‘The Pub’ #31: Adam Davidson on the economics of public radio in the podcasting era

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Davidson (Photo: Jen Banbury)

Davidson (Photo: Jen Banbury)

Davidson (Photo: Jen Banbury)

Probably no one knows as much about both public radio and economics as Adam Davidson does. So when he emails me and says he’s been developing a grand economic theory about how podcasting is (or should be) changing public radio, you can bet I’m going to give him 45 minutes on The Pub to talk about it.

Davidson quit NPR in April, though he still serves as a consultant for the Planet Money podcast he co-founded.

He compares public radio’s current market position to that of the big three American automakers — Ford, GM and Chrysler — in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The mediocrity that had been enabled by their oligopoly suddenly wasn’t good enough as new and better foreign cars flooded the market, and two of those three companies went bankrupt.

“I would say that what public radio is going through is very comparable to that, but even more dramatic,” Davidson told me. “It’s more dramatic in the sense that the public radio marketplace was completely buffered from the market because of the government provision of the public band.”

In the growing market for on-demand content, Davidson said, public media has no special access to the audience like it does on the radio. Thus, organizations like NPR have to fight for attention on an equal playing field for the first time in their history. He thinks NPR can have a viable future, but only if it dramatically restructures and raises its game.

“I don’t see any future for NPR that doesn’t involve being better at engaging listeners powerfully in a way that makes them actively choose NPR, rather than default turn on the radio and that’s the one station that isn’t awful,” he said.

It’s a deep dive with Davidson on the future of NPR this week. Also on the show:

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Adam Ragusea hosts Current’s weekly podcast The Pub and is a journalist in residence and visiting assistant professor at Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism.

26 thoughts on “‘The Pub’ #31: Adam Davidson on the economics of public radio in the podcasting era

  1. Ok, this one I might finally HAVE to listen to…and thus get the answer to my question…but how can one square the concepts of public radio having to fight on a “level playing field” for attention in the podcasting realm, when at the same time public radio is “buffered” from market forces thanks to the FCC’s reservation of the non-commercial radio segment of the FM band?

    IOW, “Serial” was a fine podcast, but there’s no chance in hell it was ever going to be the massive phenomena that it became without This American Life devoting an entire hour to promoting it on the huge radio network of member stations. Public radio has, and will continue to have for many years, a massive advantage over any other podcast that isn’t also broadcast on AM/FM radio (and maybe XM/Sirius, too).

    • I think your observation supports Davidson’s point. The extent to which public radio has been dominating the iTunes charts may have more to do with the lingering power of its radio monopoly than the quality of the content.

      • That wasn’t exactly what I was talking about…I’m saying that Davidson is making two contradictory points in his arguments: it inherently cannot be a level playing field if there’s also a huge advantage in promotion via nationwide broadcast network.

        But I’d disagree with your assertion because, ignoring podcasting for a moment, public radio has succeeded in a crowded MASS media market largely on the strength of its content. Ergo, the quality of public radio content is good.

        And there’s a check of the proof, too! The non-pubradio podcast offerings that are also on (or derivatives of) other mass-media outlets that ALSO are doing well (if not quite “dominating”) on iTunes are the ones that have good content. Worth noting: in many cases (WTF/Maron comes to mind) have embraced a lot of pubradio principles in their content, too.

        • Ok, we’re talking about two different things here.

          1) Davidson isn’t making contradictory arguments. He’s saying that on-demand is a more level playing field than radio. He’s not saying it’s absolutely level. You make a good point that radio gives pubmedia an advantage that carries over into on-demand, but I think if Davidson were here, he’d say that’s a temporary advantage that will fade as radio fades.

          2) If you listen to the show, you’ll hear me pushing back on Davidson’s argument that public radio hasn’t faced competition on the radio. He points out that, again he’s not speaking in absolutes. Of course it has faced competition, but not as much as it will face in on-demand. I also think both Davidson and I would argue that public radio’s competition isn’t really meaningful in most radio markets. There’s no one else on the dial punching in public media’s weight class except in a handful of cities like D.C. that still have strong commercial news stations.

          • I agree with Ragusea on this.

            One thing that’s very striking in the podcasts charts, like on iTunes. Platform works amazingly at first. You see this big TV shows hurtle up the charts–I remember Oprah as number 1, Rachel Maddow, Stephen Colbert. And they often quickly disappear.

            there is Platform–how many people will you be able to tell about the podcast and how valuable is your brand to them. And then there is stickiness, how many of those people stick around for more, how many tell friends to subscribe.

            Podcasting, so far, seems to be a marvelous place because stickiness wins out over platform frequently. I think of The Mystery Show: yes, it was launched by Gimlet, but quickly acquired the number one spot because it’s so damn good and so many people told friends to listen to it.

            Serial definitely had the TAL bump, but soon grew bigger than the parent.

            And then there’s the podcasts, like Phoebe Judge’s Criminal, Dan Carlin Hardcore History, 99% Invisible, WTF, that were able to achieve major market position without much of any platform.

            It’s great to be in a stickiness market over a platform market. It means that if you create good stuff, eventually you’ll get a solid audience.

            Yes. NPR has an amazing platform. Invisibilia saw that clearly as did TED Radio Hour. But they were also exactly the kinds of shows that we can see are sticky on demand.

            So, I don’t see it as a contradiction. The platform matters and helps. It doesn’t mean everything, though. Quality will win in this market. It does again and again.

            So, businesses built on platform without producing new sticky, engaging content will see their platform diminish in value.

    • What you might be overlooking here is that TAL is also the biggest podcast in the country. All the podcasts I’ve worked with, without exception, have reported that when they are featured on TAL they notice little to no change in downloads and subscribers over the weekend when TAL is broadcast. It’s only when the TAL podcast is released on Monday do their downloads and iTunes ranking increase.

  2. It is always worth hearing what Adam Davidson has to say, but this was a pretty superficial and occasionally uninformed discussion about public radio economics. It’s not a meaningful public radio economics conversation unless you’re talking about how money is raised and how it changes hands within the industry. That’s a worthwhile topic, btw. Also, I have to challenge Adam’s assertions that public radio fails to engage listeners at a high level and that its past success was due to a lack of competition. There’s plenty of current and past research suggesting otherwise.

      • I enjoyed hearing Adam’s take on the need for people who create content. There were some good insights there. It was a somewhat informed conversation about changes in today’s consumer marketplace and marginally informed about some of the issues facing NPR and stations. As noted in my first comment, you really can’t have a conversation about the public radio economy without talking about how money is raised and how it changes hands within the industry.

        However, Adam’s understanding of public radio’s past success is way off. To suggest that past success was due to being the default option in the wasteland of commercial radio is uniniformed.

        Public radio’s decades-long audience and revenue growth was the product of embracing its place and potential in the radio marketplace. Yes, the deteriorating quality of commercial radio helped but NPR and stations grew by learning how to win in that marketplace. Public radio grew by design. The most significant design feature was to become more engaging more often within individual programs and, at stations, across the broadcast schedule.

        Like today, different designs were tested, measured, refined, and retested to ensure they were engaging and, to use today’s term, “sticky.” On a macro level, stations tested the designs of their program schedules measuring engagement with AudiGraphics metrics such as Loyalty among Core and Frige listeners. On a micro level, public radio producers such as Jim Russell at Marketplace used primitive x-ray machines called dial testers to examine how listeners responded to diferent types of story intros.

        It’s not wrong for Adam to suggest that better engaging listeners is an important part of public radio’s future. But it is uninformed to suggest that improving listener engagement is somehow a different approach than in the past. We’ve been there. We’ve done that. We need to keep doing it. And one does not have to look hard to find solutions to most of today’s engagement challenges in the lessons learned over the past three decades.

        • Hi John, it’s been a long time. 20 years, I think, since we last worked together.

          I think you might have constructed a straw man argument that I never made. Yes, public radio has faced some competition over the years. Yes, there have been amazing innovations and efforts to engage audiences. Yes we have tried to learn more about what our audience wants.

          BUT, we are in a fundamentally different time. Our competition was extremely muted in the past. There was a huge barrier to entry to try to compete with thoughtful, long-form radio. So huge, in fact, almost nobody ever tried to enter. Marketplace squeezed itself on to drive time. This American Life, Prairie Home Companion, and a handful of other non-NPR shows were able to reach decent national audiences. But a new popular product once or twice a decade is not the hallmark of a highly competitive marketplace. And our tools of learning what our audience liked were so coarse. As I remember discussing with you in the mid-
          ’90s, for most markets data about anything other than drive-time was based on such small sample sizes as to be meaningless. And we were never able to study what people WOULD want if they could have far more than 24-hours of audio a day to choose from.

          The barriers to entry are minimal. Every undergrad has the tools to get their content up. And while we would love more data, we do have a lot. We know how many people are downloading each individual episode (though it would be great to know how many are actually listening and how long they listen for, and how they share the podcasts with friends).

          Now we have this realization that when people are given a wide range of choices–hundreds of thousands of potential audio shows–they choose much longer stories, much more highly produced stories. They choose a kind of product we were not offering much of. We were offering a little bit of it, on the edges. But not a lot of it.

          I have spent 2/3rds of my career (roughly) creating 3-5 minute stories and 1/3rd creating longer ones. The longer ones are a different beast altogether. They take a different approach to storytelling, requiring more rigorous planning and thinking about structure. They require an editing system that encourages deep dives.

          I know NPR and used to know Marketplace intimately. They’re amazing machines, built for speed, and structured around 3-5 minute quick turnaround stories. It’s amazing how good some of those stories are. Still, the audience doesn’t choose them when they actively choose what to listen to. NPR used to have dozens of podcasts that were curated collections of stories that had aired on ME and ATC. NOBODY chose to listen to them.

          So, yes, Jim and Jay and others have had ideas over the years about snappier intros and ways of using music beds and tightening or loosening clocks. But that is not the same as what we face now. We face a marketplace that is actively consuming a product we don’t make. It’s very similar but it’s also very different.

          You can say this is more of the same, I can argue it’s fundamentally different, a bigger challenge than NPR has ever faced (except, I guess, the inevitable recollection of the awful year of 1983). But I would definitely counsel any young person hungry for a long career in audio to focus on long-form, elegantly produced storytelling. I would encourage management at NPR to adjust the way it takes in story ideas, communicates between the shows and desks, and generally sets the incentives that lead to more not-especially-engaging short pieces than I believe possible.

          I’ve been through most of the changes you mention above. This one feels much bigger to me. Much harder. But also much more rewarding.

          • Adam D,

            Thanks for your thoughtful response. You’re on to something good with long form and podcasting. I think it’s great.

            This podcast was billed as you lending your public radio and economics journalism expertise to a discussion about building the public radio economy of the future. I think it misses that mark by quite a bit. Given that your name lends extra weight to any discussion, I have to say again that you’re off by a wide margin on how the public radio consumer marketplace works. It’s important that the industry gets this right.

            I don’t think I’m building a straw man here. The above article uses a quote of yours pulled from the interview (56:07). The quote is also in tfor he podcast billboard.

            “I don’t see any future for NPR that doesn’t involve being better at engaging listeners powerfully in a way that they actively choose NPR rather than default turn on the radio and that’s the one station that isn’t awful.” — Adam Davidson

            It’s a pretty powerful statement to suggest that, even today, listeners don’t actively choose NPR, especially given public radio’s audience and donor growth trajectories over three decades.

            I will come back to this in a moment but l want to separate the discussions here because there are at least two happening simultaneously. One is about the consumer marketplace and one is about the program production marketplace.

            You make a compelling argument that the program production marketplace is changing. You say your guidance to up and coming content creators is that NPR might not be the best place to learn and grow anymore. Interesting point. In the interview you talked about the need for people who can create content, even if they are relatively inexperienced. Another interesting point.

            I talked with several people about this yesterday and they believe that talent acquisition, development, and compensation is one of the biggest issues facing the industry. That will make for a great topic in a future episode of The Pub (The Tiny Pool of Talent) but it is a separate topic from public radio’s position in the consumer marketplace or the public radio economy.

            Let’s talk some consumer marketplace facts from Arbitron/Nielsen data. Commercial radio stations have always been, and still are, strong competitors for our listeners. Fringe listeners give their public radio station about 15 percent of their measured weekly radio listening. The other 85% of their listening is mostly to commercial radio. Core listeners give public radio about 70% of their measured radio listening. They also actively choose commercial radio and listen to news, talk, sports, and music. Sometimes Core and Fringe listeners are pulled away from public radio by better programming on commercial radio. Sometimes public radio pushes them away with weaker programming.

            All of this can be seen in monthly and quarterly reports from Nielsen and AudiGraphics. The majority of our listeners do not find all commerical radio awful. Commercial stations present meaningiful competition.*

            Moving on to scale. NPR reports that its member stations had 34.2 million weekly listeners in Fall 2014. In AudGraphics for PPM markets we see that listeners average 7 to 8 tune-ins per week. On the conservative side, that’s 240 million tune-ins per week or just shy of 12.5 billion tune-ins per year. That’s 12.5 billion tune-ins actually exposed to public radio content. Think of it as 12.5 billion downloads that actually reach the ears and often, the brain. It dwarfs podcasting.

            That brings us to this from your response:

            “Now we have this realization that when people are given a wide range of choices–hundreds of thousands of potential audio shows–they choose much longer stories,”

            Again, a very strong, definitive statement here about listener preferences and what it means for the future of public radio. It appears that digital technology — the ability to choose your start time, to pause, and rewind — has made long-form content a financially viable segment of the “smart audio content” marketplace.

            More important, we don’t know its impact on that marketplace. Maybe it will hurt just enough to cause financial disruption. Maybe it will grow the market rather than cannibalizing NPR and public radio stations.

            What is highly unlikely is that “choosing much longer stories” will become the dominant listening behavior.

            We know this because that’s not how people use radio in their lives. They use it to enhance the value of the time spent they doing other things. No one is going to shave 10 minutes longer in the morning because they are listening to a podcast. And driveway moments are notable because they are rare.

            Our value proposition is not news or music or long form or short form. It is making people’s mundane moments more valuable by fitting enriching audio into their lives. Variety is also an important component of that value proposition. The people we serve want to *hear* about more than just one thing. There’s nothing in public radio’s new found success with long form podcasts to suggest it will change the fundamental ways in which people use audio.

            Finally, if there’s any straw man in this this discussion it is this from your response Adam.

            “As I remember discussing with you in the mid-’90s, for most markets data about anything other than drive-time was based on such small sample sizes as to be meaningless.”

            I never said that. What I would have said is that analyzing the middays, evenings and weekend for many stations is often meaningless because the stations attract too few listeners to have reliable data on their station in those dayparts.

            Please note the nuance. Arbitron’s sample sizes weren’t the problem, especially when looking at two to three consecutive surveys. There were enough diaries in the market to look at any daypart. The issue was that station’s programming was not attracting a sufficient number of diaries to analyze the audience of a program.


            Dear Reader… if you haven’t had enough already, here’s something fun from 9 years ago. http://tinyurl.com/ngbcht5


            *And there’s long been competition from personal media such as cellphones, CDs, cassettes, and 8-track tapes. We just can’t measure it.

          • Thanks for the thoughtful reply.

            I think you’re right that the key here is to focus on:
            1. Content producers.
            2. Audience.

            I don’t think we can create programming that engages the audience with passion unless we create conditions for content producers to do their work with passion.

            There is no way to have this conversation without saying what I think most people recognize: most of what comes out of the radio on NPR and other pubradio shows are not amazing and engaging. The content is, sometimes, great. But isn’t more often than not.

            Whatever market dynamics existed in the past, they are different now. The audience can choose to listen to great content 100% of the time. That changes everything. While I agree that public radio, now, is an accompaniment to other activity, I would strongly argue that the best, most successful and most profitable programs in the future will be very much foreground shows that people listen to in a more engaged way.

            Look at CPMs. NPR typically gets something around $2 (meaning they get $2 to put a sponsorship announcement in front of 1,000 people). That’s not so bad in a universe where web content gets pennies or fractions of a penny CPMs. But many of the top podcasts are getting CPMs of $50 or $100 or, even, $130. That means you can have a much smaller audience and make a lot more money and support a lot more production.

            Those prices will, surely, fall as more top-quality podcasts enter the market. But I think they will always trade at a high premium over the broadcast content. By definition, broadcast has to reach a broad audience and that means it can rarely be any one group’s most passionate, engaged content. It’s just hard to create shows that have to reach 70 year olds in Alabama and 25 year olds in San Francisco and have both groups love it.

            The economics of production at $50 CPMs is totally different from that at $2 CPMs. $50 CPMs means you can spend a lot of time crafting stories. It means you can hire the very best people in the world to help you. It means you can travel wherever you want and take risks and fail and throw out the bad stuff and spend more time creating great stuff. $2 CPMs, as we have seen over the last few years, is a company that needs to have mass layoffs, is in near constant turmoil, and is shedding its best talent. Now, even if the podcast CPMs fall, audience sizes for podcasting will continue to grow. The market is still in its infancy.

            I will, respectfully, say that comparing someone turning on a radio and someone actively downloading a podcast is way, way off base and misses the entire point. First off, your numbers are not your friends. Apple says there have been more than 1 billion podcast subscriptions through iTunes. Assuming most podcasts have more than 12 episodes and many people listen on platforms other than iTunes, the podcasting universe is, indeed, much bigger than even your overly generous comparison. And podcasting is growing and radio listening is shrinking.

            But the key thing is that someone listening to the radio is not as engaged, they haven’t made the same kind of decision, they don’t have the same kind of interaction with the hosts, etc. So, I just don’t know how helpful your stats about radio listening are. I think you are way over analogizing them to the digital space.

          • Adam,

            I gave you annual radio listening occasions per year for public radio stations. You gave me Apple podcast subscriptions for a global marketplace over what period? A year? All-time? That would be something like a decade.

            We can’t keep having this conversation without having a legitimate
            comparison. So let’s get it down to annual or weekly consumption, which then
            lends itself to a deeper discussion about economics. Is there even a best guess
            on the number of podcasts listened to each week?

            Beyond that, what percentage of a podcast is heard all the way through once someone starts listening? This is an important metric given the argument that consumers will trade short form content for long form.

            Finally, the notion that podcast listeners are more engaged than radio listeners simply because they had to sign up. Is that based on research, if so, where can we find it?

            Beyond that, what percentage of a podcast is heard all the way through once someone starts listening? This is an important metric given the argument that consumers will trade short form content for long form.

            Finally, the notion that podcast listeners are more engaged than radio listeners simply because they had to sign up. Is that based on research, if so, where can we find it?

          • Of course, as you know, there’s insufficient data on podcast behavior. But, imho, what we’re facing now is not a tweak that can be determined by data. We are facing a shift from one kind of industry to another one. We will, eventually, need better data and I’m sure we’ll get it. But right now what we need is vision. Data–certainly data about radio listening–just doesn’t help much. I know your business and life work is data about radio listening and I do think that will be helpful to station managers and programmers for years to come. But I just don’t think it’s helpful for digital producers. I would guess that you wouldn’t find many people producing podcasts who agree with you that each episode of radio listening is the equivalent of a podcast download. It’s just a different kind of activity, different kind of relationship. I can’t prove that to you with data. I don’t know what the data would be. But I know it ain’t so.

            Here’s the data I think we have:
            – people behave very differently when they choose audio programs one-by-one than they do when they listen to radio. I look at the persistently high-ranking podcasts in iTunes. It’s a lousy metric, of course, and only a measure of churn. But we can see trends and the trend we see is, when people choose to download audio they choose highly produced, long form programming. They decisively do not choose the bread-and-butter of NPR and its member stations–the 3-5 minute “feature” or 2-way.
            This isn’t a close call. There is huge appetite for highly produced, long form content. There is zero appetite for the short, quick stories that make up ME and ATC.
            – Producers of great content are flocking to programming that reaches a smaller audience but an audience that they feel is more passionate. I don’t have hard numbers, but I do know that every audio content producer I have talked to feel this. I get infinitely more feedback, in quality, intensity, and quantity, when I am on a podcast like Planet Money even though it has a fraction of the audience of Morning or ATC. It’s not even close. In ten years of appearing on Marketplace, Morning Edition and ATC, I would guess I received a grand total of 5 listener letters or emails or social comments–pro or con. I get more than that every time I’m on a podcast. This passion and response is thrilling and palpable (even if you don’t, yet, have hard numbers that confirm it) and it is a huge part of the draw from over-the-air to digital. Also, this passion is monetizable. The CPMs are several orders of magnitude larger. Advertisers, like Audible, Harry’s, SquareSpace, Mail Chimp, etc say they are seeing far greater response to digital ads than to radio sponsorship.
            – I don’t need any additional data. I doubt many other content producers do. It’s pretty clear cut. Digital is a wildly more rewarding space (in every sense of the word), right now, than radio for content producers.

            Everything I said on the podcast was about content producers and audiences. As I said, I think the institutions–NPR, member stations, etc–will have to adapt to a world in which content producers and the most passionate audiences go elsewhere. If the institutions don’t adapt, they will go away.

            Of course, radio stations and NPR’s radio offerings could compete more aggressively by being more consistently awesome and engaging. I think you’ve argued that point many times. There could and should be something awesome, sparkling, thrilling every half hour of every national show. There isn’t. I see that as, primarily, an organizational structure problem. NPR and many member stations have creaky old structures built for a very different age that are risk-averse and focused more on feeding the beast than on producing fabulous radio. Of course, tons of great stuff does get on the air. But there could be a lot more. I have become a broken record within NPR, laying out how I think the current system stifles creativity and freshness and rewards standardization and risk-aversion. It’s not anybody’s fault. It’s a system that nobody designed, it just evolved over the decades. (I’d guess at least 70% of people involved with putting radio stories on the air at NPR–reporters, editors, producers, executives–would agree with me. One friend calls it the Blandanator, this machinery that takes good ideas and makes them boring).

            This has long been an important issue, but it was less urgent because even the most frustrated had no alternative. Now they do. I used to work in the NPR NY bureau with Mike Pesca, Robert Krulwich, Alex Blumberg, Chana Joffe-Walt, Zoe Chace, Caitlin Kenney, Luke Burbank. Some of the greatest radio talent of our age.

            I’m not sure, exactly, what your argument against me is. You do seem mad at me for some reason. And you seem to think that the only way the things I’m writing or saying could be true or “informed” is if I have statistically valid data. I’d suggest that I don’t think you’ve address the core point I’m making. Great content is created by great content producers. I don’t think you’ll lure any of the people I mentioned above by showing them some data point that proves that radio listeners are every bit as engaged as podcast listeners. Or by arguing that I am uninformed.

            If you’re making a smaller point–that we shouldn’t fill up every minute on the air with hour-long highly-produced radio, I would agree with that. I think that on the air, there is a place for the 3-5 minute piece. (But, still, those pieces should be a lot better than they are much of the time.)

            I’m making a different point. The data we have (however crude it is) tells us that the future belongs to a kind of widget we’re not making much of. We should start making that new kind of widget, more of the time, if we want to stay relevant.

          • Adam,

            You wrote:

            “There is huge appetite for highly produced, long form content. There is zero appetite for the short, quick stories that make up ME and ATC.”

            Zero appetite? Would that make it past you as an editor and to air in a Planet Money segment without fact checking it or challenging it?

            ATC has been serving millions of people each day for decades. It still serves millions of listeners each day and it continues to be one of the core programs in a service that generates more than $500 million annually in listener contributions and business support.

            Zero appetite? While you might have a low opinion of the work being done by your former colleagues at NPR, millions of listeners disagree. They are highly engaged. They engage by still choosing to listen to the radio, even though podcasts have been available for nearly a decade. They engage by locking their radio presets on their NPR station and making NPR News their top streaming choice when listening on their station’s mobile app. They engage by donating. They engage by writing Congress in support of federal funding for public broadcasting. They engage by signing up for station e-newsletters. They send compelling comments and letters (even during pledge drives!) about the value of their service in their lives. They come to station events and volunteer their time. Thy participate in online communities and social media.

            We have decades of surveys results, including some quite recent studies, showing that listeners, especially core listeners and donors, place the highest personal value on the NPR News magazines.

            We have independent, qualitative research that shows NPR News listeners have higher levels of emotionally connection to NPR than New York Times readers have to the New York Times, a subscription based service.

            I could go on with further examples of listener engagement, emotional connection, and brand loyalty scores but I think the point has been made.

            To say that there is Zero Appetite for the content being offered through the NPR Newsmagazines and that current listeners aren’t engaged, one has to be either uninformed (my original point) or in denial. Either way, underestimating the value and importance of NPR to its current listeners can only hurt efforts to serve those listeners with new digital audio products.

            On the flip side, I happen to agree that there is a viable market for long form podcasts and I’m sure there wll be several profitable ventures. But they won’t take over the world and they won’t kill NPR or radio, though they may do some damage.

            Long form podcasting also has the potential to expand the market for smart radio — to create even more listening. It’s really interesting to me that no one ever talks about new products and services as potentially growing the entire market, yet we know that much of public radio’s growth came from expanding the number of stations that carry NPR News. Greater accessibility helped more listeners find NPR and other quality content. Continously improving the programming kept them coming back.

            It’s not a zero sum game. If you want to talk vision, then the place to start is how we keep growing what we have (yes, growth is still possible in radio) while adding listening with new products. That would be another good topic for The Pub or even the PRPC conference.

            Adam, thank you for the spirited debate. I yield the closing comments to you.

          • Hi John,

            I agree it’s time to end this conversation. In fact, I am only writing for that tiny handful of folks who have made it this far.

            It’s not much of a conversation, if I’m honest. I will say, with frankness, that it’s frustrating the way you take a word or two from what I’ve written, ignore the context, construct a false argument that you claim I made and then disprove that false argument and conclude that I am poorly informed or in denial. I have a general rule against responding to ad hominem and straw man attacks. That being said, this stuff is important and it’s a helpful way for me to clarify my own ideas, to myself, if to nobody else. So, I have been responding. But I won’t respond any more.

            Obviously, I don’t think there is zero appetite for the radio broadcasts. It was clear, I thought, that I meant there is zero appetite in the digital download space. NPR produced dozens of podcasts based around 3-5 minute pieces and they got so little audience they were killed and nobody noticed.

            Obviously, I don’t think that everything NPR produces is lousy. I think there’s magical work aired every day. But I don’t think it’s as good as it could and should be and I think that with the sudden appearance of real competition for the first time, the average quality level just isn’t good enough. BTW, this is not some singular, grumpy ex-employee’s opinion. This is the standard view at NPR.

            You never once addressed the actual issues I was focused on: the content producers and the revealed preferences of digital consumers. It’s hard not to see you as the man with a hammer seeing the world as nails. You have spent decades working with radio data and keep repeating that only radio data is valid. But this isn’t a data-based moment. This is a moment like Steve Jobs with the iPhone or Henry Ford with the Model T: it’s a moment of discontinuity. We are moving from one sort of relationship with an audience to an entirely different one. As a result, extrapolating based on past data is somewhere between harmful and useless. (I keep hearing that apocryphal Henry Ford quote about the people wanting faster horses in my mind.)

            I might be guilty of the same. I have spent my life producing content about economics and see the world through the eyes of content producers and economists. But I do think my biases are more useful in this context than yours. There is a lot of literature in economics about this sort of thing, a sudden shock in which a protected monopolistic or oligopolistic entity confronts competition. It usually doesn’t end well for the monopolist. I’m sure that in 1972, people would have said they are perfectly happy with their Bell telephone and couldn’t imagine anything different, though maybe they wished it was cheaper to call their cousin in Cleveland.

            But the most important perspective, I think, that I bring is as a longtime content producer. We’ve got so many options we never had before. The big hole in the argument you lay out is: who is going to keep doing all this radio that people feel engaged with? And where will the audience be when there is so much more engaging content in other places?

            I am confident that NPR can and, I hope, will live up to this challenge. But it will require a lot of structural change to make its productions passion- and engagement- centered. They have to up their game, by a lot, and soon. They have to be a place that draws the top talent, not trains it and then sends it elsewhere. That means they have to offer more freedom, more creative support, more money, more of an engaging, exciting, forward-looking workplace. Ask around at NPR and tell me if those are words lots of people would use to describe the place over the past few years. (As I’ve said a million times: I’m not pointing the finger at Jarl or current management. This is a long-standing problem that they have inherited.)

            I actually think my view is quite optimistic. I feel very confident that we are only at the very beginning of a golden age of narrative audio. It’s going to be an amazing decade for anybody who knows how to gather and cut tape and put it into some kind of compelling shape. There will be more amazing content produced, much larger audiences, way more money, and way more experimentation. I can’t wait. It’s thrilling. I just hope NPR and the member stations realize the opportunity and join in the fun.

          • “NPR produced dozens of podcasts based around 3-5 minute pieces and they got so little audience they were killed and nobody noticed.”

            Really? Then what, exactly, is NPR One? And why is everyone all excited about it?

          • Again, if you listen to the show Aaron, you’ll hear a discussion of that very question. ;-)

          • DAMMIT. Hoisted by my own petard! :)

            I really love my 8 minute commute to the office but it puts a major crimp in my time available for podcast listening…

  3. This is more a general comment than anything specific against Adam, but I could swear that the people who speak the loudest that NPR has to “change” and “embrace digital” more are always the people who have a vested interest in NPR doing so. It’s NEVER someone impartial.

  4. I podcast because I saw a need that was not being filled by either of my local listener-supported terrestrial stations (one NPR, the other a non-Pacifica commie station). I’m a fan of both stations, but there was still a strategic gap that neither they, nor commercial media, was willing to fill.

    I use *all* channels. I post my podcast to WordPress, but I post links/pointers on all social media, and do a lot of f2f pimpage. If the local community-supported station wanted to air any of it, it’s all CC licensed for noncommercial replay. I regard terrestrial broadcast as just one on many channels for getting my content to the earballs.

    And my purpose is to challenge legacy channels to up their game. Legacy, especially print but also conventional radio and television, is hurting because internet. They’ve all (including NPR affiliates) become addicted to anxiety producing content because it accumulates impressions. And that’s fucking things up. Fearful people rarely inform sound policy.

    I don’t expect to replace legacy, but I know that offering listeners *good* news about their community, their neighbors, and their often underappreciated good fortune, is a welcome development.

    But it’s the media criticism — pointing out how their media is manipulating their judgment, and sabotaging their serenity — that really puts the butts in the chairs. And well over half of the people who follow the show’s twitter account are media people.

    Yes, that *is* footsteps you hear.

    • I’ll also observe that time-certain broadcasts are becoming something of a buggy whip. People time shift content. If they can’t find an easy way to do it with PubMedia, they’ll just pay attention to those who *do* furnish it.

      Our local NPR affiliate doesn’t post digital content until *after* it has aired OTA. That’s a disservice to the many people who don’t listen OTA but do have more confidence in their public media outlet’s content. To say nothing of media critics who reveal just after air. :-)

  5. I’m fascinated by podcasting and believe public radio can continue to be a vital part of it. I also think we have an advantage in this space because we have a large audience across a few different platforms, including radio. It’s frustrating to hear the podcast vs radio tone of some of this discussion. We can do both. It feels like Davidson feels he isn’t fully aware of the service provided by public radio across the country, which is a shame because he’s been a big part of that.

    While I agree we need to be more competitive and nimble, I’m afraid Adam’s auto analogy may be more descriptive of him and other newly commercial podcast producers from public radio, though.

    As podcasting grows, he should expect the content to change at the top of the podcast lists. If podcasting is the giant money tree Davidson describes, big media companies will get into the space big. So will scrappy disruptive upstarts. He won’t know all the top podcasters any more.

    Discovery Networks has a top podcast now with Detective. Scripps– owners of HGTV and other properties– bought Midroll. It won’t take long for more cross platform brands to show up, which could end the current podcasting oligarchy for Adam and his talented friends. That could make his kind of work harder to fund.

    That’s why public broadcasting is valuable. Because of our funding mix, we don’t have to solely rely on the marketplace to drive our work. We exist to serve the public and have an obligation to be more reflective of the diversity of the whole country. That seems much more exciting to me getting big CPM’s from Mailchimp or having the freedom to serve a small niche audience.

  6. Linear broadcasting is becoming an anachronism, except for live breaking news, call-in programs, and live sports. It may have affected commercial radio even before its current impact on television, but public radio is not going to be immune from this game change either.

    The days of listening to pre-recorded or non-interactive live programming on radio/TV have probably peaked as media consumers gravitate towards on-demand/on their terms alternative forms of media. This trend probably started with the VCR and the iPod to escape commercials and in the case of radio, commercials and lowest common denominator cookie-cutter corporate music formats. If Big103 in City A sounds exactly the same as Hot 94 in City B and has 14+ minutes of ads an hour, who needs them? Put the same music on an iPod and play away commercial-free.

    DVRs accelerated the shift with television. People pre-record a lot of video programming to watch at their convenience and skip past the ads. There is no similar readily available technology for radio. There are podcasts and downloads instead.

    With public broadcasting, I predict things may even be more dramatic. Not every show is designed to appeal to a mass audience. Therefore, NPR and other shows are tailor-made for on-demand podcasting. I don’t need to listen to my local affiliate who decides to air a show at an inconvenient time if I can download or stream it when it is convenient for me.

    I have almost entirely stopped listening to broadcast radio (although I still have XM in the car) and watching live television. I record or download everything I watch on television and stream virtually everything on radio. And I am in my 40s. Younger people don’t know where the AM dial is and hear FM radio mostly as background in a mall or shop, or occasionally in the car. Ask your kids if they can hear news on the radio and unless you subjected them to it, chances are they would have absolutely no idea.

    How we use media is different as well. I actually usually prefer long-form media over the 2-5 minute clips. Since I am an on-demand user, when I have an interest in a topic, I usually want more depth. If I just ran into a story by accident, I probably have a more casual interest in it and would likely choose a shorter form piece of media, but it better be something more than the written version of the story that often accompanies it.

    The key takeaway here is the audience no longer settles for what they can get. With the immense amount of choice available these days, if you don’t give them the programming they want, when they want it, without a lot of pledge drive or commercial messages, they will go elsewhere. The upside of this is now there is a room for niche material that would otherwise never be given the time and space on a general interest radio or television station.

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