In settling its lawsuit over the ownership of Marketplace, Public
Radio International secured its grip on its most popular programs. The agreement
will let Minnesota Public Radio proceed with its acquisition of the business
show and will extend PRI’s distribution for it and other MPR programs.
“Everybody’s happy that this went away quickly,” said Jim Russell, g.m.
of Marketplace Productions and, now, MPR’s v.p. for national programming.
“The public broadcasting industry doesn’t want this kind of dirty linen
washed in public, and it’s not good for the industry. It’s not good for
funders to see this.”
The suit’s resolution clears the way for the program’s transfer, to the
relief of the University of Southern California, which sold Marketplace
and The Savvy Traveler, and MPR, which bought them. The settlement,
reached May 25, gives PRI a 10-year distribution deal for Marketplace,
according to MPR, extending it well beyond its 2003 expiration. It also
extends PRI’s contracts on other MPR programs, including A Prairie Home
Companion, Savvy Traveler, Sound Money, and A Splendid Table. Savvy
Traveler‘s contract ran another year, and the other programs were up
for renewal July 1.
Both organizations pledged to contribute to Marketplace‘s growth,
with MPR taking sole responsibility for editorial and production matters,
and PRI continuing to spearhead distribution and sponsorship sales. PRI
helped launch Marketplace in 1989 and has raised over $20 million
for the program over the last decade.
PRI filed the suit against USC April 13, claiming it had not received details
of the agreement between the university and MPR, and alleging that it “will
be forced to be a party to contracts with an entity moving towards becoming
a competitor. Additionally, its competitive advantage as a programming distributor
will be damaged.”
PRI was scheduled to argue for an injunction against the sale May 12, and
USC had sought arbitration. Plans changed early last month when PRI and
MPR announced that they were taking 20 days to discuss a settlement, staying
the proceedings in the St. Paul, Minn., federal court. After extending their
discussions, the two companies emerged with their settlement. PRI is now
putting a positive spin on its surprising and, some say, desperate maneuver
to guarantee its hold on the popular offerings it obtains from MPR.
“We’re going to work very closely and positively together to make a success
of this relationship, and I think we’re off to a very strong start,” said
PRI President Stephen Salyer.
“The virtue of the new arrangements we have struck with PRI is that we
are together focused on maximizing the national distribution of Marketplace
and our other programs, and on steps to strengthen public radio nationwide,”
said MPR President Bill Kling in a press release.
What was gained?
The lawsuit underscores growing competition between PRI and MPR, which
founded the distributor 17 years ago as American Public Radio. In 1994,
PRI moved on to MPR’s turf–production–with The World, passing over
MPR to produce the show with WGBH. Last year, the two unveiled competing
web-content providers for public radio stations. Then PRI intervened in
the Marketplace sale, surprising many pubcasters and, even after
the settlement, causing some to wonder what PRI gained from going to court.
“My sense of it is that it was solved in a way that was always the plan,”
Russell said. “We always imagined that PRI would continue to distribute
[Marketplace], and at the same time we thought that MPR was an incredibly
strong production parent. It just seemed like it was the best of all worlds.”
Obviously, fear of other possibilities drove PRI’s maneuver, he added.
“It amounted to shooting themselves in the foot,” said a former PRI executive.
“It was a misguided effort that positioned PRI as being adversarial to their
top two clients.”
PRI prompted further speculation by scaling back participation in this
year’s Public Radio Conference, staging only a few sessions and dropping
its customary producer’s nightcap–though attendees praised the sessions
PRI did put on, including a panel discussion on public radio’s future moderated
by Studio 360 host Kurt Andersen and Ira Glass’s closing presentation.
Salyer acknowledges that PRI sent fewer people to Orlando than to the last
PRC, but says the decision was part of a larger evaluation of the roles
played by yearly conferences. “It’s probably time that the industry as a
whole take a look at the purpose of the various national meetings,” he says.