Mark Ramsey: Is NPR Crazy? Yes, Like A Fox

mark ramsey author logoGuest columnist Mark Ramsey is a media strategist, research analyst, author, and producer of the annual Hivio audio future festival. This article was originally published on his Mark Ramsey Media website.

So NPR has decided it won’t promote its podcasts or NPR One on air, and many critics are calling them out for what they describe as stupidity.

I think these critics are missing the larger point.

Sure, NPR derives a huge portion of its revenue from local stations, and local stations have long been uncomfortable (to say the least) with NPR’s practice of routing around them to deliver their content – in many cases, content popularized by these very local stations – directly to consumers on-demand.

So on the surface, NPR’s decision to avoid podcast/NPR One promotion on-air looks like the network is making nice-nice with its hundreds of paying customers, er, affiliates, and in so doing being foolish when it comes to their own digital prospects.

Critics argue this is the same error the newspapers made when they debated whether to point people to their content online rather than “force” them (as if you can “force” anyone to do anything) to buy the paper.

Writes Niemen Lab: “This seems dumb to a lot of people, both inside and outside public media,” and they supported that point with a series of embedded Tweets proving that if you compile enough anecdotal evidence it evidently adds up to real evidence.

But then, referring again to the newspaper analogy, Niemen Lab continues: “…as it turns out, people found out about the web even without newspapers printing URLs in 2002!”

And that’s the larger point.

The premise here is that pushing, promoting, marketing NPR’s on-demand assets is in some way critical to their success, as long as that pushing, promoting, and marketing happens in the presence of the same content on your local air.

But this puts the content before the audience, and that’s a mistake.

In fact, I could argue the very last people who need to know about the digital availability of NPR content are those folks enjoying it on the radio, if only because those folks are already enjoying it on the radio. We assume that the audience for this content is one fixed group, and it isn’t. Indeed, newspapers proved that by vastly expanding their audience through digital well beyond any portion they may have cannibalized. In other words, there are MORE audiences for this content out there than the ONE listening on the radio.

Would you believe that there are listeners to NPR content who consume exactly ZERO percent of that content on the radio? Believe it. There are many.

In fact, I’m one.

Likewise, do you think there are listeners to NPR content who tune in the radio every day or week for their favorite programs on their local stations and are perfectly happy to do so? You bet there are. A lot. And they’re getting what they want the way they want it. For them, digital alternatives are a solution to a problem they don’t have. So why pester them with irritating promotion?

Are there folks who do both? Sure. But do a survey (I’m available for this, NPR :-)) and measure these three groups (radio-only, digital-only, both) and I think you’ll be surprised at how big each is, and how much larger they are in combination compared to what was once radio-only.

And while we’re talking about promotion, why should it be so one-sided? Why doesn’t every NPR podcast include a dynamically inserted promo for your local NPR station? It could, but the truth is, that’s not what those listeners want. Everyone knows they have a local public radio station, and they choose when and how (or if) they will listen to it.

So I could argue that NPR is not just being sensitive to the wishes of their affiliates, but they are also being smart marketers, promoting their digital content to growing audiences for that digital content, rather than shrinking audiences to that same content on much larger and more established platforms which they’re already monetizing quite nicely, thank you very much.

Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if NPR is quietly saying to themselves, “Let’s give the stations what they want because it will be a ‘win’ for them and not a ‘lose’ for us.” So is NPR crazy? Yes, like a fox.

The future of NPR, it seems to me, is creating more content for more current and future fans and distributing that content in every conceivable channel. The future of local public radio stations is a different matter and a topic for a different post. But as long as local stations bring in most of the money it’s reasonable for their desires to be respected, especially when those desires do not impinge in any meaningful way on the eventual success of NPR’s digital strategy.

Whether stations realize it or not.

So get off NPR’s back, critics. Start pushing for a smarter, more inclusive, public radio business model where interests are aligned rather than at odds.

In the meantime, sit back while NPR’s aggregated audiences across all channels continue to grow.


Mark Ramsey