NPR’s recent decision to not promote its podcasts in its radio newsmagazines got a lot of people talking about whether local stations are keeping NPR from embracing a digital-first future. On our podcast, we took a deeper dive into NPR-station dynamics in three conversations with station leaders. Host Adam Ragusea began with a chat with Scott Finn, c.e.o. of West Virginia Public Broadcasting.
Scott Finn: I think that it’s not really fair to say this is coming from the stations, that NPR’s responding to station pressure on this. I’m not going to deny that there aren’t some station leaders that have questions and concerns about promoting things like podcasts on the air. I’m just saying there’s no evidence that that was the cause of this. And as a station leader in West Virginia, we believe in promoting podcasts on the air.
Adam Ragusea, Current: Do you believe in your station promoting its own podcast on its own air, or you would be eager as a station head to give NPR license to promote its own digital offerings however it sees fit?
Finn: Yeah, not that NPR’s asked me, but I think it’s a good idea. Here’s the deal: I understand where Chris Turpin [NPR’s vice president of news programming and operation] is coming from, and I know it’s an ethical issue, but we promote our own programs all the time. We ask people to listen to Morning Edition when you’re in All Things Considered, so why not promote our podcasts like we do our own programs; I don’t see the ethical issue there.
And, Adam — this is interesting — we follow the NPR ethics guidelines here at West Virginia Public Broadcasting. We’ve adopted them wholesale as our ethical guidelines, and this is the first time that [NPR has] adopted an ethical guideline when I’ve gone back to my staff and said, “Uh, we’re not going to follow this one.” Because we believe very strongly we should be promoting our podcasts on the air, in both the news stories and in the breaks between shows.
Current: I think we’ve established you, Scott, as a forward-thinking, non-recalcitrant, old-school guy. You know what you’re doing; you’re hip to what the kids are into these days, Scott. So envision for us a productive, mutually beneficial relationship between NPR and the stations as the primacy of radio fades.
Finn: Well, first of all, I think the divide between “radio” versus podcasts, I think that’s kind of silly. For me it’s all audio, and it’s either on-demand audio or it’s live audio, what’s happening right now. And you can get the live audio through our old-fashioned radio signals — and I don’t think that’s ever going to go away. You also can get it through a live stream through apps and on computers and that sort of thing. So that’s one type of programming.
The other type of programming is more laid-back, thoughtful, it’s a produced show. It can be listened to at any time. It has more of a shelf life. It’s the difference between Morning Edition, which is something that you should listen to live and has our West Virginia content inserted into it, or a show like This American Life. In our case, we have a show called Inside Appalachia that’s more of a lean-back sort of show. And I agree that some of the shows might be better listened to as podcasts. If you’re listening to Inside Appalachia, it’s a particularly long, involved story, and you’re listening to it live, you might catch it in the middle, you might miss a piece of it and get lost. In a podcast you can rewind and get what you missed; it’s a better show as a podcast.
On the other hand, I don’t think I’d want to or need to listen to Morning Edition as a podcast. When I listen to Morning Edition, I want to be surprised by new content and also want to know what’s going on right now at this very moment. And I think that’s where live on-demand radio, which is still by the way our most popular product … that’s not going to go away.
Current: So for you, the distinction is not between over-the-air terrestrial radio and digital audio; it’s between streaming live experiences, whether terrestrial or digital, and on-demand experiences. Are you confident that, even if people stop listening to terrestrial radio in anywhere close to the numbers that they are now, a group of people big enough to sustain your station will continue to stream your station versus streaming other stations around the country or seeking other streaming experiences that have nothing to do with you, their local station?
Finn: Yeah, I think so, because we’ve spent a lot of energy and time making sure that the experience people have listening to West Virginia Public Broadcasting is an experience that makes it feel like they’re home in West Virginia. Whether they’re here or whether they’re one of the millions of people from West Virginia that live in other places, they can listen to us and feel like they’re home. We actually hear from a lot of people that are streaming us in other places, and that’s why they listen to us over other people. It’s our competitive advantage, and I don’t think that goes away.
I do think that the old model of a pledge drive, for example, that’s going to be troublesome. We’re seeing that happen; we’re seeing across the board, and in my station pledge drives are getting … we’re still having as much money coming in, but they’re from fewer people giving larger gifts and that’s not going to last forever. Not a good sign. So we’re going to figure out how to monetize this. To me, that’s the challenge. But we’re having no trouble reaching new and old audiences, live stream and podcasting.
Current: NPR has released internal numbers — and I think what they do is they track a group of stations — indicating that live-streaming was flat, whereas podcasting has been growing. Have your live-stream numbers been flat, or have they been growing?
Finn: No, they’ve been flat — flat meaning “stable.” Stable is good. And, by the way, our listening is stable if not up, so this idea that it’s going the way of the dodo hasn’t happened yet. I don’t think we should be so quick to write it off. Remember that people wrote off radio many times before. It’s cheap, it’s ubiquitous, and when there was a derecho in West Virginia, this huge windstorm, and cellphones wouldn’t work, TVs wouldn’t work, guess what still worked: radio.
Current: Yeah, but radio might have a longer life for you, Scott, because you serve West Virginia, a disproportionately rural, low-income population.
Finn: I think what’ll happen, what the danger is in the relationship — which is what you’re getting at — is Car Talk is less valuable to me than it was 10 years ago? And it’s going to be much less valuable 10 years from now. This American Life [is] much less valuable to me now than it was 10 years ago. And that’s exactly because people can get that in a better way, a better format than I can provide live on the air.
But I think that the solution to that, Adam, is that the show producers need to start — and we’re pushing for it — they need to start thinking about how much they’re charging us for these shows. As station leaders, we’re going to make choices about that. And as a system, if NPR for example is starting to really benefit from these podcasts and get new audiences and get new income from that, the question is, Who benefits from that? One of the groups that ought to benefit are stations, and we should be able to keep some more of our dues. We’re a joint licensee, and we spend a bit about 15 to 20 percent of our total income giving it straight back to NPR and PBS. I could do a lot with that money. I think that I want to belong to this network, but I also think that if they’re successful in getting income from other sources, then some of that benefit should redouble back onto the stations.
Current: But if NPR starts to make a really, really serious chunk of change with its own digital offerings, not going through the stations … Right now, I think station dues and revenue is 40 percent of their overall operating budgets — that’s a plurality, it’s the largest single chunk. If that starts to shrink, if they make more money from their own things and they start charging you less money for the things they give to you, isn’t there going to be a point at which their loyalty is going to shift away from you, and they might think, “It just doesn’t make sense for us to keep doing two hours of Morning Edition and two hours of ATC; let’s come back to one hour and, eventually, let’s just kill ’em all”?
Finn: Anything’s possible. I think that the value of our relationship is in the relationship. It’s not necessarily us purchasing a program and them sending it to us. I’m a former reporter and former news director. I can’t tell you how much I’ve gotten through NPR from training, from the experience of being able to be with other people at NPR and news directors and editors at the highest levels. And compared to these guys, what I got — I got like eight reporters …
We need NPR more than anybody, and we need collaboration more than anybody. If you’re KPCC, if you’re WNYC, you have the ability just to spin off and do your own thing. You have the resources and could survive very well, thank you, without any sort of relationship with anybody else — although I think that they’ll survive better working with people. So they have a much more adversarial relationship because they can, because they have more at stake.
Whereas if you want to have decent public radio and decent reporting, especially audio reporting, across the middle of this country, in the low-income states like West Virginia and Mississippi, places like that, we need a strong NPR and we need a strong PBS. Or else what you’re going to have is a network that is by and large for the coastal elites and maybe occasional islands of rich, liberal cities in the middle, and that’s it.
I’m going to fight to my dying breath to make sure that doesn’t happen because I think young people in West Virginia deserve to have this resource just as much as rich people that live in Boston or Austin. And I think that NPR’s benefited from all the stories we’ve done from West Virginia over the years, stories that a reporter parachuting in from Washington, D.C., would not find.
So that’s the value. If we sit here and we think too much about the money that’s going back and forth for programs, I think we’re missing the point. And, by the way, the most important relationship we have monetarily and news-wise is Morning Edition, and our second most-popular is All Things Considered. And, again, I don’t see the popularity of those being threatened by podcasts. That’s what’s happening now. People still want to know what’s happening now. I think the whole meme or the theme or whatever you want to call it around “Radio is dead” and “Stations are sinking their claws into NPR and holding it back from its wonderful glorious future,” I think it’s really unfair and not true and harmful, because it’s in the relationship with the stations and NPR that we have our strongest future.
It’s not just a monetary future, it’s a future around sharing content and experience with each other. Yes, there’s tension. There’s always been tension, as far as I can tell. I wasn’t here in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, but I understand that this has always been an issue, the station-NPR relationship. I think the solution is that we all get down together, and we speak openly about this stuff, as adults, and we just keep rehashing the relationship in a way that makes sense to everybody. Maybe I’m just too naive.
Current: Would you support, as the top representative of your station organization, a restructuring of NPR’s board that would result in stations no longer having a majority of seats on the board and thereby having de facto control?
Finn: I don’t know. It’s not like all the station representatives vote en bloc. They just reorganized the board a little while ago to decrease station representation and increase the numbers and the expertise of outside people on the board.
Current: They added to the size of the board, which I thought was good for those very reasons, but they were very careful to make sure that the station heads still had a majority.
Finn: OK, again you’re doing this from the paradigm, Adam, of stations bad, NPR good. They just reorganized the board; let’s see how it works, let’s see what they come up with. And, actually, I do know that there are lots of people on the board and at NPR that are thinking very seriously about this relationship. They’re not naive about it, and they’re not sitting there and saying, “How can we keep NPR from being able to benefit from the new digital on-demand future?”
Current: Yeah, but the most important thing that a board does, any nonprofit board, is hire the boss. The most important thing that your board did, Scott, was hire you. And who did this board choose to hire? They chose to hire Jarl Mohn [NPR president and CEO] who — God bless him — is a guy who said, “I want to go in and reinvest in radio.” You can argue about whether or not that’s a smart strategy, but that is the strategy, and that’s where you see that board majority asserting itself.
Finn: What I would say, too, is when you go into an organization that, let’s say, has some lingering issues around being able to make money off of its product, and also some basic things like promoting itself well, you don’t necessarily do all the new stuff if the old stuff is not working as well as it should.
What I see Jarl Mohn doing is trying to make sure that we’re marketing ourselves well, that we’re increasing our ratings now while we can and making some more money off of it. You fix those things first. I’ve seen nothing that says that he is going to not take this seriously; I think he takes this digital future very seriously. I don’t blame him for working on the broken stuff first; there’s things that needed to be fixed, and I think he’s done a good job fixing them.
I think the important thing to remember is that “people respond to incentives”.
So instead of having an NPR/member station relationship that’s designed to be adversarial and then scream about how we need to be more collaborative…why not structure the governance style to get to a place where the system as a whole will benefit?
Currently everything is still moving (fitfully, and ungracefully) towards NPR operating independently of member stations. Unless some major changes are made to shift that towards a merger, it’s only going to get worse.