If public radio’s smaller stations vanish, we all lose

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After I expressed concerns about some trends in public radio to the NPR board, Current asked me to expand on my comments. Nationally, small and medium stations are losing ground. The vast majority of assets and growth lie with a relative few of the largest stations. Every year, the weakest go dark, or they are absorbed.

Taken to a logical conclusion, is it just a matter of time before we all become part of a couple dozen major hubs? Or is there another path?

The disparity between large and small is growing, and the trend is accelerating. As a ratio of our Total Station Revenue, small stations make up the largest percentage of NPR membership. We also pay the greatest percentage of NPR programming fees. “Middle” stations pay less, large stations still less, and the largest stations the least percentage. I’ve heard a couple mega-managers say they shouldn’t be taxed for their success. But it seems to me that smaller entities already pay a “penalty tax” for serving more rural locations and smaller population densities. It does not seem equitable. More to the point, the path we are on cannot sustain our current model of service.

Small and medium stations are losing money. Across the system, stations in these categories are in the red by several million dollars annually. Some managers are taking measures to stem the tide, generally by cutting programs we can no longer afford. If this continues, we may eventually wind up with only Morning Edition and All Things Considered — if even those.

I’ve mentioned this to NPR, their board and my colleagues in hope this problem will be thought about, discussed and addressed. The “Station Compact” is under much discussion, but as far as I know, a clear solution has yet to present itself. There are hopeful ideas about increased major giving and an equitable fee structure. Ideas about collaborative fundraising are fraught with challenges. Meanwhile, the increases in dues and fees are overtaking us faster than small stations can grow their revenue. And time is not on our side.

This trend toward disparity has become critical. Each year, the smallest and financially weakest of stations (and not always just those) go dark or they are absorbed. Or their licenses are spun off for cash. It’s a complicated problem, but it cannot be ignored. If this continues, the consequences are profound.

So how shall we think about this? Two obvious possibilities are:

Option I: We continue on as we are. Eventually we will follow the trend to its logical conclusion. Smaller stations will become (and are becoming) part of the larger. Intentionally or not, we will ultimately become parts of a couple dozen major hubs across the country.

This also means loss of “granularity” — on-the-ground coverage of local news, arts and issues, as well as coverage by people who live in our local communities and neighborhoods. This will change as we become simple “pass-throughs” of large urban stations. A few outliers may manage to survive, but that may be rare.

Option II: Larger stations take a larger role in supporting the infrastructure. The price increases would fall mostly on them, perhaps as a more equitable percentage of their TSR. Small stations might then have the needed resources to grow the local and regional coverage public radio is known for but that the large stations can’t manage to serve completely on their own.

Or perhaps a third way forward can be found.

Option III: A lot of smart people are thinking about a solution. If it were easy, we would probably already have found a solution and realized it. As it is, a solution must involve greater collaborations and efficiencies in our business model and protocols. I believe we must aggressively pursue these possibilities before these trends overtake even successful small and medium stations. With more time, perhaps a more organic solution may present itself.

I don’t believe we can wait much longer to find sustainable solutions. Cracks in our system are appearing, and small stations are under considerable stress. Many stations fear that every time a station goes dark, NPR and vendors may compensate for the loss of that revenue by increasing fees for the remaining stations, creating a domino effect. Even as NPR itself grows more robust, the greater part of their station membership is at risk. This is really not good news for NPR or other vendors, and certainly not for smaller stations. The ice is melting beneath our feet with the current business model. Without sounding alarmist, my fervent hope is that we all stay afloat until these issues can be resolved in a sustainable fashion.

Public radio and television were established with goals of serving diverse audiences — wealthy, poor, urban, rural, young, old and all the colors of America. Public radio has had much success at serving most of our population at both local and national levels, though there is more to be done. Is it worth sustaining and maintaining small and medium stations as well as the large to serve the widest possible audience in the spirit of these goals? I hope so.

Dr. Cary Boyce has been president and general manager of Spokane Public Radio since 2012. Previously at WFIU in Bloomington, Ind., he served variously as interim station manager, operations director, marketing director, program producer and a bit of everything else for a couple of decades.

2 thoughts on “If public radio’s smaller stations vanish, we all lose

  1. One of the efficiencies that stations have been reticent to adopt is collapsing back end administrative work, such as membership, finance and underwriting. I understand why it’s hard for university stations, because they’re attached to a greater bureaucracy, but the Coast Alaska and AMPERS stations have been pioneers in this area. I would love to hear from Mollie Kabler and Joel Glaser on how they’ve been able to work through their challenges to coordinate a group of stations that ultimately are spending their limited resources on the right things (local content production, community conversations) and outsourcing management of things that should really be turnkey, like mail, e-communications, membership processing, payroll. Those are the things that eat up a lot of small to mid sized station time and money.

  2. There is a longstanding “trust deficit” between NPR central and all the member stations, going all the way back to 1983 when NPR itself nearly went bankrupt. While I acknowledge that the underlying causes of that trust deficit are thorny and incredibly hard to solve, one big way NPR could help is to start offering a shared services like what Ann describes above.

    It’s worth pointing out that a lot of the smaller stations also do a lot of those above tasks pretty badly, because they don’t have the resources to do them well. Sustainer retention alone (i.e. dealing with credit card declines) is a huge resource-sink for smaller stations, but it also means a hefty amount of lost revenue unless you invest a lot of time or money into dealing with it.

    Obviously there’s going to be issues with NPR providing these services precisely because there’s a trust deficit. “Hands off our donors!” is a familiar rallying cry, and NPR will have to set up numerous internal and external safeguards on that front. Even then, one would expect only the most “desperate” of stations to take advantage of anything NPR offers on these fronts; the stations for whom the potential benefit outweighs any risks…real or perceived…and hopefully they can provide a baseline of good relations to help convince other stations to join in as well.

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