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The Changed Media Landscape for Public Radio

Was I wrong in 2016? What does it mean when virtually every American in the country can listen to any radio station, music streaming or podcast service anywhere at any time?

A forum of public radio executives on The College of New Jersey campus in December of 2016 made it apparent that the medium was generally holding its own. Panelists included the Chairperson of the Board of NPR and news executives from WNYC in New York and WHYY in Philadelphia. Then, audience sizes were larger, contributions from sustaining members were up, and many stations were benefiting from powerful streaming technologies. True, there were hints that storm clouds. The broadcast medium that was at the very center of the American experience during and after World War II was beginning to see more restless audiences and enterprising operators who delivered content digitally, without the need for a broadcast license. We now take for granted that Alexa and Spotify will deliver more customized content at any time, with far less effort from us. In 2016 I didn’t appreciate how this storm might arrive. A post I wrote that year optimistically declared that “Public Radio Thrives.” But even then, WNYC’s Dean Cappello nailed what was changing in this new era of media abundance: “The audience is in charge now.”

Our forum centered National Public Radio, with an astounding 1000 affiliates in every corner of the country. Most nations have somewhat similar non-commercial radio networks, including France 24, Germany’s Deutsche Welle and Britain’s multi-channel BBC. They usually adhere to the broad mainstream of their own societies, usually with a slight tilt toward a more progressive view of politics and human affairs. But all must now contend with other audio sources who can gain access to listeners simply by having a studio and an internet address.


Add into this vastly enlarged field the fact that “legacy” print and “broadcast” media are in the fifth decade of a disordered contraction. In the U.S. newspapers have declined to the point of disappearing in many cities. Traditional Network television news from ABC, NBC and CBS no longer dominates as they once did. Formerly influential magazines like Time and The Atlantic see their futures mostly in non-print digital forms, while most still covering the national scene, like Slate and The Daily Beast, are struggling to pay their reduced staffs through total or partial paywalls. In terms of access, it is the best of times for a person ready to try their hand in digital journalism. But in terms of making a comfortable and secure living at it, it may be the worst of times.

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Against this background, in some ways NPR looks less robust than it did a half decade ago. It has been under pressure to diversify its staff and audience. And, indeed, there is a greater variety of voices on its air. But as the trade magazine Current noted, “NPR’s newsroom is more diverse than its listener base.” Those listening at least once a week have dropped from 60 million in 2020 to 42 million today. In March, the network laid off close to 10 percent of their staff in an attempt to close a $30 million budget gap.  And recent internal data made available to the New York Times showed that NPR’s audience was 76 percent white, 11.9 percent Latinx, 9.2 percent Black and 5.1 percent Asian.

To be sure, attracting younger and non-white listeners has always been a challenge. It is apparent that social media have swallowed up the attention of younger Americans, mostly for the worse, since much of it’s content is light years away from the public service perspective that has defined public radio.

Even the idea of a radio network has changed. Formerly, a listener that wanted to listen to landmark content like All Things Considered, Fresh Air or Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me needed to tune in to a local station. Now, all of those programs are available as podcasts, frustrating affiliates who traditionally raised money from listeners to those network shows.

If these challenges of streaming, podcasting and America’s declining appetite for straight news were not enough, grumbles about salary discrepancies between the old guard and newer staffers have added tensions. Cultural nerve endings rising from increased awareness of past injustices against women and racial groups, altering what a media organization can program without triggering a backlash. In January of 2021 three high profile hosts and women of color–Noel King, Lulu Garcia-Navarro, and Audie Cornish–all left the network, with organizational tensions and unequal pay as reasons. And last month a senior producer made complaints about a “liberal bias” that were picked up by the growing numbers of journalists who follow the media exclusively.

Understandably, in media circles declines in audience numbers are always taken as a bad sign. And yet it is trend not just for NPR, but radio in general, and for theatrical films and publishing as well. The days of legacy sources like city newspapers, national magazines, and massive television audiences are perhaps gone for good. While there are still big media “players,” a period when any single source can function as a big tent matching the reach of, say, CBS News in the 1960s and 70s, seems gone as well. Back then, a program like the CBS Evening News could attract a huge 27 million households. The nation came together for this and the other legacy network programs. But that does not happen any more. We don’t have “mass media” in the ways we used to. And no doubt that will include NPR, which will have to build its audiences from a more fragmented pool of Americans.

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Too Many Performances are Locked up by Corporate Gatekeepers

The digital ‘siloing’ of a piece of a recorded performance is a far cry from the days when even a local book, video or record store would carry thousands of physical copies to be purchased on the spot.

In addition to the release of his powerful recent film, Oppenheimer (2023), one useful public service director Christopher Nolan has provided is to make the case for preserving media products in physical copies that can be easily accessed. Having shot his movie on film, it’s clear Nolan likes the idea of physical media. His concern is a familiar one among seasoned Hollywood directors. Films are now held by companies and licensed to streaming services where—if a copy can be purchased at all—they remain offsite in a corporate computer farm.  A physical and usually analog form of a performance that has been duplicated has a much easier pathway to enthusiasts and collectors.

Soon it will be difficult to purchase a DVD of a film. And it is also getting more difficult for musicians to achieve a run of CDs, a digital form for sure, but easily accessible when it appears as a physical copy. The same accessibility quotient applies to digital books and streamed audio in all categories. In some cases we can own a download. But even those must be channeled through a corporate gatekeeper. That’s the price of losing the chance to be a collector who curates their own copies of books, films and music.

Film directors want their work to live in the world. Nolan is happy to share his films on a DVDs, though the format can’t do justice to the 70-millimeter Imax prints of Oppenheimer he made for some theaters. He knows that cinema is a more public thing when it exists in physical media outside of what is euphemistically called “the cloud.”

Alarmingly, as access to films and music moves to streaming and premium cable, it is clear that some license holders for individual titles are withholding products from audiences. For example, a person who would like to see Apple’s award-winning film, Coda (2021), can view it only on Apple TV+. If a person is not a subscriber, they are left to find used copies of the DVD, or perhaps a copy at a library (alas, not mine). Incredibly, this is the fate of a film that won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2021.

This ‘siloing’ of a piece of art—a strategy that Apple has perfected—is a far cry from the days when a good local book, video or record store would carry thousands of physical copies to be purchased on the spot. The purchase was your copy for as long as you wish. By contrast, if you download songs or albums from Apple Music, you don’t own it. Instead, they grant you only a license to use it.

To be sure, no one would know what to do with the mammoth 600-pound reel of film that is the Imax form of Oppenheimer. But the DVD and its advanced cousins are compact and easily played on home players that are, incidentally, also on their way out. We could not have known it, but the late 1990s were a high point for easy access to performances that were available on physical media. The DVD was new, but picking up supporters, and CD sales were only starting their slow decline in the face of digital copying and streaming. In those few years just before the new century consumers and collectors could build and curate huge personal libraries. In addition, content providers and talent had the satisfaction of sometimes significant sales revenue, and the added advantage to know that a third party had not put their work out of reach. It has gotten so bad lately that studios like Warner Brothers and Netflix are even shelving some finished films with no intention to release them: the rough equivalent of completing a painting and then locking it in a closet. We should have pity for the talent whose work has been captured. Film especially is a collaborative enterprise; many professionals in various departments count on building their careers by having their work seen widely.

Media Extensions of Ourselves 

Finally, the denial of purchase and ownership of a performance affects what one media analyst has called the “association factor.” When we take ownership of a specific performance, in some small way we may well incorporate it into our identity. It can be an extension of our world in a more precise sense than if we are witnessing a streamed item controlled by another source. Our homes and children’s rooms are filled with performances of various types we are usually proud to have and display. The humble bookshelf was among the first ways to express media extensions of our sense of self.

Without question the internet, cable and streaming have greatly expanded our access to wonderful and sometimes obscure performances, many on YouTube. But the cost of turning over content control to a service looking for big audiences means that a great deal of Hollywood’s output has been sold to corporations with little interest in keeping it available to the public. For the moment set aside the butchered slice-and-dice display of films on “free tv.”  It is more worrisome when classic Hollywood movies, especially from the last century are not easily available from any traditional source. For example, if a person wants to see some of the classic films of the popular American playwright Neil Simon, they will probably have to pay to be an Amazon Prime member, in addition to paying an additional charge for a specific title. And by the time a person becomes a “member” of Prime, a film may have moved to a lock box at another pay-to-watch provider.  Making art is a precarious business: all the more so when we know that some media companies like MGM and Warner Brothers have not always been good stewards of the performances they once supported.

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