Ragusea

            Oh, lighten up. Even the worst public radio underwriting announcements are nothing compared to commercial media ads. If we’re doing a race to the bottom, we haven’t gotten very far.

            If you have better ideas about where to find the money, we’re all ears. I don’t think the hats and scarves are gonna cut it.

          • Mason Gibb

            Um, I think that some guy donated a ton of money to Radiolab to hang out with the guys. Again, creative and acceptable. And I think it is was a five-figure donation.

            As for “race to the bottom”, please listen to Ira Flatow on Science Friday podcasts, which have him hawking razors by mail. These are honestly depressing ads, and are exactly like commercial media ads you will hear on AM radio. I know this example is PRI, not NPR–but public radio nonetheless. Or, listen to the first 60 seconds of most Snap Judgment podcasts. These are lengthy commercials that are tolerable only due to Glenn Washington’s charisma. This is exactly why radio hosts deliver advertising spots on commercial programs–the audience can tolerate the commercial because of the host’s charisma.
            Check out these two examples, and tell me the race for podcast underwriting is not a race to the bottom.

          • Adam Ragusea

            Um, we’re not all Radiolab.
            I’m quite familiar with both of the examples you mention, neither bothers me. I’ve worked in or with public radio for nine years, in that time I have found corporate support to be the least corrupting, the least disruptive of the major sources of funding we get. The little donor money forces us to do the fund drives which are much more obtrusive than ads, while the big donor money allows rich people to influence programming decisions in various ways, some more explicit than others. The government money makes us politically timid and generally perpetually frightened. And the only time I’ve ever seen an outside force blatantly, directly interfere with programming has been with stations’ own licensees (the universities, governments, or community groups that own the stations). In contrast, I’ve never once seen or heard of an underwriter or podcast advertiser influencing anything on the editorial side. They all have their downsides, but I think the mixture of funding streams ultimately makes public media stronger and as independent as any organization can be.

            (Also, I was talking about underwriting. You then brought up podcast advertising. Two different things.)

          • Mason Gibb

            You are not all Radiolab. You are not all Brooke Gladstone. I think that people will be willing to pay less money to have lunch with local programming hosts of less expensive programming, or a silk-screened T-shirt designed by some staff member, or a hundred other things besides corporate sponsorship. There are plenty of ways to give ‘individualized’ gifts to members. It was WNYC staff that had this “auction”-type fundraiser. You can contact them to find out its successes and failures.
            Or, look how WFMU does their fund drives. Again, not every station is WFMU. But maybe it’s worth taking note of their success, and taking tips from their fundraising?

            I disagree that fund drives are more disruptive than underwriting. Well,other than the part of fund drives when the hosts are hawking various member gifts–ie, promoting the products of corporate sponsors (magazines, wine-by-mail groups, etc.). Underwriting makes me question the accuracy of NPR’s journalism. The fact NPR did not release corporate sponsor statements for 3 years until pressure from the CPB ombudsman is an example of NPR’s problems with disclosure, which left the public incapable of judging the independence of their journalism. Fund drives are are a reminder that us members are a community of listeners, supporting the station and programming we love. I do not mind fund drives. The drives and their tote bags are a source of comedy, but I don’t think anyone stops listening to public radio or refuses to donate because a fund drive lasts two extra days. In fact, the “pre-fund drive” announcements for online donations seem to have really cut down on the length of fundraising for KQED.

            Having multiple funding streams is important. But compare the short underwriting spots from ten years ago that would air on ME or ATC (30 seconds/hour) with the underwriting spots that are now 2:30/hour. Commercial programming bears witness that advertising money is hard to turn down. Where does it stop? From the two podcasts I mentioned, it seems like it can get pretty egregious, pretty disruptive, pretty lengthy. More disruptive than people begging for members, without a doubt.

          • Adam Ragusea

            The stuff you’re talking about has been tried and tried and tried. I’ve personally been pimped out for lunch with a donor. It made a little money. Not much. You’re not going to find the kind of money we’re talking about going down that route. I used to work at WBUR where we did a huge donor gala every year with an auction and big stars and all kinds of personalized memorabilia. It raises some money, but nothing compared to the underwriting budget.

            I’m glad that you like fund drive, I really am, but most listeners don’t. Stations will see their ratings fall by half or more during fund drive, and it’s going to get even worse as more and more people migrate to on-demand content. I agree that fund drive is the heart of the enterprise. But it’s not enough to carry it.

            Where does the advertising end? Good question, but I think we’ll figure it out as we go and draw functional, appropriate lines, though mistakes will be made in the process. To say that enhanced underwriting and podcast advertising will necessarily lead to a commercial media-like state of corruption is a slippery slope fallacy.

            Seriously, I’m telling you, this isn’t what you need to be worried about. I’m much more worried about the influence of licensees and big donors. That stuff actually happens.

          • Mason Gibb

            I don’t like fund drives–but I would take them any day if it meant holding fast to the guidelines on corporate underwriting and extending the terrestrial guidelines to podcasting. I would rather every podcast have multiple 30 second pleas for new members rather than a single added underwriter statement.

            I’m not really presenting a future scenario, so I don’t see this as a slippery slope fallacy. Ira Flatow is delivering lines on Science Friday selling razors and Mother’s Day flowers that sound exactly like commercial AM radio. And I mean exactly. They are probably written by the same teams that write ad copy for AM radio. Can you specify a difference between these SciFri spots and commercial radio? It is depressing. Glenn Washington delivering 60-second personal endorsements of corporate audiobooks, along with a musical beat in the background, sounds pretty commercial to me. Just listen to these “underwriter spots”–is more of this the future of public radio? The last change to underwriting guidelines increased the length of spots per hour five-fold! I don’t think we’re talking about a slippery slope–we’re talking about the here and now.

            There are bigger problems than underwriting, I know. A local station was eaten up and spit out as a repeater for an NPR affiliate station. How do I handle a problem like that? Underwriting is still a big concern of mine, and it seems like an easier one for me to fuss about and be heard. After all, fussing about it got the CPB to pressure NPR into releasing 3 years of corporate sponsor information.

          • Adam Ragusea

            No, I can’t specify the difference between podcast ads and commercial radio ads, because I never claimed there was one. We were talking about underwriting before, and you changed the subject to podcast ads, which are unregulated. You seem to understand the difference, and yet you keep conflating them. Glynn Washington’s Audible endorsements are not “underwriter spots,” they’re ads. Are ads the future of public radio, you ask? Only in a very limited way. Of course, we can’t do ads on the air. And as Conor Gillies points out in his piece for The Awl, the IRS considers ad revenue to be taxable, unlike underwriter revenue, and nonprofits can only derive so much of their overall revenue from taxable sources before they endanger their nonprofit status with the feds. So there’s a ceiling here, which is part of why I’m not really worried about it. Public media will continue to live off donors and taxpayers. But don’t kid yourself: multiple 30 second pleas for members in every podcast would not get you the revenue that underwriting or advertising gets you in combination with the other sources. It takes a village, as they say.

      • Aaron Read

        One thing worth noting: the FCC’s underwriting restrictions do not apply if the sponsoring entity is also a registered non-profit. AFAIK, the internal guidelines for underwriting on NPR do not make that distinction and with good reason: it confuses the heck out of listeners (and sponsors) if they hear a content-restricted spot for one sponsor and a full-blown ad for another, not realizing that the first is for a for-profit and the second a non-profit.

        Adam, you raise a good point that non-profits are limited by the IRS on how much they can raise from advertising before it endangers their non-profit status, but I don’t think this is anywhere near restrictive enough to serve as a “brake” on having a commercial “sound” on podcasts and that starting to contrast badly with the non-commercial sound required on FCC-licensed broadcasts. People go to public radio podcasts expecting to hear public radio, not some commercialized bastard version of public radio. And relying solely on internal checks and balances, while tricky to begin with, is doomed to fail without a strong, centralized policy that all parties have vested interests in adhering to.

  • Aaron Read

    “I think public radio will handle this new revenue the way we’ve handled all the money we’ve brought in until now: We’ll use it to make the same idealistic and ambitious stuff we’ve always made.”

    While I’m sure Ira is aware of this, it’s a drastic oversimplification to say that “public radio will handle this new revenue” because it’s not public radio earning this new revenue. It’s content providers, and they exist in a complicated and, at the moment, often distrustful relationship between the various member stations who own & operate the AM & FM transmitters that 92% of all public radio content is still consumed through.

    Most of what benefits these podcasts/content providers does not benefit broadcast stations. In fact, it often is to their detriment: when This American Life drives hordes of listeners to go listen to “Serial” by devoting an entire hour of TAL to the pilot episode, that’s an episode that broadcast stations paid programming fees…sometimes quite hefty programming fees…to drive listeners to a platform where that station has no chance of earning revenue from those listeners to pay for the fees.

    I’m not against Ira wanting to funnel this newfound wealth into better programming, but it’d be nice to see more discussion about how these new funding models are going to benefit the broadcast outlets that public radio still depends on…despite what several recent, and thankfully *former*, NPR CEO’s have said.

  • Ethan Gach

    I’m sorry that you’re insulted that people didn’t like something you said.

  • Dan Mitchell

    If Ira Glass meant public radio should rely more on corporate sponsorships and less on pledges, he should have said that. Instead, he used terms like “free market” and “capitalism,” apparently without quite knowing what they mean.

    In capitalism, capitalists own the capital, which they employ to earn profits on it. In free markets, companies compete with each other to capture the largest possible market share. In radio, that necessarily means morning zookeepers, bad country music, top 40, political blowhards, and guys yelling about sports.

    In a true free-market, capitalist situation, “This American Life,” “Serial,” and “Invisibilia” would never have seen the light of day. Imagine trying to sell any of those to some Clear Channel executive. It just wouldn’t happen.

  • As Ira & Alex Blumberg & friends leave the public radio mothership via podcasting, we have the media equivalent of the public vs. private school debate: one tier of wealthy & talented citizens who can privately fund their own shows (schools)… VS the Great Unwashed who hope that Americans (and our government) still see some value in public media writ large.

    If you look down the road a few years, you’ll probably see a digital landscape of atomized content & producers (Gimlet podcasts here, Radiotopia there, TAL everywhere, etc.) — but a withering public system that has lost touch with one simple fact: We hunger to be engaged not as consumers, but as citizens.

    Here’s my question for Ira: If public radio breaks apart to become a vast constellation of individual, unconnected podcasts (supported in a variety of ways), then what, if anything, would we lose as a nation?

    • One of the key losers will be those who generate content on a shoestring. I am one of them. I write about wildlife for a nationally broadcast (PRI) program. Everything I do is based on my own fieldwork, which encompasses North America, and I present my own material on air. I also make my own field recordings and provide wildlife photography for the program’s website. If that were not enough to keep me off the stress, I have a newspaper column with byline – usually a full page. Between radio and print? I do not make enough to pay for my equipment. The way I can do this work – the only way is because I have a national voice and NGO’s, tour groups, etc. cover most of my travel expenses in exchange for an on-air credit along the lines of “Mark was with [NAME]” and a link on the program’s website, nothing more. The stories themselves are prose bordering on poetry that concentrates on wildlife alone, not the great meals I had, or the wonderful products I used, or the hotel with the view where I stayed… Take away that national voice? The content I provide vanishes, and so do I. Plenty of people work on what they believe in for little or no monetary recompense. Sometimes that’s just the way it is. [And why should Ira Glass be different? What is your salary Ira? What does it cost to keep your pit bull in – is it – the kangaroo tails that he eats?] Or to put it another way, Gauguin did not go to Tahiti to improve his brokerage business. He went to paint.

  • gary mauthe

    Increase the amount paid by underwriters to attach their brand to a particular show. This is simple supply and demand. Generating high quality, popular content (product) that can fetch top dollar is a solid market strategy.

    Hybrid business models (cooperatives, community-supported org., etc.) have always had a difficult time in a capitalist society. Keep the underwriter model, if it still works.

  • I guess it’s one thing when you’re a small-time operation whose audience is mostly Hippies and college students, and another when you’re popular. Who would want to leave all that potential revenue on the table? But is it still Public Radio?

    One of my favorite TAL episodes of all time is “The Fix Is In.” It remains among the most gripping stories I’ve ever heard in any medium. If This American Life was taking money from ADM for promotional spots (or underwriting, or whatever you want to call it), would that show have gotten made? I doubt it. How different would “The Giant Pool of Money” have been if the producers had to check to make sure they didn’t insult the wrong funder? And what chance would an episode like “Sissies” have had if Promotions couldn’t find a sponsor who wanted to be associated with “that kind of stuff?”

    Public Radio has already gotten too capitalistic for my tastes, so maybe the big players should just come out and embrace it. Let’s just not pretend that they’re working in the public’s interest anymore.

  • mythikal

    NPR has become bland, dopey, and almost impossible to watch without reaching for the remote..and WHEN the HELL are they going to stop programming those sick BBC-produced series? I mean, if there is no money to produce series made in America (that employ native actors and crew…DUH!) then they should just show endless Victor Borge specials (EEEE-YUCK!!!!!) and Doo-Wop retreads (HELP!) and call it a day.

    • minister

      Go on back to listening to your exciting sports radio station, if you find intellectual news borrrrring.

    • redape

      I think you are confusing NPR and PBS.

  • mythikal

    Oh, sorry, I thought the article is about PBS! Which is now so BORRRRRRR-ing that it puts me to sleep.

  • Joe

    Thank you Ira! I wholeheartedly agree that there is an opportunity for public media to maintain relevance and drive listener impact/growth through a renewed look at underwriting and public support. As Conor cautions below, underwriting needs to maintain its benefit & relevance to listeners. I agree that a sponsorship policy would set a framework for transparency & accountability.

    I only wish more tenured journalists & public media managers understood how their work relates to the opportunities underwriting & marketing can bring to the world of public media – more funding for the underserved mission-centric stories that deserve to be heard, improved ability to bring meaningful stories to more listeners, and solid insight to keep journalists informed on important issues in the listener community.

    We live in a time where the old “build it and they’ll come” approach is in most cases outdated – we have to look ahead. If appropriately applied, a renewed approach to underwriting/marketing can keep content editors informed on the voice of today’s listener, expand the effectiveness of distribution (which is a benefit to listeners and content alike), and give content producers the funding they need to do what they do best. Underwriting guided by a mission/listener-centric framework is a positive and informed step in that direction.

  • Outtatime

    Personally, I’m tired of pledge drives. They’re annoying and the equivalent to our favorite NPR hosts begging for money on bended knee. Since most loyal NPR listeners renew their pledge every year, maybe it’s time to switch to subscription style membership. No ads, just a monthly or annual fee for access to the programs we now enjoy. This would raise more thank enough capital and eliminate the need for pledge drives. Slacker, Pandora and Spotify use this so why not NPR?

    • Hydroheidi

      That seems to make sense… except that with such a system I never would have discovered NPR in the first place. I started listening to NPR at 17 years old as an impoverished student working nights in a photography lab. I was a daily listener for 10 years before I was able to contribute to the stations’ efforts. I would hate to think that young students or people without the financial means to pay their membership would be cut off from the diverse education that NPR offers to listeners of all “castes” of society nationwide/worldwide.

  • Leonardpine

    Dear Ira Glass,

    I’ve been a fan for years. I have given
    money to TAL and bought merch and I gladly paid to see you at a talk
    in Memphis a few years ago. I plan to do these things again, and I’ll
    do them gladly. This might seem crazy, but I actually like that I am
    able to give money to support really great storytelling and, better
    yet, some of the best journalism being done anywhere today.

    I should say, here, that I am a print
    journalist. This means I understand the importance of ad revenue and
    the delicate nature of advertisements/editorial freedom.

    So, understandably, I was alarmed when
    I read your quotes (and the quotes of others) in Advertising Age
    extolling the virtues of the free market. Clearly I was not alone. I
    have to say, your response to the whole small controversy in Current
    has done nothing to diminish my worry.

    My worries are less about your program
    (which seems to have clear boundaries between advertisers and your
    editorial staff) than other news podcasts. I understand there are a
    good number of news podcasts (Reply All, which I just got through a
    second ago springs to mind) wherein the advertiser requests that the
    journalists use/advertise the product. Even if the reporter is meant
    to shill for the most anodyne and benevolent product, what safeguards
    would there be to ensure that there would be editorial fairness in
    reporting? In my line of work at a small town paper, we have had
    major advertisers pull out of our paper because of stories we’ve
    written. It has hurt us. To be frank, the stories were poor economic
    choices but great editorial choices. The fact is, in a free market,
    sometimes independent news outlets must sacrifice economics for fair
    journalism and the way we can make it easier on ourselves in the
    newspaper world is by having a firewall between the news and the ad
    side of the business. Honestly, where I work, the two sides
    never/rarely speak.

    How can you guarantee such a firewall
    with the model you’re proposing? TAL may have enough money/prestige
    to have a reliable firewall, but what about the little startups that
    NPR and other public radio outlets are trying to foster?

    Another worry is taxes/listener
    support. As you know, the GOP would love to cut funding to public
    radio in its entirety. Wouldn’t letting advisers into the mix to a
    larger extent give the GOP just the ammunition it needs to
    legitimately do away with public funding? How would you respond to
    that? I realize this would affect NPR more than the independent
    public media outlets, but I can well imagine that a clever GOP
    senator or congressman would love to point to your business model as
    a way to save the government some money.

    What I am more afraid of, way more
    afraid of than anything else, is what we, in poor rural states (I
    live in Mississippi) will be left with if we invite in corporate
    interests into our public radio. Without government funding (and some
    of this is state funding), I worry that Mississippi Public
    Broadcasting will either have to reduce its output (which is
    considerable. This is the only statewide news service we have.) or
    rely on the business community for advertisements, and the business
    community in this state, I can tell you from personal experience, is
    very happy to cut off the funding when the editorial content does not
    appeal to them.

    Basically, I would very much appreciate
    a clear and precise vision of what you’d like to see with regard to
    funding in public radio. Yours is an outsized voice and you can make
    a huge difference for good (as you know) so I am eager to hear more
    from you about this.

    Thank you very much.

  • dpeyre

    I’m sorry. Behavior does change. The past isn’t the only predictor of the future. Cash talks. And payola was a bad idea when it was shaping the evolution of rock and roll, and it’s a bad idea now. We need less corporate sponsorship, not more.

    • Adam Ragusea

      Explain how the analogy with payola makes sense? Seems like two very different things to me.

      • dpeyre

        Gladly. Payola was “pay for play” – you put on the air what we want you to put on the air. So we get Genealogy Road Show sponsored by Ancestry.com. Not a bad show, but then a good bit of the rock pushed by payola was ok. Koch support for Nova? More like “pay for don’t play” – see the discussions on the Koch Bro’s “support” for the Smithsonian.

        http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/08/30/covert-operations?printable=true

        Or the discussion of the documentary “Citizen Koch” – http://www.salon.com/2014/06/04/citizen_koch_the_movie_about_our_sick_democracy_pbs_tried_to_kill/

        None of this is ranting conspiracy notions – it’s all standard PR industry practice. And it’s getting worse – the crisis in standard “pay for eyeballs” advertising is driving the industry towards “native advertising” – also know as “advertising that we don’t want to look or feel like advertising but we need to label it as subtly as possible as advertising so that nobody is confronted with the fact that we’re trying to fool readers into missing the fact that it’s advertising.”

        I don’t blame the commercial business for doing this, or advertisers for doing it – it’s their business. But it’s not the business of public broadcasting, which, fundamentally, is to support democratic societies through the provision of programming that is as honest, forthright, researched, reported, developed, as well and as openly and honestly and objectively as possibly. Otherwise public broadcasting is just another cable channel or Pandora stream….

        • Adam Ragusea

          I still don’t understand your core comparison. Under payola, record labels paid radio stations to play their songs, not ads for their songs. It was paid content, not paid advertising. Are you alleging that Genealogy Road Show is one big clandestine ad for ancestry.com? Or, could it be that the producers make the show they want to make, and then the underwriting people go out and sell underwriting to support it?

          • dpeyre

            I’m making three points. Yes, in payola, there was direct pay for play. Modern forms of marketing are more sophisticated in form but achieve the same effect. I don’t know what the processes was regarding the development of GRS, but it doesn’t matter, in either case it’s the willingness of sponsors to pay that shapes programming, not the desires of audiences or the needs of citizens. If that is on the margins – that is, shapes some small percentage of shows – that’s fine. But if it is a major factor in shaping programming, then the control of PBS viewers and members, and the needs of citizens, are overwhelmed by the desires of marketers. The next issue is shaping the contents of programming. It’s not that a show on genealogy is bad, but a show that focuses on on-line access isn’t really about genealogy in a wider sense, or about the value of understanding your family history in your place in society, it’s focused and crafted to generate demand for a specific product. It’s distorting, not enlightening. That’s the essence of “native advertising” With native advertising, it doesn’t have to be “pay for play” it’s “pay for effect”. That is, advertising is about generating desire for a product. You don’t have to “sell” you generate want. That’s what GRS does. Finally, and most corrosively, in the examples on climate change and the political economy of the US, the issue isn’t pay for play, it’s “pay for don’t play.” That is, and dependence on a small group of wealthy donors / corporate sponsors goes up, the likelihood of running programming contrary to their desires goes down. And we know that’s already happening. Related to this is the “greenwashing” issue – sponsorship, by, for example, David Koch of Nova links the name to science, and therefore implicitly, but effectively, works to insulate DK against the charge of being anti-science in his views on climate change. I’m not taking a position as to whether this issue is true or not, I’m just pointing out that this is how advertising and marketing works in the contemporary media environment. This isn’t outsider critique, this is what is taught in basic marketing and advertising classes in college, and what’s common knowledge in the advertising, marketing, and PR practitioner world.

  • Hydroheidi

    Ira, THANK YOU! Thank you and all of your team for the thought-provoking, emotional and GENIUS programs that you and your team so brilliantly produce week after week. Listening to NPR is one of the only things that I find worthy of my time and attention. If you guys think that you can do better by accepting more advertising without compromising the programs then go for it. Your Mom has a good point: you have all done a superb job so far and I doubt that will change in the future. Thanks again for the best education I have received in my life, NPR has educated me and opened my mind in ways that no institutional “education” could even begin to attempt. Merci Vilmools from Luxembourg.

  • Rez™

    If the NPR concept were “Ready for Capitalism,” Clear Channel would have swooped in, skimmed up all the best NPR/PBS/PRI talent with choice contracts, and started pumping it out on their most powerful towers. If NPR were Ready for Capitalism, Capitalism would have already “done it better” and pushed the husk of NPR to the curb.

    NPR cannot exist in a laissez-faire economic marketplace of “ideas.” Have you seen what has become of all the “arts and education” channels that were once the pearl in the crown of cable TV? It’s all freak-show peep-shows.

    Sorry, Ira. I love you, but you’re wrong here. There’s something special about NPR that makes people want to donate and contribute. Something that no commercial entity out there can match. One of those things is that (with some recent notable exceptions), you don’t allow sponsors to dictate content. (Koch Industries, though, PBS. Cancelling a documentary about Koch Industries, because the Kochs threatened to pull their funding to WGBH. That’s why you don’t let Capitalism get a foot, not even a TOE, in the door.

  • wildisreal

    There is no easy way to say this, so I will just be blunt: I think NPR has gradually descended into garbage, at least the news reporting, and cannot help but think it is in part due to advertiser influence and a focus on gaining larger audience at the expense of quality.

    I’m in my mid-40’s and grew up to NPR being a staple on every radio in the house and car. It was go-to programming for the whole family. Over the years I have not been so die-hard but have periodically returned for long habitual stretches of time. I can’t put my finger on when any direct change happened, but now find the reporting bland and generic. I miss hard-hitting depth, I hear way too many lifestyle stories about musicians, food, etc…and the delivery has become too cutesy. This is typical of news everywhere of course, but now to me NPR has joined the mass vanilla.

    Have donations suffered over the years? If so, in my opinion it has nothing to do with the economy, but everything to do with the quality. You can say you are not headed towards some “corny apocalypse version of public media where our values will fly out the door”, but unfortunately on the arc of my life I am afraid that has already happened, at least with the core product: news.