Jan 20, 2010

Public radio and the Internet

The following excerpt from LA Magazine's interview with KCRW General Manager Ruth Seymour paints a picture of the tensions inside public radio as NPR and affiliate stations contends with the realities of the Internet:

Today I would say that one of the major issues is the importance of maintaining and strengthening and recognizing local stations. In many ways, it’s emblematic of the country itself: Public radio is an extremely diverse, even anarchic system. It’s not centrally controlled. Every station is independent. For people who love order, this is a nightmare. For somebody like me, who celebrates diversity, it is a triumph. There are always those inside public broadcasting who would like to see a “well-managed system.” KCRW wouldn’t exist under their aegis. And the Internet has complicated everything. In public radio it is unseemly to talk about being competitive. You know: “We’re all one big system; we have trouble surviving as it is, so we’re not competing.” That’s nonsense. We are all competing with each other. KCRW has subscribers in every state and some abroad. The Internet makes us available in San Francisco, in New York. We are getting into each other’s markets. There have been attempts to gather us into one big group under NPR. We are not interested. We want to sing our own song. It costs money. The more successful you are on the Internet, the more you have to pay for increased bandwidth and increased staffing. We have a very large audience on the Web. I think it may be the largest of any single station that’s Webcasting. And it’s expensive.

What advice would you give to your successor about that?
It’s all radio. I guess that’s the first advice, because there is an enormous shifting away, a lack of investment in programming and increased investment in the new bells and whistles of digital technology. But the reason people listen is that they’re intrigued or fascinated or interested in the content. That’s the most important thing to remember, and it is the thing that increasingly concerns me—that independent producers, the people who are the creative types, are marginalized today in favor of the technology people. It’s a real failure not to understand that the business you’re in is programming.

At NPR, too?
NPR must invest in programming. It cannot simply invest in Morning Edition and All Things Considered. It must be seen—and it isn’t now—as a place that welcomes independent productions. NPR doesn’t have a program director right now who listens to new stuff. When This American Life began in 1995, Ira, who had worked at NPR, could not get NPR to take the program. That is not better today. It’s even worse. Instead the focus at NPR is online. The Internet gives NPR a voice to go over the heads of the local stations, OK? That’s the big danger.

1 comment:

anthea said...

I would agree -- NPR is ambivalent about freelance producers and their work, which dollar for dollar provides the best value in national media. I was a Senior Editor on a daily talk show where i solicited and edited the national freelance reports and commentataries were an ongoing part of the mix. As NPR faced increased budget pressures in 2007, I was replaced by a novice editor who edited two-ways and continuity on the program and no longer solicited and edited these reports and commentaries. These were eliminated from the show's mix, which became purely conversation. Of course, you still hear freelance reports and commentaries on NPR's national shows. But one can only imagine the behind-the-scenes battles that get them there.NPR ebbs and flows in its commmitment to freelance reporting and commentary so it's important for people like Ruth to be calling for an ongoing commitment to independent work.