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Sunday, March 4, 2012


NPR, formerly National Public Radio, is a national syndicator, which distributes programming to over 900 public radio stations across the U.S. It is a privately and publicly funded non-profit organization, which gets its money from a mix of contributions, grants and indirect government subsidies.

Basically, they distribute news and cultural programming to public radio stations. A huge misperception about NPR is that programming is consistent everywhere. If you spend all your time in a single market listening to a single NPR affiliate, you might have that idea. Actually, the common thread across the stations tends to be that they carry the two highest rated flagship programs “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.” After that, programming varies wildly. Some stations run wall-to-wall classical music outside of those two drive-time shows, while others are largely talk. On long road trips it can be amusing or annoying to go from budgets deficits to Beethoven as you shift from one station’s coverage area to another. Also, they distribute programming from other syndicators. My two favorite programs on the stations are “Marketplace” from American Public Media and “This American Life” from Public Radio International.

The audience is a blue chip one financially and extremely well educated. Agree with it or not, the stories do make you think. And, they cover issues that are hard to find anywhere else. A danger that they face in the future is that they are skewing increasingly older. Unless you are a graduate of an elite school, it is unlikely that you listen to NPR if you are under 35.

Those on the right often attack NPR for having a strong liberal bias. After close observation, I would say that is not entirely fair. Some years back, it struck me as being far more pronounced. Now, the interviewers are sometimes more friendly to those left of center, but they work hard to provide contrasting points of view on most issues. The weekly sessions summing up the week in politics with David Brooks of the New York Times (conservative) paired with E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post (liberal) are a good example of such efforts for authentic balance.

Interestingly, when I questioned people across the country about NPR, the knee jerk reaction from several was summed up by one panel member who said “NPR, forget it. They are way too liberal. It is like listening to MSNBC.” Later most admitted that it had been close to a decade since they listened to anything on NPR.

Advertising is sticky issue. They do accept 15-second spots just about everywhere. The problem to us as marketers is that you cannot extol the product or have a clear “call to action” in the spot. That limits creative minds. And, it is not called advertising. It is underwriting. ☺ Yet a long time radio hand that I have known forever says he has had success selling an NPR member to local advertisers. His pitch, and it is intriguing, is that his station can reach people who do not like and who generally avoid advertising. Raising name identification and association with a desirable broadcast property appear to cancel out the ability to have a rousing call to action that is possible on commercial radio.

The big controversy ahead will continue to be the partial funding of NPR by government both federal and state. As any thinking person knows we face a budget crisis. If we are to continue entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid going forward we are going to have to reform the systems and cut spending in many areas as the demographic tidal wave of 92 million baby boomers retiring will bankrupt these programs in their present form. So, some representatives raise the issue of cutting all expenditure to public broadcast through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which helps fund PBS on TV and NPR.

Some of the congressmen say it will someday be a financial imperative. Others are more blatant and say why fund something which touts a philosophy different than their own? When I polled people about this, the answers surprised me. A few well educated and politically astute people in their 20’s said in essence, “Don’t worry. If congress pulls the rug out, wealthy individuals and foundations will pass the hat and NPR will be saved.” I checked this out with others who agreed quickly with the young analysts. All felt PBS would have a harder time in the future as money gets tighter.

A West Coast lawyer told me “I think that the NPR on-air people are full of themselves. But I love their stories." I tend to agree. NPR has been and will be an integral part of my life. And no one has ever called me a liberal.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

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