BOSTON — IN the last 25 years, public radio has grown from a scruffy pack of isolated stations to a nationally coordinated broadcasting force, reaching up to 20 million listeners weekly.
But like its media counterparts in print and television, heightened competition and advancing technology have left the industry little room for complacency.
In order to keep growing, experts say, nonprofit radio will have to broaden its audience across both geographic and demographic borders, and embrace the inevitable shift from megawatts to megabytes.
The first signs of change are already crackling over the air waves. The smaller of the two major public radio distributors, Minneapolis-based Public Radio International (PRI) - formerly American Public Radio - is taking steps to catch up with its older, richer, and more celebrated competitor, National Public Radio (NPR).
Best known for distributing ``A Prairie Home Companion With Garrison Keillor,'' and the business program ``Marketplace,'' PRI has announced that for the first time in its 11-year history, it will produce, rather than solely distribute, a radio program. The company's long-term strategy, unveiled in January by President Stephen Salyer, includes plans to co-produce ``A New World.''
Premiering next summer, this one-hour daily program will consist of indigenous commentators in many countries discussing current issues. With a $6 million budget, the show is the largest single-program initiative in public radio since NPR launched ``Morning Edition'' in 1978.
In addition to continued programming from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), PRI plans to bolster its international presence with an additional hour of Monitor Radio each weekday at noon. Monitor Radio, a source of news and features from around the world, is the broadcast edition of The Christian Science Monitor.
NPR plans to add 30 minutes to its popular 90-minute drive-time news show, ``All Things Considered,'' and shift the starting time from 5 to 4 p.m. Also in the works: a one-hour show called ``Weekly Edition'' that will replay segments from NPR shows broadcast earlier in the week.
According to spokeswoman Mary Morgan, NPR will expand its European distribution with a recent grant from the federally supported Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Also, she says, NPR will add more cultural programming, including some collaboration with college radio stations.
Founded in 1969, Washington-based NPR now serves 511 member stations and produces 200 hours of programming each week with a budget of $50 million. PRI offers 300 hours to 500 affiliates with a budget of nearly $10 million. ``The growth of public radio has been phenomenal,'' says Everette Dennis, executive director of the Freedom Forum Center for Media Studies at Columbia University in New York. ``Public radio has replaced commercial stations as the only serious source of news, public affairs, and arts programming.''
DEREGULATION of the radio industry in the 1980s, Mr. Dennis says, set commercial stations vying for profits, leaving more sophisticated and expensive programming to the not-for-profit crowd.
Comfortable in this niche, NPR and PRI have benefited from a ``complementary, highly civilized relationship in a business that isn't civilized at all,'' Dennis says.
Unlike the TV industry, individual radio stations are free to subscribe to both major networks, a policy that limits battles for affiliate loyalty.
Still, Dennis warns that ultimately both networks are competing for the same resources, and if commercial radio decides to raise its standards, this friendliness could erode.
Tom Thomas, a consultant who works closely with public radio stations, notes that many of his clients are owned and operated by cash-strapped universities and are becoming increasingly dependent on grants and pledge drives.
But the most significant challenge to public radio may be technological. New NPR president Delano Lewis, a former telephone company executive, is rumored to be shaking up the nonprofit culture at NPR. Mr. Lewis, who heads President Clinton's US Advisory Council on National Information Infrastructure (read: the information superhigh-way), may be plotting to hasten public radio's journey into cyberspace. None too soon, some critics say.
``If they don't wake up, they'll die,'' says Carl Malamud, president of the Internet Multicasting Service, a nonprofit ``cyberstation'' that distributes audio programs over the Internet to 100,000 subscribers in 30 countries.
Convinced that the audio component of the information superhighway is ideal for public radio, Mr. Malamud offers daily broadcasts of Monitor Radio, CBC, and Radio France International on the Internet. ``Shows like `All Things Considered' and `Monitor Radio' can do well in this new world,'' he says.
According to Chris Schmandt, a researcher at the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the definition of radio as audio sent over the electromagnetic spectrum is changing. Ever since computers have been able to store audio files, Mr. Schmandt says, the playing field has shifted. In the future, he says, users will be able to access prerecorded programs by subject; speed up or slow down transmissions; and rewind, scan ahead, and store material.
The demand for good audio will always be high, Schmandt argues, because people often have their hands and eyes occupied with tasks like driving.
When cyberstations proliferate, broadcast distributors will watch their market shrink, Schmandt says, but radio producers will find a host of new outlets.
``This is good news for radio,'' he says, ``to the extent that radio is in the business of producing programming.''