A guardedly optimistic take on the future of NPR.

I received a lot of responses to the things I wrote about NPR last week. I thought I was done, but in reading the notes, I heard a lot of open questions. It was a bit frustrating to get dozens of very encouraging and positive but top-secret messages from NPR staff and a smaller number of angry and upset public messages. But that’s fine.

The key thing — and I think this is what angered a few people — is that I had forgotten to make explicit the most important idea of all: the future is awesome for people who work in long-form audio, audio storytelling, audio news. There will be more great audio, much bigger audiences for audio, far more people making far more money in audio. It’s all around fabulous news. I come to praise Caesar not to bury him!

Any criticism I have of NPR management and its board doesn’t come from deep pessimism that NPR, member stations or audio reporters/producers are doomed. It’s the opposite. I think there’s this giant huge prize just sitting there, waiting to be grabbed up. NPR, itself, can make a lot more money, support its mission in better ways, create a more exciting place to work, create more amazing audio; so can most of the member stations. Overall, the conditions are better than they have ever been — by a very long shot — for NPR. It is the very brightness of the opportunity that makes it so painful to watch NPR NOT do the obvious things (obvious, at least, to me and many others) that it should be doing to grab this great prize.

NPR has all of what a company could want to dominate this rapidly emerging industry of podcasting. It has a huge reach to 10% of the population, including the people most likely to be early adopters of new technology, like podcasting. It has decades of good will. It has a staff with enormous experience and talent. It is part of a network of local stations that have deep ties to communities all over the country. There is a very simple recipe that could ensure NPR’s great success for years to come: it could use its broadcast to further develop its existing audiences and train them to transfer their listenership to the more lucrative and engaged digital shows. Ahh, you say, but what about the member stations? Well, they can do exactly the same. They can create compelling content that unifies national and local programming.

Alex Blumberg and I began to imagine something like this with Planet Money. In conversations with Kinsey Wilson and Ellen Weiss and others, we dreamed of developing a Planet Money method of reporting about local economic issues. We would develop tools — narrative and digital — and train member station reporters. They could then have locally branded Planet Money St. Louis (or wherever) segments on the radio and a longer version could be on a local podcast, integrated with national Planet Money. This would be not unlike the local/national news breaks at the top of the hour. The best local pieces could play on the national show. I imagined an annual Planet Money convention, where we’d all get together and compare notes and best practices. Kinsey and Ellen and I would fantasize about spreading that model to other areas: Planet Politics, Planet Health, Planet Environment. That was sort of the idea, I believe, behind Project Argo and Code Switch and the Education team. So, I know some of these ideas are out there. But they haven’t been done successfully enough. I feel so strongly that it would be possible to focus on the core value that NPR provides — smart, narrative-based news — in a rich ecosystem with the member stations that was digital and broadcast and mutually supportive.

The elements would probably include:

  • Knowing a lot more about listeners. Not just how old they are and where they went to college and how white they are. But really understanding how substantive audio programming fits into their lives. What do they want more of? Less of? What makes them super excited? What do they not know they want but will love? Research will never lead to This American Life or Invisibilia or Radio Lab. We always need passionate geniuses. But research can help us serve our audiences’s needs much better.
  • A far quicker development cycle, in which lots and lots of experimentation is encouraged and it’s fairly easy for a reporter or producer to spend a bit of time developing an idea and presenting it to the world. There would be a mechanism that would allow the more popular shows to acquire more resources to grow. Failure shouldn’t be seen as disastrous, but as a learning opportunity.
  • A suite of tools — digital, analytical, training —to help producers and reporters shape vague ideas into podcasts that are most likely to thrive. It would be clear to all what it takes for a podcast to be deemed “successful” by higher-ups and how resources are distributed.
  • A nimble business development and legal team that can quickly put a helpful structure around new show ideas, new potential brands, and partnerships with outsiders. I know they are getting better at this. But NPR is still famous for its endless decision-making. Invisibilia, anyone? I made two different (non-NPR) podcast-related business deals this week for new partnerships — each one took about 20 minutes. It can happen.
  • The end of the summer camp/everybody gets a trophy culture at NPR. Some people are working their butts off and are amazing. Others have been phoning it in for decades. They shouldn’t make the same amount of money and have the same career advancement track.
  • A deep integration between new podcasts and older broadcast shows so that new shows can be tried out on broadcast, broadcast hosts can explore their voices in digital (Kelly’s new show seems very promising in this regard), and everybody understands that successful podcasts will strengthen the shows and vice versa.
  • At least some of the new digital programs should be local-friendly, along the lines we dreamed of for Planet Money.
  • Cross promote like maniacs. Every science story on the radio should lead me to science podcasts. Every business story to Planet Money. Every music interview to NPR Music. Come the frig on. Cross-promotion is the only solution.
  • And, I think it’s obvious: no more pretending there isn’t a major change. No more pretending that 3 or 4 minute radio stories, broadcast over the air, will be the primary product of NPR. That’s going away. It might take 5 years or 10. But the direction is clear and every moment spent pretending it isn’t is destructive. Keep producing them. Sure. Lincoln made those giant gas guzzlers for old people for many years after Toyota proved young people don’t want them. But you should know that you’re in a dying market and use whatever resources that dying market provides to prepare for the fast-growing segment. (My greatest frustration at Planet Money was that we were profitable and our profits were being used to subsidize the legacy medium. That is completely backwards. Any business consultant knows: the dying legacy product subsidizes the new. Not the other way around.) To be clear: I’m not saying the shows are dead. I’m saying the shows as they have existed are on a clear path towards disappearing. But a revitalized show, providing essential news of the day, but also presenting passionate voices from all that experimentation, could do well for years. If the adjustment begins soon, it can happen over a period of time without jolting listeners too terribly. The broadcast shows become more like the entryway to the entire NPR ecosystem, fueling it and being fueled by it.

All of this requires clarity from senior leadership. Here are things I don’t think most people at NPR understand:

  • What is “success” for a person, a show, a podcast, the network? Is it editorial only? Financial? Internal political?
  • How are resources allocated between new, promising but unproven ideas and legacy shows?
  • How does senior leadership think people will be consuming audio in 2 years? 5 years? 10 years?
  • Should I, as an NPR employee hoping for a long career, focus on serving the current broadcast shows or should I create new podcasts?

For people within public radio, this time is confusing and new and feels quite specific to our odd business. But NPR is going through what may be the single most common business challenge of our day. In the language of business schools, it is experiencing a rapid disintermediation of its supply chain/distribution model, which is forcing conflict between its direct-to-consumer and business-to-business channels. That’s a mouthful that means, simply, NPR used to only reach listeners through member stations. Now, NPR reaches them two ways. There’s the old member-station route (hop-hop) and a direct route (hop!) that happens when a listener goes to NPR One, downloads a podcast or listens on the web or uses some other digital tool.

This is mostly wonderful news. Companies, generally, are thrilled when they have multiple distribution channels available to them and no longer have to reach audiences only through one form of intermediary. This does raise very common challenges: how do you directly serve customers without pissing off your distributors (the member stations). But these are familiar, well-understood problems within the business world.

Consider Disney. They sell direct to consumers — the parks and web offerings and what not — and they also sell to distributors who then sell their toys and movies and the rest. Disney has, famously, done about as good a job as is possible at creating a strong, understandable brand that brings value to consumers (not to me, I should note. I’m not a particular fan of Disney. But it’s working for them!). Retailers who sell Disney toys aren’t angry that Disney has amusement parks and movies and other ways of selling directly to consumers. They’re thrilled, because it increases the value of the brand and the price the stores can charge customers. Apple has a similar process with its online and in-person stores and all the distributors who sell their products.

I know public radio people often hate having our work compared to corporate products. But I find it quite helpful.

Here are the lessons I see:

  • Focus on the listener, not on internal dynamics. From my experience, roughly 95% of the time spent discussing the future of public radio is spent on internal issues: member/network relations, the future of shows versus podcasts, the threat to funding, the makeup of the board. These are all important, and I talk about them a lot myself, but they’re not the core. The core solution to the future will come from deeply understanding and serving listeners’ needs and wants. The answer is out there, not in here.
  • Different distribution means very different tone, length, style. The listeners are telling us, quite loudly, what they want, by their behavior. There are a lot of listeners who really like what NPR and public radio are already doing. They like our broadcast shows, they like the simplicity of turning on a radio. That’s fabulous news. But listeners are also telling us that they like something else, too, by listening to that other stuff on digital platforms. There seems to be a clear lesson in the types of shows that thrive in on-demand audio: it’s better if they are well produced, longer than 15 minutes, have a host(s) that listeners feel deeply connected to. They can be a bit more narrowly focused on topics, can be a touch looser in style. Overall, the digital product has a lot of the same elements — smarts, a bit of humor, good audio production — as the broadcast product, but it’s quite different, too. Maybe something like the difference between the New York Times Magazine and the NY Times front page.
  • Brand matters a lot. Folks at NPR have known for decades that they are terrible at defining and preserving the brand. Nobody knows what “NPR” does as opposed to APM or PRI or the local station. As a result, consumers undervalue actual NPR shows and overvalue less good non-NPR shows. (There are, of course, really good non-NPR shows, too, and NPR probably gets to borrow a bit of that value.) We’re also not great at sub-brands, like Planet Money, Hidden Brain, Invisibilia, etc. They are great shows, but NPR doesn’t know how to develop their brand value — through extensions, like public events, books, segments on TV shows, other forms of digital content. I’m not saying every podcast needs all of these things. But I think many of them could have more of these things and that listeners and producers and hosts would be glad for it. It’s something Jad does with Radiolab and Ira does with This American Life and Garrison Keillor, obviously, has done. NPR has been lousy at this, in my experience. (This is something Alex Blumberg and I experienced over and over again.) It is very possible this is changing. But I know for something close to a fact that NPR left millions of untapped value on the table with Planet Money (and inspired some of the best people in the business to leave the company). I feel confident that smart marketers could work with the hosts of Invisibilia, Hidden Brain, etc, to create products and events that the show creators would feel good about and audiences would love. At the very least, I can’t understand how that’s not, at least, a top priority.
  • Advertisers prefer and are willing to pay a premium for deep engagement. At least for now, the best podcasts are getting wildly more money per listener than NPR’s broadcast shows.
  • The whole ecosystem — member stations, podcasts, independent shows — can thrive together, if they are part of a cohesive, cross-promoting ecosystem. Disney movies don’t compete with Disney toys. They move through different distribution chains, but they clearly support each other so explicitly that nobody ever has to write a memo about it. They just DO support each other by their very nature. Similarly, Apple sells hardware that it makes through a variety of physical channels, software that it creates through its own app ecosystem, and apps that others create as well. It’s all very clear and mutually supportive. There is so much resistance and built-up anger and frustration between member stations and the network that it is so hard to overcome. Also, this ecosystem idea is pretty challenging to those member stations that aren’t set up to do a lot more than repeat national shows and play some classical music CDs. Not all will thrive in this model.
  • A key idea of channel conflict — of distributing direct to consumers and also through distributors — is that you need to work with your distribution partners but not let them control you. I have no doubt that Disney and Apple drive a hard bargain with the retail and online shops that sell their stuff. But they leave enough money on the table that the partners like that they exist and benefit from that partnership. I don’t see any way for this to happen with the current board structure. But, in theory, it would be possible for NPR to offer a carrot and a stick. The carrot is a vision for a unified digital/broadcast local/national ecosystem that expects to grow quickly, have more resources and more listeners. The stick is: well, if you don’t jump on, you’ll be left behind. Of course, NPR has a very hard time with that because its CEO works for a board made up of a majority of mid- and small-market member stations. It’s hard to be a leader when you’re trying to force your bosses to do something they don’t want to do.
  • Literally every single day, millions of people are engaging in long-form audio who have never listened to it before. It is a wild, cluttered, confusing marketplace of podcasts. There is no mark of quality, no center to it all. NPR and its (better) member stations should own that space. They did, at first and by default, through legacy broadcast shows that played well in digital. And they’ve had some lovely successes in digital-first shows. But that’s not enough. It’s too little. And soon it will be too late.
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