NPR - It's Not One Or The Other

Without question, the dominant force and trailblazer in the US podcast business is NPR and public radio stations.  At any time, NPR and titles produced by the public radio system dominate the top 20 chart of podcasts. It is the envy of the podcast sector and one of the true success factors has been their ability to cross-promote their podcast content to a large audience via their airwaves.  

It has worked well. Today, for example, "This American Life" (produced by WBEZ, Chicago and aired primarily on NPR affiliated stations) draws about 2.2 million weekly listeners on-air and roughly the same number of podcast downloads.

Like commercial radio, public radio has seen erosion in the Time Spent Listening of their on-air audience and one of the factors is likely the burgeoning growth of their podcast platform.  Even though anecdotally, podcasting has added a new and younger audience who may or may not listen to the stations.  Regardless, success in podcasting has apparently created friction between the affiliated stations and the mothership.  

In fact, last week an internal NPR memo was posted online and essentially disclosed that during news elements, NPR would limit the use of the airwaves to "promote" their podcast effort or the NPR One app.  

NPR is constructed much in the same way as legacy TV networks, with affiliates in each market that carry the network's programming. Affiliates pay NPR for their content. They also control the board of NPR.  So one can imagine the internal tension to protect the current system of local stations, which by-far accounts for most of NPR's revenue.

Joshua Benton, director of the Neiman Foundation's Journalism Lab wrote about the memo; "the public radio giant is letting its present impose a strategy tax on its future."  

It is complicated, for sure.

Christopher Turpin, NPR's vice president of news programming and operations, and the author of the internal memo, told Elizabeth Jensen, NPR's Ombudsman, "there is no fatwa about podcasts appearing on our air .... everyone understands podcasts are a huge part of the future...... NPR itself is deeply vested and invested in them."  

The renowned author of the Innovator's Dilemma, Clayton Christensen often talks about the challenges of legacy brands against disruptive technology and innovation while still trying to sustain current business practice. That fits the bill here. NPR has done a remarkable job of following the audience - better than any - and right now they are wrestling with an aging business model.

In media, the audience tends to get what it wants.  Every time.  Even if the disruption is painful. Think newspapers and more recently, TV. More and more video content is consumed on-demand.  Robert Kyncl, chief business officer at YouTube says we are on track for the digital consumption of television programming to overtake linear TV in less than 4 years.  The undeniable trend to on-demand content has created deep stress among affiliates of the television networks, who much like NPR, would prefer the status quo.  The networks now heavily promote their own apps and are building consumer platforms such as Hulu to follow the audience.  

And that's the point.  Smartphones, Bluetooth and connected cars are creating similar disruption for audio content creators.  People want to consume what they want and when they want it - whether it is via a transmitter or a smartphone. The audience is agnostic to the form of delivery and thus content creators need to move beyond historic silos and meet listeners on various devices and platforms.

NPR had the great foresight to deliver content beyond the tower and aggregate significant audience - arguably better than anyone else in the audio sector. They used their giant megaphone to build a robust podcast profile. Now they must navigate the understandably difficult and monumental challenge of being a successful innovator with a legacy infrastructure and business model.  

Steven Goldstein, Amplifi Media

Steven GoldsteinComment