by Howard Cornelsen
KUHF, Houston, Texas
|What I found most interesting about our AMPPR conference
in New Orleans was the convergence of subjects by a number of the speakers--that
public broadcasting is in crisis and needs to embrace change. For example,
Stephen Salyer, president and CEO of Public Radio International, spoke
about “Making Art Matter in Public Radio’s Future,” and much of
what he said was echoed by Skip Pizzi of Microsoft, speaking on the topic
of “21st-Century Choices for our Listeners.” Although the keynote
speaker Gunther Schuller (composer, conductor, jazz historian, and,
as he said, “subscriber to four public radio and television stations”)
was not proposing new answers, he was as aware as Salyer and Pizzi of the
changes that public radio is undergoing.
A look into the future
Stephen Salyer feels
that public radio is facing far more serious competition than any of us
yet realize. For example, satellite-delivered Sirius Radio will have 50
music channels hosted and programmed by radio people. This speaks to two
problems, that of increased competition in programming and that of well-funded
new groups having the money to hire away public radio producers and programmers.
As more media channels combine, our income will be eroded. Public radio
needs a reorientation of mission and strategy to avoid being hurt by these
1. We are no longer in the business of entertaining and educating, but rather in one that should become both interactive and enabling. Our air should provide a jumping-off place for the listener to experience more.
2. We need to recognize the change in the idea of community. No longer does that mean just the transmitter range; local is no longer a geographical issue. The station must be able to offer opportunities for active listeners—Salyer cites the example of WCPN in Cleveland, which uses Public Interactive. WCPN furnishes the content, and Public Interactive manages the site. A possibility is to work with our public TV stations to cross-license a web site.
3. We must reorganize our institution and the way we work. “Kill Bureaucracy” is a phrase Salyer borrows from the book The Roaring 2000s, by Harry Dent. It is a phrase he repeated often. We need to organize our services around the needs of our listeners; creative people should be freed from running a broadcast station and set to work on the web site.
4. Where necessary, develop new institutions—don’t try to reorganize existing ones. If the networks don’t move fast enough, don’t complain, bypass them instead.
To summarize, a station’s
biggest asset is not its content, since that will be becoming ubiquitous,
but its audience. The station must associate its brand with that audience
at every level.
Skip Pizzi was at one time with NPR; the fact that he is now with the “Interactive TV Group” at Microsoft is indicative of the changes he sees taking place.
Pizzi sees new competition coming for public radio. There are many types of internet content providers; broadband access is rapidly becoming available for the home; mobile satellite radio is around the corner, as are wireless internet terrestrial and LEOSat (Low Earth Orbital satellite) connections.
Not all of the new ventures will be successful, but they all offer differing threats. For example, Sirius Satellite Radio is already launching, and XMRadio is scheduled to go up in the next year or so. (These are competing services, but receivers could easily be built to receive both.) Both could accommodate not only music channels but also data services. Advertisers could target demographically instead of geographically, because the radios must be individually addressable, since these are subscription services. Already NPR and PRI are providing non-music channels for SSR (content non-duplicative of current offerings). Certainly, having 150 channels available is one thing; how many a user may actually program a button to receive is another. But once a person starts paying a subscription for a radio channel, that person may feel much less inclined to send money to a station asking for his support.
There are new form factors for receivers: solid-state storage and internet downloads represent the return of the “single,” letting the listener determine his own programming. Now instead of carrying a radio tuned to a given station when she’s out jogging, a person may just pop into her playback device a “memory stick” with her own favorite pieces. The question of sound quality doesn’t apply, since new algorithms are coming so rapidly.
Pizzi feels we should consider four categories of future audiences: local on-air; local on-line; national on-air; and global on-line. There will be both convergent home media users and convergent mobile users.
Facing the new technologies, public radio must take on new roles. On air, the programming should lean more toward local content that can’t be duplicated by national services. For example, satellite services supply weather information for all regions of the country, and the local rebroadcaster simply installs filters that pick up the local forecast only. Satellite radio has the capability of offering many different channels of classical music. A station should be able to supply data as well, and to export its programming as more channels appear.
On line connections must be solidified by promotional functions: Here we have not only one-way webcasting, but also two-way contacts, giving us immediate feedback; and we should not overlook the possibility of multiple data streams in webcasting.
Consider on-demand audio, an off-air archive, and ‘tell-me-more’ items. For example, a station might already offer archived news stories on demand. A second level of the same might be the story as it might have run had that station had more time, with, say, the extra three minutes of interview that had to be excised. And for the few who are interested, make available the entire speech and the entire interview, including the parts that didn’t lead anywhere—the reporter’s scraps, as it were. This is clearly local content not available elsewhere. Add additional text, graphics, links: in general, make available more information on the station’s own web site under its own brand to keep people from needing to go elsewhere. Information on the composer, the piece, the performer, the disc, the period would all be worthwhile additions for music. In many cases, adding other data is relatively easy, as can be seen with NPR headlines and “Election 2000” coverage. These are both outside sources that open on a station’s web site under its brand, though the content is straight from NPR.
Pizzi went on to recommend on-line fundraising. On line is a good place to solicit underwriters and to accept user contributions. It’s also a good place for premium fulfillment, supplying the order directly to the provider. It’s an excellent place to promote station events and for scheduling volunteers. A would-be volunteer can log on, look at a form, see that there are openings on Tuesday, and sign up.
This all falls under the rubric of “leveraging your brand.” Radio is only the form, not the function of our business. There are many dot-coms out there, but as FM stations, we have a big advantage in that we alone have RF access. Pizzi recommends leveraging the on-air and on-line synergies, cross-promoting, cross-selling—even developing the web site as a portal.
Be open to new players and new partnerships, he says. Get data services for the audio channel as well as for the web services; recognize that digital TV has room for extra information channels; and consider a deal with a commercial television station as well as with non-commercial ones.
The music industry has new
options. Radio is no longer so greatly needed. On-demand usage is likely
to increase, drivetime listening will decrease. If the satellite services
are successful, FM may go more toward news and talk, as AM did when FM
arrived. Pizzi recommends reducing the range of on-air formats and increasing
the variety on line. For the web, emphasize the on-demand items.
In many ways Gunther Schuller is asking for a throwback to radio as it was thirty or forty years ago. But taking his comments in the light of the new channels both Salyer and Pizzi see opening, his keynote represents a possible approach to the problems they address. He says he hates the term “serious music” but needs to use it, equating it to “non-commercial music.” It represents an island in the 95 percent commercial, pop, easy-listening ocean, and he recommends that public radio stations not even try to compete at this “mere entertainment” level. In the 1950s and 1960s, there was no public radio and the radio and television networks still considered education part of their calling. American culture was still represented on radio and TV. But when public broadcasting came about, the other networks went fully commercial; there has been no Mozart, Beethoven, Charlie Parker, or Duke Ellington in the commercial broadcast media in the last 35 years, Schuller says. After a concert some dozen years ago he wandered to another part of the hall, where a public radio conference was taking place. There he heard for the first time the dicta that are now shaping public radio— “no Lieder, no opera, no atonal music, and so forth” He says he was shocked then and still is; and he admonished us to “keep the faith.” Public radio is the last bastion. In the 1950s and 1960’s, the ratio of pop to serious music on the air was 80 percent to 20 percent; today that number is 95 percent to 5 percent.
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