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Unsettled issue: NPR newsmags on sat radio

Originally published in Current, June 21, 2004
By Mike Janssen

A study commissioned by NPR will give new attention this winter to the prickly question of putting the network’s newsmagazines on Sirius Satellite Radio.

NPR’s two Sirius channels carry many of its signature shows, including Fresh Air and Talk of the Nation, but not Morning Edition or All Things Considered. In 1998, when NPR was mulling a deal with Sirius, station managers urged the network not to put the flagship shows on satellite. The NPR Board agreed, adopting a strategic framework that directed the network to protect the stations’ franchise.

Sirius began operating in 2002. Today the company claims 400,000 subscribers and may have 750,000 by the end of the year, according to analysts. Its competitor, XM Radio, has more than 2 million. Some in public radio say the growth should prompt a second look at the newsmag issue.

Eric Nuzum, director of programming and operations at WKSU-FM in Kent, Ohio, subscribes to Sirius and says NPR channels without the newsmags are disappointing. “It’s kind of like the wheel without the hub,” he says. NPR says it has received 300 complaints from Sirius subscribers disappointed by the absence of the newsmagazines.

That’s a small fraction of the audience, but satellite radio listening is expected to grow. In a discussion about satellite radio at last month’s Public Radio Leadership Forum, Nuzum advocated that NPR find a way to put the newsmags on satellite. Not doing so, he said, could amount to denying them to a market the size of Tulsa, Okla., or Albuquerque, N.M.

“We need to put ourselves in the shoes of the people we purport to serve,” says Ken Stern, NPR’s executive v.p., who represented the network in the discussion. “People have a lot of choices out there now, and if we’re not providing the content they want, others might. And that might be against the long-term interests of public radio as a whole.”

Stakeholders in public radio can base discussions on more than speculation now that satellite radio is a reality, Stern says. NPR will commission an outside firm to file a report by the end of the year. The study will look at who is listening to satellite radio, which channels they prefer, which channels public radio listeners like, and whether the absence of the newsmagazines is hurting NPR’s profile on Sirius.

The study will also explore whether promos on NPR’s Sirius channels have succeeded in driving listeners to local stations.

Sharing the benefits

Some managers still fear losing audience to satellite. Nuzum says managers told him “it took a lot of cojones” to voice his opinion.

Nuzum and other advocates promote a reasoned approach. “If you look at it through the public service lens—how can the industry best serve the country—we’d be nuts to not be on satellite with our best programs and our best service,” says John Sutton, a pubradio research consultant. But he adds, “We would also be nuts to do it with the current economic model.”

Sutton and Nuzum say NPR should somehow compensate the stations if the network benefits from putting the newsmags on the satellite. For example, airing the shows on Sirius could attract underwriting. NPR has promised to share half of its underwriting revenues from Sirius with stations, but so far has no underwriting to speak of.

“You have to start off by saying we want this to work,” Sutton says. “If you start off by saying why it won’t work, you’ll never get there, and then you’ll have to start looking for solutions.”

A suggestion that drew attention at the Forum came from Larry Rosin, president of Edison Media Research. Public radio, Rosin said, could allow only members of local stations to have access to its Sirius channels. Sirius and XM already use technology that would make that possible — they broadcast to addressable radios and can restrict access to offerings such as XM’s extra-cost Playboy Radio channel.

NPR has talked about a similar arrangement for delivering supplemental audio channels to digital radios, Stern says, but not with respect to Sirius. “It’s an interesting idea, and one that should be discussed on a systemwide basis,” he says.

The discussion at last month’s meeting spurred some second thoughts for Cleve Callison, g.m. of WMUB-FM in Oxford, Ohio. Callison had previously argued for keeping the newsmags off Sirius. Though he hasn’t changed his mind, he now agrees the topic should be revisited.

“The people that have argued for more flexibility have a point that we don’t want to be in a position where NPR is irrelevant,” he says.

Web page posted June 29, 2004
The newspaper about public TV and radio
in the United States
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Copyright 2004

Satellite dish with Empire State Building in background

Sirius uplinks its channels from Manhattan. (Photo: Sirius Satellite Radio.)


NPR Board adopts "strategic framework" permitting the network to develop new channels and use new delivery technologies, 1998.

As NPR plans Sirius channels in 2000, station reps raise issue of sharing revenues from future satellite revenues.


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Sirius announces extended reach through Echostar's DBS Dish Network, May 2004.