In today’s rapidly evolving media landscape, where sensationalism and profit-driven motives reign supreme, it is crucial to preserve and strengthen platforms that prioritize quality journalism, educational content and unbiased reporting. PBS and NPR have long been beacons of integrity, sharing a common mission and purpose. However, in the face of financial challenges and the need for consolidation, it is time to contemplate a groundbreaking merger that could revolutionize public media and secure its future.
The Shared Mission: PBS and NPR, as separate entities, have successfully served as bastions of nonprofit, independent journalism and programming for decades. PBS, with its extensive network of member stations and educational content, brings enriching experiences and knowledge to households across America. Meanwhile, NPR’s radio broadcasts deliver in-depth news analysis, cultural insights and thought-provoking content to millions of listeners daily.
Both organizations adhere to the highest journalistic standards, providing the public with reliable information, diverse perspectives and intellectual stimulation. Their programming inspires dialogue, encourages critical thinking and fosters a well-informed citizenry. By merging, PBS and NPR could create a unified platform that amplifies their collective voice, expanding their reach and influence in an increasingly fragmented media landscape.
The Marketplace Reality: While the missions of PBS and NPR remain as relevant as ever, the financial landscape has become increasingly challenging. Government funding, individual donations and corporate sponsorships have proven insufficient to sustain these organizations in the long term. As the media industry undergoes rapid transformation, consolidation is inevitable, and combining the resources and expertise of PBS and NPR could provide a sustainable solution.
Consolidation offers opportunities for streamlining operations, reducing redundancies and maximizing efficiency. A merged entity would optimize the utilization of limited resources and eliminate competition for funding and audience attention. By presenting a united front, PBS and NPR could leverage their shared brand reputation and become a formidable force in the media marketplace.
The Power of Collaboration: While some may argue that merging PBS and NPR would compromise their independent voices, it is important to remember that their shared values and commitment to unbiased reporting would serve as the foundation of this new entity. The merger would enable them to pool resources and combine their expertise in journalism, broadcasting and educational programming, thereby enhancing the quality of content produced.
Moreover, a merger could facilitate greater collaboration between PBS and NPR in producing original documentaries, investigative reports and in-depth interviews. By leveraging their collective talents, they could present a more comprehensive and nuanced portrayal of the issues that shape our world. This collaborative approach would not only enhance the audience’s understanding but also create cost efficiencies in content production, a vital consideration in times of financial constraint.
Embracing a Digital-First Future: In today’s digital age, media consumption patterns have drastically changed. Viewers and listeners increasingly seek content through online platforms and streaming services. By merging, PBS and NPR could create a powerful digital platform that serves as a one-stop destination for high-quality news, educational content and cultural programming.
With a shared digital infrastructure, the combined entity could reach a broader and more diverse audience, extending its impact beyond traditional broadcast mediums. Furthermore, a digital platform would allow for interactive experiences, community engagement and personalized content curation, thereby fostering a deeper connection with the audience.
In considering the merger of PBS and NPR, it is essential to embrace the provocative nature of the proposal. Traditional approaches to public media may no longer suffice in a world dominated by sensationalism and polarizing narratives. By merging these iconic institutions, we would challenge the status quo, disrupt the media landscape and set an example for future models of collaboration and consolidation.
While it may initially seem audacious, merging PBS and NPR aligns with their shared mission to inform, educate and engage the public. It is a bold move that demonstrates a commitment to adaptability, innovation and the preservation of quality journalism in an era plagued by misinformation and partisan bias.
The potential merger of PBS and NPR is a strategic and necessary step in securing the future of public media. By combining their strengths, resources and expertise, these two institutions can create a unified platform that not only survives but thrives in the challenging marketplace of ideas. The merger would allow for greater collaboration, enhanced efficiency and a stronger digital presence, ensuring that the timeless values of unbiased reporting, educational content and intellectual stimulation continue to shape the public discourse.
As we confront the financial realities and evolving media landscape, it is imperative to make bold, transformative decisions. The consolidation of PBS and NPR is an opportunity to establish a media powerhouse that can withstand the pressures of profit-driven models and provide the public with the content it deserves — content that informs, inspires and unites us in the pursuit of knowledge and understanding.
In embracing this provocative merger, we embark on a journey that challenges conventions and redefines the future of public media. It is a leap of faith, but one that promises to invigorate the marketplace of ideas, empower informed citizens and ensure the legacy of PBS and NPR for generations to come. Let us dare to imagine a united voice that resonates across the nation — a voice that is emblematic of change, engages in deeper collaborations and elevates the power of public media.
Andrew Ramsammy serves as the Local Media Association + Foundation’s Chief Impact Officer, COO of Word In Black and Co-Lead of the Knight x LMA BloomLab. He is also a Sulzberger Fellow.
This proposal is heavy on the buzzwords and light… very light… on any specifics.
Given the utterly abysmal track record of achieving these goals at most joint licensees? I’d suggest this merger makes about as much sense as AOL & Time Warner did.
My piece was meant to inspire a conversation and not meant to be tactical. And comparing the AOL & Time Warner deal to what I’m proposing doesn’t recognize what I state in my thesis that NPR and PBS are so aligned, they should be together.
I think there’s ample objective evidence that NPR and PBS are not aligned at all. We see it every day at the vast majority of joint licensees; very few of them have successfully integrated their radio and TV operations & content creation. And with good reason: they’re still two very different media. The old saw that “TV didn’t succeed until it stopped trying to be ‘radio with pictures'” is still true, and it’s true in both directions.
And this is before we get into several recent examples…I won’t name names here because there’s no need to be rude…of public radio & TV mergers that have resulted in, shall we say, “less than ideal” results. One can, and should, take into account any factors unique to the players involved as to why things haven’t worked out as well as hoped. But given how often it goes sideways, I think one has to take issue that there’s any such “natural alignment” between public radio and public television: it takes an enormous amount of time, money and effort to make those mergers work well…one might say “force” those mergers to work well.
PBS is primarily kids programming and arts/culture. PBS does not produce any programming itself; it is only a clearinghouse for it. And PBS faces far more direct competition within their technological wheelhouse as consumption of video programming via over-the-air TV broadcasts has declined dramatically in favor of more on-demand consumption over cable TV (and similar technology, like FiOS) and over pure internet. Similarly, there are significant FCC rules involving must-carry and rights’ fees that all are eroding VERY fast as viewing shifts more and more to internet-based channels, and this is really hurting the revenue structure for many TV licensees. Finally, one subtle but crucial difference is that most TV programming is licensed to distribution channels in a way that gives market exclusivity. This tends to be more profitable, but it also means when you lose that exclusivity, it really hurts the bottom line.
NPR is primarily hard journalism with a little arts/culture as well, mostly filtered through a lens of storytelling. It produces a great deal of its own programming in addition to being a major clearinghouse for content. NPR faces far less direct competition thanks to the unique (yet, admittedly, slowly eroding) position of dominance in the auto dashboard of AM/FM, and the nature of AM/FM broadcasting that limits your direct competition to a dozen or so other radio stations in the same market. Yes, there’s indirect competition from podcasts, streaming, etc…but none of them have yet to come close to matching the principles of “Simplicity” (see John Maeda on this) that radio embodies and leverages heavily to maintain its market share. Certainly the same rubric does not apply to PBS, where it’s often much easier to consume similar content on the same users’ devices via other vectors: Youtube, Disney+, Hulu, etc etc etc. And finally, yes, very little public radio programming (and none of NPR’s) allows for market exclusivity. This makes it less directly profitable for member stations but it also means when they lost that exclusivity to podcasts and streaming, the financial blow wasn’t nearly as big.
Most media critics look at situations where public radio stations have acquired local newspapers and praised the intentions, but invariably warn that there are huge-huge-HUGE culture and mission differences to overcome. I don’t see why it’s any different for radio and television.
Upon reflection, I still think this merger is not a good idea. BUT I should give credit where it’s due: there’s an enormous amount of wastefulness baked into the very business model of both NPR and PBS. It’s going to take thought leaders, as Andrew is, who aren’t afraid to suggest “heresies” (ideas so big that all the entrenched interests reach for their torches and pitchforks) to solve that problem…and a problem it is. I can’t speak for PBS, but it’s pretty obvious that NPR both envisions and is working hard towards, a day when it does not need member stations’ to survive. If member stations don’t want to be left in the dust (are there more than four or five stations in the entire USA that could survive without ME or ATC?) they’re going to need to embrace more “heretical” ideas.
The big idea here is in digital infrastructure. Rather than funding backwards-glancing broadcast-based interconnection systems, we need to think about a unified tech stack. The challenge is that both NPR and PBS have their own imperatives and are not very good at creating products and platforms for local use. Some of this is due to their insistence on controlling branding and not creating white label versions. Rather than a merger, I think these functions need to be created outside of PBS and NPR but be focused on all of public media. Great conversation starter, Andrew!
Thanks, Steve. I completely agree with you on digital infrastructure. Especially when our audiences between NPR and PBS are so alike because of public media’s unified mission. And like so much of digital transformation, it will take an outsized and outside source to drive a major initiative like this.
This is a great and overdue conversation, there are certainly obvious areas where consolidation makes a lot of sense. The guys that figured this out are the commercial broadcasters, in a search for better margins, effective local programming, emerging technologies and shrinking market share they had to find solutions for their survival. It all may not be relevant but in the end we are all “media”. No need to reinvent the wheel, learn from their mistakes and successes.
Thanks Andrew for starting this conversation!