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NPR grapples with the prospect of a post-radio future

Local stations are wary of NPR's embrace of podcasts and other new ways to deliver its news programs.

By Randy DotingaCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 14, 2008



San Diego

If you like National Public Radio's "Fresh Air With Terry Gross," you can hear it via podcast or satellite radio. But unless you're near a radio or a live online stream, "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" are off-limits.

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Public radio stations make millions from pledge drives that intersperse the two hit news shows, and NPR hasn't wanted to undercut local stations' fundraising by giving fans another way to hear the programs. But that could change, as NPR considers whether to fully embrace "new media" technology at the risk of bypassing some public-radio stations.

"The fear in its raw form is that NPR will market itself directly to consumers and … and completely eclipse their local stations," says media consultant Michael Marcotte, a former San Diego public-radio news director.

The debate within NPR became public last week after the network's board fired CEO Ken Stern. Mr. Stern, who'd been in charge for 18 months, had pushed NPR to offer its news through mediums other than terrestrial radio.

News reports blamed the firing on Stern's embrace of technology initiatives, but NPR officials deny that. A larger factor, says Mr. Marcotte, may have been Stern's inability to persuade member stations to trust his plans for delivering programming via technology other than old-fashioned radio.

Whatever the reason for his removal, the venerable news network with hundreds of member stations is facing challenges. While NPR's listener base has jumped this decade to some 30 million people a week, people are listening to radio overall less than in the past. It's unclear how people will listen to NPR in five or 10 years and whether it can carve out a place amid iPods, cellphones, and whatever hot new gadget awaits.

And while NPR has avoided the major cutbacks that have beset other media, thanks in part to a $225 million bequest, it depends upon donations that rise and fall with the health of the economy.

Public radio has gradually embraced new technology. Podcasts of shows like "Fresh Air" and "This American Life," once available only for a fee, are now free and are routinely rated by iTunes as among the most popular. NPR also offers hourly news updates to anyone with a phone, and its website is extensive.

"We do have to make adjustments in how we think about our relationship to users and continue this fairly aggressive approach to the digital future," says interim CEO Dennis Haarsager.

But some stations worry that NPR is diverting resources to technology and away from news programming, says John Decker, program director at San Diego's KPBS. Small stations, in particular, are concerned because they lack resources "to produce enough unique content on their own that would make up for any listening they might lose to NPR podcasts."

Robert Paterson, a consultant who has worked with NPR, says it's possible the network could divorce itself from local public radio stations and find other ways to distribute its programming.

But no one, at least for now, seems to think that would be a good idea. "The only chance you have for NPR," he says, "is to pick up some of the more thoughtful people in the system ... to come up with some solutions that would help everybody."

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