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Board tells NPR: pursue new channels

Originally published in Current, July 23, 1998
By Jacqueline Conciatore

The NPR Board July 23 [1998] approved a strategic "framework" that calls for the company to expand its reach through new program distribution channels and form production partnerships to develop multiple format "streams." The board didn't specify formats, but hypothetical examples would be classical, opera or a second news service.

The framework also calls for management to improve "the effectiveness and efficiency of governance," which presumably could lead to at least a reconsideration of separating NPR's programming and membership operations. As his parting advice, retiring NPR President Delano Lewis said NPR should split those functions so NPR can be a nimbler media competitor.

The new strategy document reflects this board's attempts to distance itself from NPR operations, in effect to let management and staff go about their business and make decisions within broad goals and parameters that the board sets. The document is meant to guide the development of an actual strategic plan by NPR's next c.e.o. — one with measurable objectives and implementation strategies. It has 11 planks, the most controversial of which is the fourth.

That plank calls for NPR to expand service through new distribution channels. When the board presented a draft of the document at the Public Radio Conference in May, the item sent off alarms for some station managers worried about NPR transmitting directly to listeners through digital satellite, cable or the Internet.

The board has since repeatedly said that NPR will not make distribution deals that hurt stations' franchises. And the board included in the document instructions that new channels should "complement and strengthen" stations' broadcast services and "must not compromise the long-term viability of the membership."

During a July 22 board session about the document, General Manager Jo Anne Wallace of KQED, San Francisco, asked the board to specifically prohibit distribution that would threaten stations' positions as their markets' primary NPR providers. She said: "Some of those [new] distribution channels will distribute Morning Edition and All Things Considered — " but Board member Jon Schwartz, who's overseen the strategic planning effort, and board Chair Kim Hodgson rushed to assure her that wouldn't happen. "The board has agreed such distribution would undermine the viability of stations," Hodgson said.

At the same time, they didn't want the item to be more specific. "If we put in the caveat about this specific program, we invite the participation of those who support Program X, Y, or Z for the same treatment," Schwartz said.

Plank No. 4 also calls on NPR to "continue to work to preserve existing spectrum and capture new spectrum for public radio." This directive was driven by three or four station managers who at the PRC asked NPR to take leadership in acquiring what little unused broadcast spectrum remains, and helping stations preserve the outer reaches of their signals. The managers argued that religious broadcasters are gobbling up unused spectrum and infringing on their service areas with new stations.

The strategic framework also calls on NPR to:

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Jon Schwartz, who headed the NPR Board's strategic planning effort, suggests in a commentary that new-media channels are a way for the network to serve more slices of the American population, May 1999.

NPR and PRI make deals with Sirius, then known as CD Radio, 1999.

NPR Board hears plans for Sirius satellite channels, 2000.

An issue returns in 2004: Should NPR put its big newsmags on Sirius?