Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Fight for the Future of NPR

One day in May 2015, Eric Nuzum stood before a gathering of influential NPR trustees and board members, and showed them a photograph of a young woman with shoulder-length brown hair. “This is Lara,” Nuzum’s slide read. “Lara is the future of NPR.”

At the time, Nuzum was NPR’s head of programming. The presentation, which he delivered at a meeting of the NPR Foundation, was meant to drive home his most closely held belief about public radio: that young people have different habits, expectations, and aesthetic inclinations than the millions of loyal listeners NPR has been serving since its birth in 1971. “Lara” was a stand-in for an audience that NPR was failing to attract—according to one analysis, the median age of NPR’s radio audience has steadily climbed from roughly 45 years old two decades ago to 54 last year—and one it would need to reach in order to guarantee its survival.

What Nuzum didn’t say during his presentation was that, one day earlier, he had decided to end his decade-long career at NPR and sign a contract with the Amazon-owned audiobook company Audible. Nuzum’s job there would be to develop a slate of original programming that would give Audible a stake in the tantalizing new market for audio storytelling. Although the NPR Foundation people didn’t know it yet, the man who was warning them about needing to win over Lara had just been stolen away by a corporate audio giant.

Today, Nuzum belongs to a club you could call the NPR apostates—onetime servants of public radio who parted ways with the organization and entered the private sector amid frustrations over how NPR and its member stations were approaching the future of the industry. In addition to Nuzum—whose Audible project launched in beta last week—other prominent members include Alex Blumberg, who founded the podcasting startup Gimlet Media, and Adam Davidson, who is an investor in Gimlet and an adviser to a new digital audio unit at the New York Times.

The work these defectors are doing outside of NPR—and the ways in which it promises to destabilize their old employer—has, in recent weeks, become the subject of intense and emotional debate in the world of public radio. The tumult was touched off in late March, when an NPR executive announced that the network’s own digital offerings—most importantly, its marquee iPhone app, NPR One—were not to be promoted during shows airing on terrestrial radio.

The ban was widely viewed as proof that NPR is less interested in reaching young listeners than in placating the managers of local member stations, who pay handsome fees to broadcast NPR shows and tend to react with suspicion when NPR promotes its efforts to distribute those shows digitally. After the gag order was made public, dozens of public radio and podcasting people set about picking at an old scab—discussing, spiritedly, in multiple forums, whether the antiquated economic arrangements that govern NPR’s relationships with its member stations are holding it back from innovation.

The debate also raised an even thornier and as-yet-unanswered question: What is the value of NPR’s core journalistic offerings—the brief, sober dispatches that air every day on its flagship shows Morning Edition and All Things Considered—in an age when its terrestrial audience is growing older and younger listeners seem to prefer addictive, irreverent, and entertaining podcasts over the news?

The critics say NPR has been standing with its toes in the ocean for too long, curbing its digital ambitions in order to appease legacy radio stations. As its competitors dash into the waves, the question of whether NPR can ever catch up, and what will become of it if it doesn’t, has become increasingly urgent. Can the people who are running NPR make radio for Lara? Or has she already tuned them out for good?

To understand NPR’s predicament, it’s crucial to first understand what NPR is and what NPR is not. In some ways, the second part is easier. NPR is not a radio station, and it is not responsible for every show in which polite voices speak in a restrained, earnest manner about the issues of the day; other players that traffic in such fare include American Public Media, which produces Marketplace, and Public Radio International, which co-produces The Takeaway. NPR is not involved in the making of This American Life, a program that was launched by member station WBEZ in Chicago and has been operating independently since 2014. Nor did NPR createSerial, the blockbuster podcast that debuted a little less than two years ago and convinced many people that there is money to be made in the medium of podcasting.

So what is NPR? In short, it’s a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., that produces and distributes an assortment of popular radio shows to federally funded local stations all across the country. Some of these stations are tiny and depend entirely on programming they have licensed from outside entities. Others, such as New York’s WNYC or Boston’s WBUR, are powerhouses that produce nationally syndicated shows of their own, like WNYC’s Radiolab and WBUR’s On Point With Tom Ashbrook.

What does this have to do with whether or not NPR will still be making journalism that people want to listen to in 50 years? The answer lies in NPR’s flagship news programs: Morning Edition, which typically airs on member stations from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. ET, and All Things Considered, which comes on at 4 p.m. and continues through drive time. The two programs, which are known inside NPR as “the newsmagazines,” are the biggest shows NPR produces, both in terms of revenue and audience. Broadcast on approximately 900 radio stations across the country, they reach an estimated weekly audience of more than 25 million people.

Between the licensing fees that member stations pay to air the shows and the sponsorship revenue they attract, Morning Edition and All Things Considered are responsible for bringing in a bigger slice of NPR’s annual budget than any other source of funding. Member stations—which have controlled a majority of NPR’s board seats since the early 1980s—have strongly opposed the idea of making the shows available as on-demand podcasts, fearing a loss of listeners and revenue. According to critics like Davidson and Nuzum, limitations like these have prevented NPR from making a bigger impact in the digital space.

by Leon Neyfakh, Slate | Read more:
Image: NPR