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The Bundle

Last week, NPR announced that it will start bundling local news content with Consider This, its relatively new afternoon daily news podcast. This sounds like a small and wonky thing, but it’s really a huge step forward towards whatever public radio is supposed to become as the position of traditional broadcast radio continues to be chipped away from digital and on-demand.

This effort is starting off in a limited fashion. In this introductory phase, a pilot group of twelve public radio stations across ten regions will be supplying local segments to NPR for inclusion into this experiment. As a practical matter, it means only Consider This audiences in ten regions will hear segments that were produced specifically for their area in addition to the podcast’s generally nationally-oriented content, at least for now.

The pilot group of participation stations are: WBUR and WGBH in Boston, WNYC in New York, WHYY in Philadelphia, WAMU in Washington DC, WBEZ in Chicago, MPR in the Twin Cities, KERA in Dallas, KPCC and KCRW in Los Angeles, KQED in San Francisco, and OPB in Portland. In the instances where two stations are present in the same region, those stations will be sharing space in the Consider This bundle, which means we’re looking at a situation where long-standing rivals — WBUR and WGBH in Boston, KPCC and KCRW in Los Angeles — are now placed in a cooperative situation. (Interestingly enough, this would have been an unthinkable development even a few years ago. Sign of the times, I suppose.)

For what it’s worth, I’ve been looking forward to a move like this for a long time, having explicitly advocated for this specific type of national-local podcast bundling in the past to a point where I wrote a long column last summer sketching out a technical arrangement that looks exactly like this. My strong belief in a move like this is rooted in what feels like an untenable status quo for the public radio system as it currently stands: as more audio consumers shift towards podcast and on-demand, there is a strong disparity between how a centralized national organization like NPR and how individual member stations, especially the smaller ones, are able to respond to that trend.

We’re already seeing an acceleration of that trend due to the pandemic: as has been reported a few weeks ago, NPR’s radio ratings have plummeted since March, while its podcast and digital audiences have made significant gains. To frame the situation in another way: the analog consumption of NPR programming through public radio stations is going down, while direct on-demand consumption of such programming from NPR itself is going up, leaving us with a situation where public radio stations — and their local news reporting — will be progressively worse off unless you directly tie the on-demand fate and fortunes of stations and NPR together.

A local-national podcast bundle like this Consider This effort is exactly how you would do that. The arrangement revolves around the use of dynamic insertion technology, which up until this point has mostly been utilized in the context of advertising. The basic thinking is: since dynamic insertion makes it easier for podcast publishers to swap out old ads with new ones and opens up the possibility of location-based ad targeting, why not apply those tools to actual content distribution as well?

I’m told that there had been plans for NPR to put something like this in place as far back as the end of 2019, with the initial idea being to launch what is now the Consider This feed at around this time in the year. But the pandemic pushed the timeline forward: as the country started locking down (to the extent that it did), NPR rolled out Coronavirus Daily, a pop-up podcast dedicated to tracking the COVID-19 story. That show quickly grew an audience — as many corona-pods did back in that March to May stretch — giving NPR a solid base that it could flip into a broader daily news podcast product, which it did through a rebrand that re-designated the podcast as Consider This, a nomenclature that marks it as part of the broader All Things Considered franchise. (We wrote about this sequence of events back in June.)

Here’s what I understand about the back-end: NPR is using the AdsWizz platform to manage and carry out the localized insertions, and at this early stage, all parties are still figuring out the best possible workflow. “We’ve set up a system where partner stations upload their content to us, and we manually load it into AdsWizz,” said Neal Carruth, NPR’s Senior Director of On-Demand. Part of the value proposition for local stations to participate in a bundle is to be able to sell local advertising and sponsorship spots on the podcast as well, and so participating stations are made to provide files with local sponsorships baked in with the news segments. Both NPR and the participating stations are also working to figure out the combined aesthetics, and the two sides are continuing to collaborate to hammer down how the local segments can be made to fit in with the broader Consider This content. Ideally, a Consider This listener will be served an experience that mixes national news, local news, national sponsorship, and local sponsorship in a seamless manner.

It’s all fairly manual at this time, and the process is expected to be refined — and presumably automated — over time. “This project was a heavy lift to get to this point, which is why we’re launching with a limited set of partners,” said Carruth. “Obviously, we’re hoping to expand this to as much of the system as we can over time. There’s still some technical hurdles we need to cross.”

There will probably be some political hurdles as well. As much as I personally believe in this type of bundling as a way to push the broader public radio system towards a more future-proof place, the reality is that a widespread adoption of a local-national podcast bundling strategy like this involves a fundamental reversal of the classic power structure that has held up the public radio system for so many decades.

The classic composition of the public radio system is one in which individual public radio stations, small and large, control the distribution through the operation of broadcast towers. This is traditionally how they derive power. There is a kind of balance in the NPR-station relationship; NPR basically plays the role of content provider, while stations pay NPR to license and distribute its flagship public radio programming pieces like Morning Edition and All Things Considered, which they round out in its limited twenty-four hour broadcast schedule with local news segments, their own shows, and an assortment of shows licensed from other stations.

Historically, there’s been a push-and-pull tension between NPR and some portion of individual member stations in terms of branding and control; it has been important for some stations to maintain a sense of independence and autonomy from the flagship NPR brand. But the macro trends of the media business over the past decade have not been kind to those aspirations for independence, particularly in smaller markets. As the American news ecosystem grew more nationally-oriented due to the on-going dwindling of local news sources, the consolidation of greater news media, and the rise of digital consumption, individual member stations across the country felt the strains of those trends as well, even as NPR went on to benefit from them.

With this local-national bundling effort, the power structure is essentially flipped on its head: member stations are now the content providers, and NPR is the fundamental distribution power. This arrangement considerably strengthens NPR’s position in the public radio ecosystem, and whether this is a net positive or negative depends on your view on whether the centralization of control, authority, and risk is a good thing. Some stations might be reticent to cede further power to NPR. Obviously, I personally view this as a net positive, particularly because, as it stands, there doesn’t seem to be any other way for the classic public radio system to holistically tap into the shift towards podcasting and on-demand. Without an effort to tie the fates together like this, we’re basically talking about an ecosystem in which all member stations are made to individually compete against each other and everybody else in the greater podcast and digital landscape. In that scenario, it’s very likely that the majority of member stations will fail in their individual shift towards on-demand, and the system will be hollowed out.

It makes too much sense. But still, I do acknowledge it to be a mixed bag, and that any reticence by any station is perfectly justified. The biggest risk with a successful wide-scale execution of this local-national podcast bundling initiative is the realization of a situation where the public radio system is further centralized within NPR, increasing the exposure of the entire system to the mistakes, risks, problems, and biases of NPR itself. That can be a scary thing.

Speaking of problemsIn a statement published last Wednesday, NPR’s workforce called  for great diversity, equity, and inclusion at the organization.