Issue 215,  published June 26, 2019

Inverting NPR: A Speculative Proposal

Much like last week’s audiobook deep dive, there’s no news peg to this piece, but it’s something that’s been tooling around in my head for several years now. It was, at one point, a white paper I was developing during my Visiting Nieman Fellowship in 2017, but which I had kept unpublished in a GDrive folder for a myriad of reasons.

In any case, I recently found myself in several conversations that brought up some ideas in that paper, and it made me think that now’s as good a time as any to dig up that old document, pull out and update a few major bits, and get them out into the open. Plus, I wasn’t working on any other stories, so what can you do.

Fair warning: it’s a wildly speculative (and luxuriously navel-gazing) take on public radio, local stations, and the future of the system. So, if you’re not interested in all that, feel free to skip… the rest of the newsletter, basically.

I.

Like I said, this piece has been kicking around for a few years. Its roots can be traced back to the summer of 2016, when the Indiana public radio station WBAA announced that they would no longer carry This American Life over its airwaves as a response to the show’s exclusive streaming partnership with Pandora, then newly-formed.

The station had argued that the move was threatening because the distribution partnership, in theory, undermined public radio’s broadcast model. That threat was by virtue of Pandora’s profit-seeking disposition, its scale, and, most importantly, its disruptive structure as a digital distributor that goes around stations like WBAA and directly to audiences.

WBAA would later reverse its decision, citing “considerable listener feedback,” and TAL continues to stream exclusively over Pandora to this day. (Which also means, by the way, that you can’t listen to the show on podcast-expansionary Spotify… though, interestingly, you can find a genre on the platform called “Podcasts like This American Life.”)

I wasn’t particularly sympathetic to WBAA’s brief resistance campaign, and I continue to not think very much about it. The action felt short-sighted, and more to the point, it felt driven by an impulse to preserve an untenable status quo. But I do fully sympathize with the core anxiety that had animated the pushback, more so these days than ever before.

And that anxiety is this: it’s hard to be super optimistic about the fate of local public radio stations over the long-term, particularly the ones that serve smaller markets. Much like how the internet has fundamentally compromised the value proposition of local newspapers over the past several decades, it feels like the internet is on the verge of doing the very same to the public radio system, which claims membership from more than a thousand independent stations, big and small, that dot the country from coast to coast.

I’m sure that anxiety is expressly felt when a wildly popular public radio program like This American Life strikes a deal to directly access more audiences through a private digital platform like Pandora. It reflects the reality of the situation: a show like TAL doesn’t existentially need a public radio station to reach the kinds of audiences it wants any more. But then again, TAL is a single show, and one that is, in many ways, an “add-on” to the core value proposition of a public radio station.

What isn’t an “add-on,” however, is the stuff that comes from the public radio mothership NPR. Which is why, if I was a local public radio station, I’d raise a bigger eyebrow towards NPR and its various podcasting adventures than the digital exploits of any single show. (Also, NPR’s experiments on smart speakers. And their partnerships with streaming platforms, a la “Your Daily Drive” playlist inclusions on Spotify. But those are columns for another time.)

NPR continues to be among the biggest podcast publishers in the industry today — the biggest, according to the Podtrac ranker (caveat, caveat) — and though the organization hasn’t publicly discussed revenue numbers in a while, we broadly know that it makes considerable money off its growing podcast assets through National Public Media, its sales and sponsorship sister group. It’s very likely that NPR will continue to be a major podcast presence in the future.

That’s great for NPR, of course. But as it stands, a strong NPR podcast operation doesn’t necessarily seem to benefit the public radio system as a whole in any direct fashion. Sure, you could make an indirect gains argument in the vein of: “NPR’s podcast revenues contributes to improving the NPR broadcast products that are sold back to local stations, etc. etc. etc.”

And while that may be true, it still doesn’t help the public radio system deal address the underlying structural quandary: local stations are still defined by their broadcast orientation, and as long as the long-term fate of broadcast radio remains in question, the long-term fate of local stations also remains in question.

II.

Here’s a breakdown of the problem, as I understand it:

Much like print newspapers, a public radio station mostly derives its power from its control over geography. Prior to digital distribution, a station’s fundamental value proposition was unimpeachable. NPR, with its highly-desired nationally-oriented products, structurally needed local stations like WBAA to access captive audiences within a specific region that they otherwise could not reach into themselves.

Stations generally capitalized on the opportunity created by that dependency, bundling NPR’s nationally-oriented programs — and programs purchased from other stations — with local editorial and revenue products to deepen its value among their specific geographic-based audiences.

The internet, however, provides the ultimate complication. One of the internet’s primary effects is the obliteration of geography, and the general arc of internet-based publishers has been the gradual chipping away of the geographic advantages held by traditional media companies. In the public radio context, the emergence of digital distribution chips away at the fundamental value proposition of a given local public radio station. Stations are no longer literally necessary. They are now complementary, and in some cases, they are optional. Audiences no longer needed stations to access NPR’s programming, technically speaking, because they could now access them over the internet.

Now, in the streaming context, it seems that the local-national bundle has more or less held, because when audiences sought out public radio programming, they’re still essentially served with the linear experience that has always been constructed and curated by their local station, which NPR’s website would have routed them towards based on geo-targeting. But in the on-demand audio context, the bundle doesn’t really hold, because the station is no longer fully in control of the experience… or of the audience.

To make things worse, another primary effect of the internet is the consolidation and flattening of audiences. All media organizations are generally made to compete for the same combined pool of audiences. And to phrase the situation in overly reductive terms, there appears to be two broad ways to participate in the media industry these days: you compete for the whole pool (scale), or you compete for a very specific slice (niche).

Under these terms of competition, the opportunities for local stations are deeply uneven. Where station strength in broadcasting was derived from geographic control — which gives even smaller cash-strapped stations a moat to sustain a middle class existence — station strength on the internet is based purely on content. In this scenario, not everybody can win over the long term. Not all stations can compete at scale — which is to say, not everybody can be WNYC or WBUR — and more importantly, we have yet to find out whether public radio stations, acting as podcast publishers, can effectively compete as niche media companies using local content as their competitive edge. Indeed, it’s unlikely that all, or even most, of the 1000+ member stations will be able to build sufficiently strong editorial operations that can effectively compete in the combined audience pool. Put another way: under these conditions, it’s unlikely that the majority of stations can survive acting on their own.

Furthermore, on the internet, the entity with the biggest brand, scale, and access to digitally-fluent constituencies tends to win… and win big. This is the ultimate environment for NPR, because the organization stands to benefit, more than ever before, from the long-standing brand confusion in which audiences often mistake NPR for all kinds of public radio experiences.

Assuming these conditions, what is the maximal outcome that can be extrapolated? Quite possibly, it’s a world in which the number of working local public radio stations radically declines — dropping from 1000+ down to maybe one or two hundred, most of which are barely scraping by — thus causing the public radio system to be increasingly embodied by a handful of organizations, probably concentrated in the big cities. Which is to say, it looks like the newspaper world we have now.

And that world sucks, by the way. Look, I’m far from the first media hack to lament about the death of local news orgs or make arguments as to why we should all worry about the trend. But I’ll give you two reasons nonetheless.

The first is obvious: the structural loss of local news organizations contributes to an increasing national gaze and declining local political participation, which in turn leads to shittier American communities en masse, which in turn leads to worsening political polarization, which in turn leads to… well, nowhere good, probably. (See also: Dan Hopkins’ “The Increasingly United States: How and Why Political Behavior Nationalized,” summations of which can be found in Vox and FiveThirtyEight.)

The second is a hobby-horse of mine: I don’t think it’s good when the risk and responsibility of an entire system is placed on the backs of a handful of companies. Consider: can you trust, say, NPR or WNYC to consistently make the right decisions — in hiring, in organizational culture, in representation, in appropriately balancing local-national stories for a country of 300 million — all the time? Look, we’re all human. We all fail sometimes. Which is why it’s important that the system needs to transcend the actions and health of a few individual players.

With all this in mind, the local-national bundle as historically expressed through public radio broadcast’s practices has never felt more miraculous. Your basic public radio programming bloc, as manifested by The Broadcast Clock, is an elegant marriage of the local and the national within the same listener experience. Not to get too maypole-dancey on you, but it’s a pure embodiment of the Imagined Community, in which the wide expanse of geographically disparate American communities are socially stitched together by the same national information source while being balanced out by local information unique to them that affirms their identities. (*takes a sociology class once*)

But the ubiquity of that local-national bundle was rooted in what was once the technological necessity of broadcast. Now, broadcast isn’t literally necessary, and audiences don’t quite need local stations to access NPR, and so it’s important to figure out how to rebuild that potent local-national bundle elsewhere.

Currently, we seem to be in an awkward transition phase where public radio feels like it has one foot in the door, one foot out. NPR still isn’t distributing its flagship broadcast programs, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as on-demand audio products, but NPR also publishes Up First, which was probably developed with the assumption that podcast audiences are just a different species of audience, but is nonetheless functioning within the reality that a good portion of audience its attracts may not end up returning to linear broadcast ever again.

Under these changing conditions, how should stations and NPR newly relate to each other?

III.

First things first: I don’t think NPR shouldn’t be held back from expanding its podcast assets, growing its podcast revenue, and generally strengthening its podcast position. You don’t move forward by holding another back. Rather, the more relevant question is this: can you create a more explicit win-win scenario? Can you find an arrangement in which the public radio system as a whole can proportionally benefit from, and contribute towards, NPR’s podcast gains?

And the answer to those questions lies in a more procedural concern: is it possible to recreate the local-national bundle in the on-demand audio distribution model?

I think it’s possible. Indeed, I think we already have the means to do it: dynamic insertion technology.

Dynamic insertion is usually discussed in the context of advertising, for good reason, as it was originally developed within podcasting to make it easier for publishers to swap out host-reads and ad spots without having to directly alter the podcast episode. Previously, ads were “baked into” produced episodes, in that they were recorded as embedded contiguous portions of the overall audio files. “Baked-in” ads were harder to change, because you had to resplice new ads into older episodes and then manually replace them on the hosting platform.

In contrast, dynamic insertion technology allows publishers to more easily make those swaps, which gives them better capacity to re-monetize back catalogue and sell timelier ads. Also, the tool allows for the possibility of geo-targeting, which would give publishers the ability to deliver ads based on specific location-based audience considerations. (If you need a more general explainer on dynamic insertion and podcasts, check out this FT write-up from 2015.)

But the application of dynamic insertion tech shouldn’t be limited to advertising. By virtue of what it literally allows you to do — easily swap out content chunks within episodes based on need and context — the tool also opens up a world of editorial opportunities to explore.

Last year, I wrote about a creative experiment deployed by the crew at Welcome to Night Vale, which used dynamic insertion to construct an episode with multiple endings. The episode, called “Are You Sure?”, served listeners one of three possible outcomes at random, and should a listener figure that out and return to the episode, each subsequent download generated a 66% chance of serving a different ending.

Night Vale’s experiment didn’t push the technology too much. Because the swap-outs were randomized, there was no targeting involved, and there were only three possible variations. But even with this basic construction, there are hints of something potentially powerful. “[Dynamic insertion] is a fascinating technology to me — that different people can download different versions of an episode,” Night Vale co-creator Joseph Fink told me at the time. “It’s kind of baffling that nobody’s tried this before.”

Near the end of my piece on the Night Vale experiment, I sketched out the following:

You can see how other editorial dynamic insertion frameworks can be designed and executed. For example, in theory, the tech allows for better targeting, and as such, if you could reliably identify the location of a listener, you could deliver editorial programming or journalistic information to that person specific to her city, town, or state… I’ve long suspected that NPR’s Up First could make for a fascinating vessel for local podcasts in the way that Morning Edition’s broadcasts are reliable vessels for interspersed station spots.

That, in a nutshell, is the backbone of what I’m outlining today.

Consider a scenario in which NPR’s podcasts — whether it’s a news product like Up First or a magazine show like Hidden Brain — were recomposed to structurally replicate the national-local bundle of your basic public radio broadcast bloc. Put another way: what if you took the programming logic of the Broadcast Clock, and applied it to NPR’s podcasts using the technical affordances provided by dynamic insertion?

For example: take your standard, say, Planet Money episode, which usually comes with the assumption that you’re also going to get 2-3 brief chunks of an ad spot, a funding credit, or some call-to-action. What if those ancillary chunks were expanded to include localized information or donation prompts? What if you brought editorial considerations into the mix, in which a short locally-produced segment is dynamically inserted onto the tail end of each Planet Money episode?

There are, of course, several components that need ironing out. To name a few:

  • This is contingent on dynamic insertion technology’s capacity to accurately geo-target, which continues to be a work in progress.
  • There are the requisite ideological concerns associated with various podcast distributors, some of which may prevent the execution based on their position on audience targeting.
  • There is also the matter of the actual editorial experience, and how a single meal plan survives multiple cooks in the kitchen. Heavier ad loads are already a point of concern for some listeners; imagine the potential negative feelings associated with being served something that you didn’t expect you were getting.

But perhaps the most crucial wrinkle has to do with audience ownership, and how the money would flow.

In the broadcast context, the station is the entity that owns the audience, while NPR essentially functions as the content supplier riding the station’s airwaves. The station pays NPR for the rights to broadcast its various programs, and on the other end, the station makes good chunks of their revenue from listeners who donate based in large part on the value the station exhibits by distributing those programs.

Let’s see if I can represent this visually (prepare for some MS Paint action):

Graphic design is my passion, y’all.

However, in the podcast context, NPR owns those podcast audiences. One could argue that maybe the value for stations here is some form of a trickle-down effect. Maybe consumers of the Fresh Air podcast would become more likely to listen to Fresh Air off the radio, or whatever. Sure, totally, fine, okay.

But why not just go ahead and build direct value? Why not flip the structure upside down?

Why not assume that NPR will move forward in owning the podcast audience — with which it can continue to deeply monetize through ads via National Public Media, and everything else it eventually comes up with — and position local stations as content suppliers from which NPR buys localized content that will be dynamically injected into delivered episodes based on listener location? Why not make NPR into the revenue source for local stations, as far as podcasts are concerned?

Why not position NPR as the moat for stations? #Whynot #whynot?

Let’s run the Comic Sans back:

Look, maybe you don’t buy into any of this. Maybe you really do believe that broadcast radio will remain strong and robust and beautiful forever. Maybe you think all this is just pearl-clutching, that all this podcast stuff is a fad that goes away, and that I’m just full of shit. I get it. You would be far from the first.

But… what if you’re wrong? Why not hedge with a little Pascal’s Wager?

If you want to start small, we can start small. What if we just took one show — say, the NPR Politics podcast — and used it as a platform to start testing out a complete local-national podcast bundle? There’s an election coming up, right? Lots of people are complaining about being too focused on the presidential campaign to the detriment of local races, right? Why not pull together an experiment in which stations across the country each contribute five minute spots on their own local races to be dynamically inserted as mid-episode segments?

Anyway, all this is just speculative. Would love to know what you think, if you care about this kind of stuff.